If you’ve entered your third or fourth decade, you’ve probably realized that housing a whole pizza every night or pounding too many dollar beers usually leads to larger pants. There may be a few reasons why you’re carrying a few more pounds than you were before.
A little weight gain isn’t usually a sign of a serious problem, but a rapid spike is worth checking out.
“It’s common to gain 1 to 2 pounds a year starting around age 35,” says Susan Greene, ACE certified Personal Trainer, Health Coach and Nutrition Specialist. “You can maintain your weight with a healthy lifestyle, but if your weight piles on quickly, it might warrant further medical advice.”
Here are some of the most common culprits of male weight gain—plus how to take off those extra pounds.
1. You’re Eating Too Much Salt
Typical American diets are full of sodium, but don’t throw all the blame at your salt shaker.
“Prepacked foods are the worst offenders when it comes to excess sodium,” says registered dietitian Valerie Gately, MS, RDN, LD.
Americans get around 70 percent of their salt intake from readily accessible commercially processed foods and restaurants.
And check out the numbers on fast-food nutrition charts: McDonald’s Big Mac (1,010 mg) and Taco Bell’s Mexican Pizza (940 mg). Have both in one day and you’re pushing the max daily recommendation of 2,300 mg–and remember, the American Heart Association is working towards an ideal goal of 1,500 mg.
“Foods higher in sodium are often also higher in fat and calories,” says Gately. Another recipe for weight gain, Plus, when you eat a very salty meal, your body may also hold on to extra water which can temporarily cause the scale to register a few pounds higher.
2. You’re Not Moving Enough
If you eat too much and move too little, excess calories are stored as fat.
Case in point: “As a result of the lockdown due to the global pandemic, it is estimated that the majority of the population gained 10 to 15 pounds,” Greene says. “Many found themselves reaching for comfort foods during that uncertain time.”
The perfect storm of comfort eating, gym closures, and prohibitively expensive home fitness equipment are likely culprits for the weight gain.
Belly fat is a common landing spot for unburned calories. In men, when this is visceral abdominal fat packing around your internal organs, it can increase your risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, liver problems, and certain cancers.
“Your body burns more total calories because you work harder to keep up with the higher intensity,” says Sydney Bueckert, NASM CPT, CES, FNS, GPT. “Because you burn more calories, you burn more fat as a result.”
Try this killer 15 minute incline walking HIIT workout from Greene: Set a treadmill’s incline level to 5 and speed to 4 to 4.5 mph. Walk for 5 minutes, then increase your incline by 2 levels every 2 minutes until you reach a 15 incline.
A 200-pound guy can expect to burn 300 to 350 calories in those 15 minutes, Greene says.
3. Poor Sleep
Around one-third of Americans report that they don’t get enough sleep. And when you’re fatigued, your motivation to workout can be as low as your ability to resist high-cal, fatty foods.
When you’re sleep deprived, the levels of two hormones in your body are altered: ghrelin and leptin.
Ghrelin is produced by your stomach and sends “feed me” signals to your brain when your tank is empty. Leptin, which is released by fat tissue, tells your brain when you’ve eaten enough. Research suggests that chronically high levels can create leptin resistance–a condition where your brain no longer responds to your body’s leptin levels so rather than feeling full, you keep eating, even though your body has sufficient fat stores (2).
4. You Have Cushing’s Syndrome
Cushing’s syndrome is rare, but around 3 to 5 men per million are affected each year in the U.S. If you’re one of them, your body produces too much cortisol, says Shiven Chaudhry, M.D., Internal Medicine and Integrative Medicine Specialist and founder of Dr. Shiven Integrative Medicine, a functional health clinic specializing in western and holistic approaches.
Normal levels of cortisol keep your blood sugar in check and regulate your metabolism. A high cortisol rate changes the metabolic activity in your body and your muscles can waste away. In addition, patients with Cushing’s may also develop decreased testosterone levels.
The most common symptom of Cushing’s is increased fat around your belly, the back of your neck, and your shoulders. You might also experience erectile dysfunction, low libido, and decreased fertility.
