9 Causes of Unintentional Weight Gain

Are carbohydrates more filling than protein?

Carbohydrates and protein contain roughly the same number of calories per gram.

But other factors influence the sensation of feeling full, such as the type, variety and amount of food eaten, as well as eating behaviour and environmental factors, like serving sizes and the availability of food choices.

The sensation of feeling full can also vary from person to person. Among other things, protein-rich foods can help you feel full, and we should have some beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other protein foods as part of a healthy, balanced diet.

But we shouldn’t eat too much of these foods. Remember that starchy foods should make up about a third of the food we eat, and we all need to eat more fruit and vegetables.

Calorie intake

Carbohydrate contains fewer calories gram for gram than fat, and starchy foods can be a good source of fibre, which means they can be a useful part of maintaining a healthy weight.

By replacing fatty, sugary foods and drinks with higher fibre starchy foods, it’s more likely you’ll reduce the number of calories in your diet.

Also, high-fibre foods add bulk to your meal, helping you feel full. «You still need to watch your portion sizes to avoid overeating,» says Sian.

«Also watch the amount of fat you add when cooking and serving them: this increases the calorie content.»

Can cutting out wheat help me lose weight?

The glycaemic index (GI) is a rating system for foods containing carbohydrates. It shows how quickly each food affects glucose (sugar) levels in your blood when that food is eaten on its own.

Some low-GI foods, such as wholegrain foods, fruit, vegetables, beans and lentils, are foods we should eat as part of a healthy, balanced diet.

But using GI to decide whether foods, or a combination of foods, are healthy or can help with weight reduction can be misleading.

Although low-GI foods cause blood sugar levels to rise and fall slowly, which may help you to feel fuller for longer, not all low-GI foods are healthy.

For example, watermelon and parsnips are high-GI foods, while chocolate cake has a lower GI value.

And the way a food is cooked and what you eat it with as part of a meal will change the GI rating.

This means GI alone isn’t a reliable way of deciding whether foods, or combinations of foods, are healthy or will help you lose weight.

Find out more about the glycaemic index (GI)

Some people point to bread and other wheat-based foods as the main culprit for their weight gain.

Wheat is found in a wide range of foods, from bread, pasta and pizza to cereals and many other foods.

But there’s not enough evidence that foods that contain wheat are any more likely to cause weight gain than any other food.

Unless you have a diagnosed health condition, such as wheat allergy, wheat sensitivity or coeliac disease, there’s little evidence that cutting out wheat and other grains from your diet would benefit your health.

Grains, especially wholegrains, are an important part of a healthy, balanced diet.

Wholegrain, wholemeal and brown breads give us energy and contain B vitamins, vitamin E, fibre and a wide range of minerals.

White bread also contains a range of vitamins and minerals, but it has less fibre than wholegrain, wholemeal or brown breads.

If you prefer white bread, look for higher fibre options. Grains are also naturally low in fat. 

Find out if cutting out bread could help ease bloating or other digestive symptoms

Cost of obesity

Obesity costs the NHS more than £6 billion every year, with indirect costs at an estimated £27 billion. More than £14 billion is spent on treatment of type 2 diabetes.[7] More is spent each year on the treatment of obesity and diabetes than is spent on the police, fire and judicial system combined.

If obesity rates were to continue unchecked, it is estimated that 60% of adult men, 50% of adult women, and 25% of children in the UK could be obese by 2050. The McKinsey group estimated in 2014 that the total annual economic cost of obesity globally is £1 trillion, and £47 billion in the UK.[10]

Obesity occurs when energy intake from food or drink consumption is greater than the energy expenditure through metabolism or exercise.[11] There are many ways in which we can classify a person’s health in relation to their weight, but the most widely used is Body Mass Index (BMI).

Although a high BMI does not support a definitive diagnosis of obesity, as some people can have excessive muscle, which increases their weight significantly, it is generally a good indication of whether someone is overweight.[12]

Current dietary advice:

We currently consume far too much sugar in the UK diet. The report published by WHO and by SACN highlight the need for a reduction in sugar intake to 5% of our energy intake.[15] This is equivalent to 7 teaspoons/cubes or 30g of sugar per day for an adult.

The recommendation for children is 24g for children aged 5-11 and 19g for children aged 4-6. This 5% limit is far below the current intake which is of 11.9% in children aged 1.5 to 3; 14.7% in children aged 4 to 10; and 15.

