Women's Health

Discover everything you need to know about women’s nutrition in this section devoted solely to woman’s issues. Topics covered include weight gain during menopause, and tips on how to detect and avoid breast cancer.

Do Birth Control Pills Cause Weight Gain?

Gaining weight on birth control is a common concern amongst women. But is there actually a link between weight gain and birth control? Here is what you should know and how to protect against weight gain risk.

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Also known as oral contraceptives or simply "the pill," birth control pills offer protection against pregnancy by stopping ovulation.

Birth control pills also prove to be beneficial in reducing or helping prevent from acne, bone thinning, endometrial and ovarian cancers, iron-deficiency anemia, amongst several others.

The active ingredients in birth control pills are synthetic, or manmade, versions of the female hormones estrogen and progesterone.

Some pills offer a combination of the two hormones, while others only supply progestin, or the synthetic version of progesterone. Progestin-only pills, also known as “mini pills,” are especially purposeful for women who cannot take estrogens for whatever reason.

While their purpose often outweighs the cons, women can, but rarely, face side effects of nausea, mood changes, breast tenderness, and weight gain.

Does Birth Control Make You Gain Weight?

There is a common stigma and rumor that birth control leads to weight gain. And if weight gain does occur, the pill is often first to blame.

Historically, however, weight gain could have been more of a risk related to its higher hormone content.

Flash back to the first marketed birth control, Envoid 10, which contained 9.85 milligrams (mg) of progestin and 150 micrograms (μg) of estrogen. This is a much a heavier dose of estrogen compared to contraceptives taken today, which supply 0.1 to 3.0 mg of modern progestins and 20 to 50 μg of estrogen according to review published in Canadian Family Physician.

Increased concentrations of progesterone may increase appetite, thus increasing food intake and eventually weight. Estrogen can also lead to fluid retention, which can cause temporary water weight gain.

What the Research Shows

Modern day research tells us weight gain truly is marginal, if not unlikely.

A Cochrane review set out to review the effects of progestin-only contraceptives (POCs) on weight.

After reviewing 22 studies including 11,450 women, researchers found little evidence of weight gain when using POCs. What’s more, mean weight gain at 6 or 12 months was less than 4.4 pounds for most studies.

Possible Causes of Weight Gain on Birth Control

Then why is weight gain speculated, or perhaps even experienced?

The risk of retaining fluid on birth control still stands, especially weeks before menstrual cycles. Retaining fluid can lead to temporary water weight gain, along with uncomfortable bloat.

But if finding yourself continuously gaining weight on birth control, consult with a doctor. They will likely verify the pills are taken as directed, encourage giving the pill at least 3 months for any of the side effects to pass, and help you evaluate other lifestyle habits that can tip the scale.

So rather than blaming the pill itself, evaluate and question the following:

• How are your dietary habits?
Diet is the one of the biggest, if not the largest, influencer on weight. So if you find yourself gaining weight, reflect on dietary habits and modify accordingly.

• Are you active?
There is a strong link between sedentary lifestyles and weight gain, so also evaluate your activity levels. Do you sit most of the day? On the contrary, have you been strength training more often? Doing so can actually lead to weight maintenance or gain, but be beneficial as fat is often displaced with muscle.

• Do you feel stressed?
While some stress can keep you stimulated and motivated, too much of it can reap havoc on overall health, including increasing the risk of weight gain often caused by increases in cortisol and emotional eating.

• How are your sleep patterns?
Lack of sleep effects hormones and energy levels. Specifically, abnormal hunger hormones elevate the urge to overeat on carb and fat-rich foods. And with reduced energy to workout, accumulating weight is more than likely inevitable.

• Did you recently change routine?
Did you recently switch jobs? What about move to a new location? While these changes can be exciting, they can shake up and add stress to your routine. You may also find yourself skipping out on the gym and resorting to takeout.

Reducing the Risk of Weight Gain on Birth Control

First and foremost, give the pill some time to adapt, as most of the weight gain is temporary more times than not. Also consult with your doctor regarding other types of birth control that may be more beneficial for you.

If still experiencing weight gain, making lifestyle changes can help counteract such risks. Healthy habits proven to support weight loss and maintenance include recommendations regarding diet, exercise, stress management, and sleep.

Consume A Balanced Diet

A balanced diet incorporates more wholesome foods, including whole grains, fruits and veggies, lean and plant-based proteins, milk and dairy products, and healthy fat sources.

A natural way to ensure a balanced diet and ensure proper portion sizes, fill at least half the plate with veggies, a quarter with a lean or plant-based protein, and complement with a whole grain and healthy fat source.

And while indulgences can and should be enjoyed every now and then, it is important to limit the intake of sweet treats, fried foods, and other products rich in added sugar and unhealthy fat and practice the concepts of moderation and mindfulness when doing so.

Exercise Regularly

Whereas diet makes up the majority of a weight loss equation, exercise can accelerate efforts and improve overall health.

The American Heart Association (AHA) encourages a minimum of 150 minutes of aerobic activity weekly. Cardio exercises that elevate heart rate include running, brisk walking, swimming, dancing, and cycling.

Also include strength training at least twice a week and focus on the major muscle groups, including the back, chest, arms, and legs. Doing so helps support a healthy metabolism.

Manage Stress

With stress being an underlying culprit of weight gain, it is important to keep it managed to lower elevations in cortisol and the risks of stress eating.

Common stress-relieving strategies include practicing yoga, exercising, talking an outdoor walk, dancing, reading a book, calling a friend, and listening to music.

Ensure Adequate Sleep

Aiming between seven to nine hours of sleep on a nightly basis can help deter the risks of weight gain.

If struggling to achieve sound, adequate sleep each night, try staying consistent with sleep and wake times, limiting caffeine and alcohol consumption, keeping an active lifestyle, and confirming a supportive, yet comfortable bed.

Written By Christy Zagarella, MS, RDN. Published on November 07, 2012. Updated on January 30, 2019.

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