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The Road to Obesity: Gradual Weight Gain

scaleContinuing yesterday’s discussion of the paper by Julia Temple Newhook, Deborah Gregory and Laurie Twells from the Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John’s, published in the Journal of Social, Behavioral, and Health Sciences, on what causes some people to gain weight, we turn to what the authors describe as, “Gradual Processes”.

Thus, in their extensive interviews with individuals seeking bariatric surgery the researchers found a group of patients, who neither started out as overweigh or obese kids but also were unable to identify specific “life events” that would have prompted their weight gain.

Rather, they describe their weight gain as a gradual but incremental process, most commonly attributable to subsequent cycles of “yo-yo dieting” or to a wide range of other factors that affected their eating (emotions, food addictions, cultural habits, irregular eating, or food quality and quantity) or activity behaviours.

The importance of weight cycle was illustrated by,

“As Vanessa, an office worker in her 30s, put it, “As good as I am at losing weight, after 5 or 6 months, I’m even better at finding it.” Elsie, a homemaker in her 50s, said that she had been dealing with this cycle since she was a child: “I remember when I was 8, I was always on a diet. … I think that’s what did it: watching your weight, adding it back on again, back and forth. Each time, you climb higher and higher.”

As for eating behaviour, both quality and quantity were mentioned, albeit not by the same people:

“Zoë, a customer service worker in her 30s, pointed the blame at food quality, referencing her enjoyment of fast food, and said wryly, “I’m 287 pounds. I didn’t get this way from eating soup broth.” In contrast, Elsie said, “I don’t eat a lot of junk anyway, but I guess I just eat too much of the good foods.”

This is in line with what I am always careful to point out – the nutritive quality of a diet has little to do with its caloric quantity. On the other hand, nutritionally poor diets are often also calorically dense, thereby making it far easier to consume excess calories.

While some participants reported emotional eating, this was often in response to “life events” (like losing a spouse), discussed in yesterday’s post. A more insidious form of emotional eating was reported as addiction to certain foods:

“Gladys, a disabled factory worker in her 50s, said, “I’m addicted to candy. I will not bring candy into my house ever again… I’ve gone now almost 2 months. …It’s almost like someone coming off drugs or something. You wean yourself off.” Vanessa said that she felt overwhelmed by her addiction to cheese: “I had a huge, huge, huge cheese addiction. A 500-gram [18-ounce] block of cheese I literally could eat in 2 days. … I feel really controlled by my thoughts for food.”

Cultural overeating was also described:

“Vanessa noted that as a child, “I wasn’t allowed up from the table until I cleaned my plate. … Every celebration is centered around food: potluck, buffet, jiggs dinner, everything. Our culture is really a food culture, and I guess most cultures are.”

Irregular eating patterns including meal skipping was also noted to contribute to weight gain:

“Heidi said, “I can go days without eating and … it doesn’t bother me at all. I can also have days where I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe I just ate that—all of that.’ I go from one extreme to the other. … It’s like I never feel full.” Penny, a homemaker in her 30s, described similar experiences: “My biggest problem was never overeating, it was never eating enough. I would get up in the morning and not eat anything until supper time. It never, ever bothered me … I could go days without eating and it wouldn’t bother me.”

Finally in this category of Gradual Processes, the authors describe the issue of lack of physical activity or sedentariness:

“Jennifer said, “It’s the activity level. I work all day, and I’m sat on my butt all day long. I have two kids at home. So the story goes.” In addition, participants explained that once they had gained weight, it was very difficult to move comfortably. This was partially a physical problem, as Brian explained: “You get into a circle because you can’t [exercise] because you have the weight on. You need to do things to get the weight off, but you can’t do it because you got the weight on.”

In addition, once some weight has been gained, emotional factors can further limit physical activity:

“I want to be active. It’s something I’ve always wanted, but I feel [my size] is in the way. It ain’t that I can’t do it, because I can do it; it’s how I’m looked at while I’m doing it. … I can leave here and I can walk [3 miles] and back. I can do it. It’s just that when I’m doing it, it’s the fear I have that everybody is looking at me.”