Disease risk

Fruit and vegetables, pulses, wholegrain and wholewheat varieties of starchy foods, and potatoes eaten with their skins on, are good sources of fibre.

Fibre is an important part of a healthy, balanced diet. It can promote good bowel health, reduce the risk of constipation, and some forms of fibre have been shown to reduce cholesterol levels.

Research shows diets high in fibre are associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and bowel cancer.

Many people don’t get enough fibre. On average, most adults in the UK get about 19g of fibre a day. We’re advised to eat an average of 30g a day.

Do carbohydrates make you fat?

While carbohydrates, fat and protein are all sources of energy in the diet, the amount of energy each one provides varies:

  • carbohydrate provides: about 4kcal (17kJ) per gram
  • protein provides: 4kcal (17kJ) per gram
  • fat provides: 9kcal (37kJ) per gram

In the absence of carbohydrates in the diet, your body will convert protein (or other non-carbohydrate substances) into glucose, so it’s not just carbohydrates that can raise your blood sugar and insulin levels.

If you consume more calories than you burn from whatever source, you’ll gain weight.

So cutting out carbohydrates or fat doesn’t necessarily mean cutting out calories if you’re replacing them with other foods containing the same number of calories.

Any food can cause weight gain if you overeat. Whether your diet is high in fat or high in carbohydrates, if you frequently consume more energy than your body uses you’re likely to put on weight.

In fact, gram for gram, carbohydrate contains fewer than half the calories of fat. Wholegrain varieties of starchy foods are good sources of fibre. Foods high in fibre add bulk to your meal and help you feel full.

But foods high in sugar are often high in calories, and eating these foods too often can contribute to you becoming overweight.

There’s some evidence that diets high in sugar are associated with an increased energy content of the diet overall, which over time can lead to weight gain.

Does Sugar Contribute to Weight Gain?

The average American eats a whopping 20 teaspoons of sugar every day, according to U.S. government figures. That’s well above the American Heart Association’s recommendation of 6 teaspoons per day for women and 9 per day for men.

A variety of research has drawn a link between sugar consumption and excess body weight. “I don’t think we have enough evidence yet to suggest that sugar is the reason for the obesity epidemic,” says Johns Hopkins cardiologist Chiadi E. Ndumele, M.D., M.H.S.

All those sweet snacks seem to be affecting the heart as well. In a study published in JAMA: Internal Medicine in 2014, researchers compared people who consumed a lot of added sugar (accounting for 17 to 21 percent of their total daily calories) with people who ate less sugar (just 8 percent of their total calories).

Ready to cut back on the sweet stuff? Here are some tips to try:

  • Avoid sodas and other sugar-sweetened beverages, which are among the
    top sources of added sugars.
  • Reach for fruits instead of candy, cookies or other sweet treats.
  • Read ingredient labels. Sugar is often hiding in places you wouldn’t
    expect it, such as spaghetti sauce and sandwich bread.
  • Added sugars have a lot of aliases. When reading labels, keep an eye
    out for terms like corn sweetener, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose,
    glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, lactose, malt syrup, maltose,
    molasses, raw sugar and sucrose.


Carbohydrates should be the body’s main source of energy in a healthy, balanced diet, providing about 4kcal (17kJ) per gram.

They’re broken down into glucose (sugar) before being absorbed into the bloodstream. From there, the glucose enters the body’s cells with the help of insulin.

Glucose is used by your body for energy, fuelling all of your activities, whether going for a run or simply breathing.

Unused glucose can be converted to glycogen found in the liver and muscles.

If more glucose is consumed than can be stored as glycogen, it’s converted to fat for long-term storage of energy.

Higher fibre starchy carbohydrates release sugar into the blood more slowly than sugary foods and drinks.


Fibre is the name given to the diverse range of compounds found in the cell walls of foods that come from plants.

Good sources of fibre include vegetables with skins on, wholegrain bread, wholewheat pasta, and pulses (beans and lentils).

Find out more about fibre

What’s the role of carbohydrates in exercise?

The government’s healthy eating advice, illustrated by the Eatwell Guide, recommends that just over a third of your diet should be made up of starchy foods, such as potatoes, bread, rice and pasta, and over another third should be fruit and vegetables.