If your doctor suspects Cushing’s syndrome, they’ll run tests to determine your cortisol levels throughout the day. If you’re diagnosed, medication and lifestyle changes can treat the condition.
5. You Recently Lost Weight
You’ve done the hard work of losing weight, but now it’s time to keep your slimmed-down physique. That’s hard, especially without the right habits in place, says Greene.
If you’re looking to keep weight off, keep it simple. “Eat whole foods, avoid processed foods, and workout regularly,” says Greene. “Those aren’t quick fixes to lose weight, but lifestyle tools to help you maintain it.”
If you slip up and cheat one day, hop back into your healthy routine the next, says Greene. “Don’t let one day sabotage your hard work and force you to slingshot back to old habits.”
Medication-related weight gain is estimated to affect around 1 in 5 U.S. adults (3). Some meds can cause you to gain a few pounds, others can pile 20 pounds or more onto your frame.
The biggest culprits are medications that treat diabetes, high blood pressure, and allergies, along with antidepressants and antipsychotics, says Chaudhry.
Some drugs (including high blood pressure meds) cause water retention, others throw off your insulin levels (like antipsychotics), and some boost your appetite and lead to overeating (looking at you, anti-histamines).
If you’ve recently gained weight after starting a new med, talk to your doctor. They may lower your dose, or switch you to a different drug. Never quit a prescription cold turkey because you may suffer withdrawal symptoms, Chaudhry says.
7. You Have An Underactive Thyroid
Your thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped gland at the base of your neck. It produces thyroid hormone–which controls your metabolism. Five out of 100 Americans have an underactive thyroid, or hypothyroidism.
“There are several reasons people develop an underactive thyroid including autoimmune disorders, infections, nutritional deficiencies, stress, and certain cancers,” says Chaudhry.
If your doctor suspects hypothyroidism, an oral thyroid medication can balance out your hormones. This will help with fluid retention, which will control or reverse weight gain.
8. You Have Low Testosterone
Around age 30, your testosterone levels naturally start to drop. Almost 40% of men aged 45 or older suffer from low testosterone, says Jack Jeng, M.D., Chief Medical Officer at Hone Health.
Testosterone wears a lot of hats. It regulates energy, libido, fertility, red blood cell production, muscle strength, bone health and cognitive function. It also plays a role in how you store and burn fat.
“Men with low testosterone often have more fat and less muscle,” Jeng says.
Here’s why: Fat cells produce aromatase–an enzyme that converts testosterone to estradiol, a form of estrogen. This lowers your testosterone levels and increases your estrogen levels, leading to more body fat. That additional fat can contribute to low T.
If you suspect low T, you can take a blood test. If you do have a testosterone deficiency, your doctor may prescribe testosterone replacement therapy (TRT), along with diet and lifestyle tweaks.
9. You’re Stressed
It’s called stress-eating for a reason.
When you’re stressed, your body pumps out cortisol. When our cortisol levels remain high, you have a larger appetite and your body tends to store more fat.
“When cortisol levels are high, you do crave those sugary or fatty foods for comfort,” says Gately
Sugary and starchy comfort food can boost your body’s production of serotonin–the “feel good hormone”–which helps explain why that greasy pizza or sugary slice of cake chills you out.
When stress levels are unchecked for long periods of time, it’s a surefire way to pack on unwanted pounds.
If there’s no foam left in your stress ball, try these stress relieving techniques: sip on green tea, drip cold water on your wrists, or go full self-masseuse with a hand massage.
We love happy hour as much as you do, but too much booze can pack on the pounds.
Cocktails made with sugary syrups are notoriously higher in calories. But drinking too much alcohol of any kind can stop your body from burning fat, make you hungry, and clutters your counter with as many DoorDash deliveries as your wallet can stomach.
Stick to low-cal beers and seltzers or a glass of red wine. With only about 125 calories per 5 fluid ounces, the latter provides antioxidants which may help reduce inflammation, prevent blood clots, and lower your risk of heart disease.
The Bottom Line
If you’ve experienced male weight gain, there may be more to it than simply overeating. Knowing these possibilities shouldn’t scare you, but will keep you on top of potential reasons for your unexpected weight gain and the best ways to tackle it.