Once again, all of these stories are quite typical of the many that I have heard before – it is evident that even with gradual progressive weight gain, reasons and interpretations differ widely.

If you have experienced progressive weight gain without this being prompted by any evident “life event”, I’d certainly love to hear from you.

London, UK


  1. In my advocacy work, I write extensively about the paradigm that dictates there is something “wrong” with you if you are overweight and you have to figure out “what’s eating you” to manage your weight.

    The reality is that we put on weight for many reasons. I relate to the people who comment about irregular eating patterns and being overwhelmed by unwanted thoughts of food. I’ve craved food excessively and been larger all my life, from my earliest memories of being “the fat girl” at school. I have to work much harder at managing my weight and eating than other people may have to deal with.

    In my book, I describe how cycles of being on or off on-going diets can create a sense of burnout when you just want to let it go for awhile, you’re tired of it, you wish you could forget about your weight. During periods I call being “cycled out” a person can steadily put on weight if they are eating without structure, neither on nor really “off” a diet. During those periods, I wouldn’t weigh and I wore loose clothing. I lost track of what was happening with my weight and it snuck up on me. I put on the most weight during those periods. My highest weight was 340. I stabilized in the 170s for many years. I’m currently in the 190s after a major life change that has altered my general daily activity but I’m aware of it and making an effort to compensate.

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  2. Dagny, your comments really speak to me. I often feel burnt out of watching my food. I have journalled everything I eat for over a decade now. Mostly it has helped me avoid gaining, but it hasn’t helped me lose weight. Sometimes I just want to stop but within a few days my fear of gaining takes over and I catch up.

    It has really helped to have a better understanding of metabolism from reading this blog so that i recognize that the same meal is going to respond differently in my body than in someone elses. I had to explain this to my trainer who can’t believe that a 200lb 50 year old woman can be fit and not want to be “accountable” for my diet to him. I am plenty accountable for my diet, but I don’t believe a 25 year old male athlete can understand my particular biology until having walked a mile in my shoes.

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  3. Dear Dr. Sharma, I have been following your blog for the past year or two. First, I applaud your ability to keep up the consistent blogging with your busy schedule. I am a 48 year old male and I weigh 410 pounds. I have gained and lost more than 600 pounds in my life time. My weight has varied from a minimum of 196 pounds (after nearly 15 months on a very restrictive commercial diet program) to my current weight (my maximum) of 410 pounds. I am completely out of control now, and at my age I am really feeling the weight. I find it difficult to do normal everyday things. I am waiting for bariatric surgery and I am praying that this will help me. I can really relate to this topic of gradual weight gain. When I see pictures of myself at age 5 or so, I was a good looking, slightly chunky, fellow. By age 8 I was noticeably overweight, and it gradually but consistently continued throughout my teens, 20s, 30s and 40s with brief flirtations with diet successes. I can remember being unable to wear uniforms at school, for part-time jobs, etc. No single life event caused this…to my knowledge at least. Indeed, by all accounts, I had a very happy childhood (except I do know that I always felt different and never quite part of the group). I still feel this way. I come from a working class heritage – my Grandfather and Father were both steelworkers. I have a post-secondary education and should feel quite content with my accomplishments…but I still have this weight (metaphoric as well as physical) on my shoulders. I would love to hear more about your thoughts on this. Also, if my words can help someone else in this situation to open up, then this is worthwhile. Thank you. Richard

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  4. Melinda, I have heard from so many people about this—that we can reach a point where trying to lose weight begins to have what seems like more of a negative impact on our lives than the weight. You mention fear of gaining, yes it’s like a disturbing delicate balance that you go back and forth between wanting to let go but then the fear takes over again. The cycle itself creates its own mental fatigue.

    I’m 53 and I became an NASM-certified trainer for exactly the reason you cite. You know who grows up to be trainers? The kids who were the athletic stand outs at school. Me, I was the fat girl and the athletic kids made fun of me. Someone who’s been athletic all their lives can never understand, no matter how caring they may try to be.

    Click on my name to visit my website and please write me if you’d like.

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