6 life events that can cause weight gain and how to prevent it

Nutrition and mental health experts weigh in on the times in life when we’re more likely to put on extra pounds and advice for staying on track.
Kaleidoscope Scale
“If your go-to is to turn to food when feeling stressed, try taking a walk or calling a friend at those times instead,” said Rachel Goldman. Adrienne Bresnahan / Getty Images

Whether it’s your first year at college, you’re reeling from a breakup or you’re having a baby, there are certain times in life when you’re more likely to pack on extra pounds. And what's worse, if that weight gain persists, is that it can leave you vulnerable to related problems like type 2 diabetes and heart disease. But just because these events can trigger weight gain, it doesn’t mean a spike is inevitable. Here are some expert strategies for controlling your weight during the times it’s most likely to creep up on you.

1. Going to college

Studies estimate that about 70% of college kids gain weight. There are a number of factors that may contribute to the so-called “freshman 15,” from budget constraints, erratic sleep and eating schedules to extra stress, booze-filled nights, late-night eating and unhealthy dining hall food.

One way to prevent the pounds from adding up is to weigh yourself regularly. In one study, when first-year college students weighed themselves at least three times a week, they lost about a pound on average compared with the students who were given a scale and directed to weigh themselves but weren’t instructed to do so regularly. The latter group gained an average of 2 1/2 pounds. Researchers added that there were no adverse effects, such as emotional distress, linked to the regular weigh-ins with either group.

Another tactic for preventing college weight gain is to consume less alcohol. Not only does alcohol add unnecessary calories, Vanessa Rissetto, a registered dietitian and co-founder of Culina Health, a nutrition counseling business based in New York City, told TODAY that alcohol prohibits REM, the restful sleep stage that helps regulate your hormones and focus. “If you don't have restful sleep,” said Rissetto, “you're likely to make poor food choices the next day, and also, your cortisol will be elevated, which will contribute to weight gain.”

2. Becoming a new mom

Healthy weight gain during pregnancy depends on your pre-pregnancy weight, but ranges from about 11 to 40 pounds. Gaining more than that makes it harder to return to a healthier weight once you deliver, Elizabeth Ward, a registered dietitian in the Boston area and co-author of “The Menopause Diet Plan, A Natural Guide to Managing Hormones, Health, and Happiness,” told TODAY.

After delivery, a balanced diet is key. “This isn’t the time to drastically reduce your calorie intake, especially if you’re breastfeeding, which requires just about the same number of calories as the last trimester of pregnancy,” she said.

Ward also emphasized the importance of sleep. “Sleep is related to body weight,” she said. “The less you get, the harder it is to manage your weight.” That’s why she recommended snoozing when your baby sleeps. “Don’t try to keep the house super clean and have dinner on the table every night if it’s going to sap your energy.”

Once approved by your doctor, doing gentle exercise will also help, said Ward. “Exercise relieves stress that you may otherwise channel into overeating,” she said. “Take the baby for walks. It’s beneficial for both of you to get outside in the good weather.” If that’s not possible, Ward recommends streaming a workout, which you can do even if you only have ten minutes to spare.

3. Changing jobs

A job change can also affect your weight, especially if it involves a longer commute or a more stressful workload. “With any change in our schedule, it takes time to adjust and get into a new routine,” Rachel Goldman, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and clinical assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine in New York City, told TODAY.

The trick is planning ways to stay healthy that fit within your new constraints. For example, it may be possible to walk or bike part of your commute, said Goldman, or get some exercise during a break. She added that preparing your own lunch and healthy snacks can help you stay on track during an unpredictable work day. If you’re so hungry by the time you finish work that you tend to overeat at dinner, a healthy snack at the end of the work day may help.

4. Starting a relationship

There are a variety of reasons that new romantic relationships can lead to weight gain. For example, said Goldman, “it's common for couples to go out to eat and socialize more, which could mean larger portion sizes, as well as eating foods that they don’t typically cook at home.” She also pointed out that new couples may participate in more sedentary activities, like watching movies together. And some people, she said, “are not as motivated to participate in healthy behaviors that would encourage weight maintenance because they found a partner, and then get comfortable.”

One way to manage your weight in a new relationship is to focus on pursuits that promote better health, like cooking healthy meals or biking together, said Goldman. It’s also a good idea to maintain some of your own interests. “Just because you’re in a relationship doesn’t mean you can’t continue your typical workout class or run,” she said, adding that your habits might rub off on your new partner, too.

5. Going through a breakup

A breakup is a stressful event that can lead to higher levels of cortisol, a hormone that can cause cravings. Relationship stress can also interfere with your sleep, and when your sleep suffers, it can influence your food choices and weight. “When people are stressed,” said Goldman, “they revert back to old behaviors, and their health behaviors and self-care go out the window.”

Goldman stressed the importance of maintaining basic healthy habits like adequate sleep and water consumption, healthy eating and regular physical activity when you’re going through a stressful breakup. “Also, think about increasing your adaptive coping mechanisms,” she said. “If your go-to is to turn to food when feeling stressed, try taking a walk or calling a friend at those times instead.”

6. Entering menopause

Women who are starting to experience menopause become especially susceptible to weight gain, putting on an average of between 1 and 1 1/2 pounds per year during their 40s, said Ward. However, she was also quick to note that men gain weight in mid-life, too. “There will be an inevitable metabolic slowdown, and if you don't adjust for it with diet and exercise, you will put on some pounds,” she warned.

“As you age, your calorie margin narrows, which means that while there's some room for foods with little or no nutrition, such as alcohol and those with added sugars, there's not as much room as before.” You don’t need to eliminate these extras, but you’re better off filling up on more nutritious foods and enjoying them less often.

Ward also recommended getting 150 minutes (about 30 minutes a day) of moderate or vigorous exercise per week and at least 2 sessions of resistance training weekly. A regimen like this, which is in keeping with the national guidelines for physical activity, can help build and maintain muscle (which uses more calories than fat), burn calories, relieve stress and improve sleep, which all support weight maintenance.

Another thing that can help? Resisting the urge to eat after dinner, said Ward. “Consuming the bulk of your calories before dinner helps your body to better process food and typically aids in weight control.”