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How to Avoid Life's Big Fat Traps

Where you live, how late you work, and even the way you play could be adding to your weight. Take control of your scale, and your life, with these slimming strategies.
Woman eating takeout at work You Got a Promotion

It's been a crazy-busy couple of weeks. You step on the scale one morning and, yikes, you've gained five pounds. How the heck did that happen? New research shows that what you weigh isn't just the result of eating too much and exercising too little; it's also linked to your feelings, your experiences, even where you live. "Any change in your life circumstances can produce changes in eating and exercise, which leads to weight gain," says Edward Abramson, PhD, professor emeritus of psychology at California State University in Chico and author of Emotional Eating. Getting married and having kids are obvious triggers for putting on pounds, but there are other, more surprising transition points that can also influence your weight. This guide will see you through them all.

You got a promotion.

The good news: You love your new gig. The bad news: The big job is calling for a wardrobe in a bigger size. Chalk it up to stress, which prompts our bodies to release the hormones glucocorticoids and insulin, which stimulate hunger.

Hectic, tense situations can also spark a cascade of neurochemical reactions in the brain that favor emotional impulses over logical thinking, says Mary Dallman, PhD, professor emerita of physiology at the University of California, San Francisco, who published a review paper on the topic. That means we ignore the voice that tells us to eat healthily, and we turn to high-calorie comfort foods instead. Thanks to your jam-packed schedule, you may be grabbing unwholesome convenience foods during the day -- and then gobbling a ginormous dinner after you flop, exhausted, onto your couch at night.

Outsmart it: Bring a high-protein, produce-rich lunch (turkey-citrus salad, for instance); fiber- and protein-filled snacks (almonds and a peach, or Greek yogurt and berries) and, if need be, dinner, so you're not forced to visit the vending machine when hunger strikes or chow down like a lumberjack when you get home. The key is to choose foods that are satisfying. Since most of us prefer something warm for dinner, Lauren Slayton, RD, founder of Foodtrainers, a nutrition and weight-loss consulting service in New York City, suggests bringing a meal that's easily microwaved. Try a sweet potato with spinach and sliced chicken or a frozen vegetable-and-brown-rice bowl.

And make time for exercise. We know, we know, you're too swamped. But consider this: Working out will make you more energized and productive and help reduce stress, countless studies show. If you don't have time to hit the gym, squeeze in bursts of activity throughout your day: Go for a brisk 15-minute walk at lunch. Do some turbocharged jumping jacks while you're photo­copying a memo or waiting for your dinner to cook. In a study, people boosted their metabolism when they did four to six 30-second high-intensity sprints on a stationary bike six times over the course of two weeks. And stand up and walk around for five minutes at least once an hour. Your fat-burning enzymes shut down when you sit too long, according to research. By moving frequently, you keep your major muscles working, which may ward off the negative effects of being sedentary.

Finally, get more sleep. Lack of shut-eye stimulates the production of ghrelin, the hunger hormone. "If you're stressed and sleep deprived, you're creating a perfect storm for gaining weight," says Sherry Pagoto, PhD, assistant professor of preventive and behavioral medicine at the University of Massachusetts School of Medicine in Worcester. Turn off the TV and the computer and go to bed a half hour earlier.