This means that over half of your daily calorie intake should come from starchy foods, fruit and vegetables.

Data from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey, which looks at food consumption in the UK, shows that most of us should also be eating more fibre and starchy foods and fewer sweets, chocolates, biscuits, pastries, cakes and soft drinks with added sugar.

These are usually high in sugar and calories, which can increase the risk of tooth decay and contribute to weight gain if you eat them too often, while providing few other nutrients.

Fruit, vegetables, pulses and starchy foods (especially higher fibre varieties) provide a wider range of nutrients (such as vitamins and minerals), which are beneficial to health.

The fibre in these foods can help keep your bowels healthy and adds bulk to your meal, helping you feel full.

To increase the amount of fibre in your diet, aim for at least 5 portions of a variety of fruit and veg a day.

Go for higher fibre varieties of starchy foods and eat potatoes with skins on. Try to aim for an average intake of 30g of fibre a day.

Here are some examples of the typical fibre content in some common foods:

  • 2 breakfast wheat biscuits (approx. 37.5g) – 3.6g of fibre
  • 1 slice of wholemeal bread – 2.5g (1 slice of white bread – 0.9g)
  • 80g of cooked wholewheat pasta – 4.2g  
  • 1 medium (180g) baked potato (with skin) – 4.7g
  • 80g (4 heaped tablespoons) of cooked runner beans – 1.6g
  • 80g (3 heaped tablespoons) of cooked carrots – 2.2g
  • 1 small cob (3 heaped tablespoons) of sweetcorn – 2.2g
  • 200g of baked beans – 9.8g
  • 1 medium orange – 1.9g
  • 1 medium banana – 1.4g

People with diabetes should try to eat a healthy, balanced diet, as shown in the Eatwell Guide.

They should also include higher fibre starchy foods at every meal. Steer clear of cutting out entire food groups.

It’s recommended that everyone with diabetes sees a registered dietitian for specific advice on their food choices. Your GP can refer you to a registered dietitian.

There’s some evidence that suggests low-carbohydrate diets can lead to weight loss and improvements in blood glucose control in people with type 2 diabetes in the short term.

But it’s not clear whether the diet is a safe and effective way to manage type 2 diabetes in the long term.

Weight loss from a low-carbohydrate diet may be because of a reduced intake of calories overall and not specifically as a result of eating less carbohydrate.

There also isn’t enough evidence to support the use of low-carbohydrate diets in people with type 1 diabetes.

Douglas Twenefour, Diabetes UK clinical adviser, says: «When considering a low-carbohydrate diet as an option, people with diabetes should be made aware of possible side effects, such as the risk of hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar).

«We also advise that people with diabetes discuss the amount of carbohydrate to be restricted with their healthcare team.

«The best way to manage diabetes is by taking prescribed medications and by maintaining a healthy lifestyle that includes plenty of physical activity, and a balanced diet that is low in saturated fat, salt and sugar and rich in fruit and vegetables, without completely cutting out any particular food groups.»

Read Diabetes UK’s review of the evidence on low-carb diets and their conclusions.

Carbohydrates, fat and protein all provide energy, but exercising muscles rely on carbohydrates as their main source of fuel.

But muscles have limited carbohydrate stores (glycogen) and need to be topped up regularly to keep your energy up.

A diet low in carbohydrates can lead to a lack of energy during exercise, early fatigue and delayed recovery.

There’s little scientific evidence that one time is better than any other.

It’s recommended that you base all your meals around starchy carbohydrate foods and you try to choose higher fibre wholegrain varieties when you can.

Excess weight increases the risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol

Type 2 diabetes



by Ndumele and colleagues has shown that those factors usually explain the
link between obesity and heart disease.

But obesity itself can be harmful even in the absence of those other
conditions. Ndumele and colleagues found that after accounting for factors
such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes, obesity by
itself increases the risk of heart failure.

In other words, there are many reasons to aim for a healthy weight. And
cutting back on sugar is a good place to start.

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Gene Kim

To nail down which ingredient — fat or sugar — is responsible for the biggest share of negative health outcomes, it helps to compare people who’ve eaten low-fat or low-carb diets.

Time and time again, studies that do this suggest that people who cut back on fats not only don’t lose weight, they don’t see other health benefits like a reduced risk of disease, either.

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