How Birth Control Affects Weight And What You Can Do About It

The advent of birth control allows you to enjoy a healthy sex life without the fear of getting pregnant. Many people think of birth control as giving them more freedom. However, some people have had less pleasant experiences with birth control. Specifically, some people struggle to lose weight or have even gained weight while taking hormonal birth control. But birth control doesn't guarantee that you'll struggle with weight, and you've got options to consider even if one type of birth control doesn't work for you.

Does birth control cause weight gain?

Although you may be sure that birth control causes you to gain weight, the science isn't so confident. Evidence doesn't indicate that birth control makes you pack on the pounds¹. When people gain weight on birth control, it's a small amount, even when using progestin-only birth control² such as the "mini" pill. We have to keep in mind that these studies are based on observation - people’s weight may often fluctuate during that period regardless of the pill. However, some studies show that some people lose weight after starting a new form of birth control.

Both the shot (Depo-Provera) and long-term implant (Nexplanon) are the most likely culprits to cause weight gain³ in some specific individuals. A systematic review of contraceptive types found that there was an average of less than 2kg weight gain amongst the different types of contraception (hormonal, non-hormonal, etc.) over a 12 month period. Ultimately, it may be a matter of trial and error and combatting weight gain with other healthy habits.

Why it may be harder to lose weight on birth control

Because everybody is different, you may find that you gain weight or struggle to shed those pounds when taking hormonal birth control whereas others don’t. One important point is that these effects should resolve once you stop that form of hormonal birth control.

Two crucial factors play a role here. First, you may be gaining weight due to water retention rather than fat. Secondly, the hormones in your birth control may have altered your metabolism. When this happens, you may gain weight even if your diet and exercise routines haven't changed. Of course, the last point to consider for rapid, persistent weight gain whilst on birth control is an unplanned pregnancy - a home pregnancy test can be easily done to check this.

Tips for maintaining a healthy weight when taking birth control

If your weight gain is from metabolism changes, consider decreasing your daily calories. Reducing calories isn't just about eating less, although smaller portions are a step in the right direction. Focus on eating foods that make you feel full that contain healthy fats without lots of sugar or fat. Both of those ingredients can trick your brain into thinking you're hungry.  Avoid drinking your calories in the form of soda and juice.

So, what foods are part of a healthy diet? Reach for fruit to satisfy your sweet tooth and vegetables when you want a satisfying crunch. They're both lower in calories than processed snacks. Hot peppers contain a type of compound known as capsaicinoid that could also be good for weight loss⁴. Greek yogurt and oats are filling without offering empty bulk. Opt for chicken or fish as lean protein is better for you than red meat. Microwave popcorn isn't as bad for you as some options--as long as it's not covered in butter flavoring!

You might also get a metabolism boost from green tea extract. Research suggests it might help⁵, but the evidence isn't fully conclusive.

When you eat is also an essential consideration. Some say you can get the most out of exercise if you do it before eating breakfast in the morning. One study finds that eating carbs before exercising can reduce its effectiveness at busting fat⁶. High-fat diets can also sabotage your efforts to lose weight through exercise.

Overall, you should eat when you're hungry, not to satisfy emotional cravings. Don't restrict yourself so much that you give in to emotional cravings later. Make sure you're hydrated. Many people misread thirst as hunger⁷, therefore eating when they should be drinking.

Get plenty of sleep. While a full night's rest won't boost your metabolism, not getting enough sleep can slow it down⁸. Plus, you might struggle to make healthy decisions about diet and exercise if you're tired or grumpy from not getting a solid eight hours.

Don't starve yourself to lose weight

Extreme dieting or calorie restriction can make you binge on unhealthy foods later. Besides, your body needs food for energy, so failing to get this might leave you feeling weak or dizzy, and your brain will struggle to think clearly. It might sound counterintuitive, but eating less can also slow down your metabolism.  This may be why dieters often regain weight⁹.

You can also become very sick if your body doesn't get the nutrients it needs. Historically, pirates and sailors often fell ill from scurvy due to a lack of Vitamin C. There was no fresh fruit to keep them healthy. Other conditions caused by nutritional deficits include anemia, infertility, bone loss, and decreased thyroid function.  Your teeth might even start to decay if you don't eat enough healthy foods.

You need to eat well--and enough--to look and feel your best!

Don't forget to exercise

When it comes to exercise, running is better than cycling at burning fat⁶. However, anything that gets you moving and your heart beating faster is better than nothing. If you don't currently have an exercise routine, why not start with a brisk walk?  The Center for Disease Control currently recommends at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week of moderate intensity activity to maintain a healthy body.

When to reconsider your birth control

If you're struggling to maintain or lose weight on birth control, your best option might be to switch methods. You don't need to wait it out if your birth control has made you gain weight or comes with other unpleasant side effects. However, you should talk to your doctor beforehand as you will need some alternative form of contraception.

A gap in your birth control coverage may lead to unwanted pregnancy. In fact, you may want to overlap your old and new birth control to ensure you've covered, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians. Their site includes a helpful chart for people switching birth control methods¹⁰.

Birth control options to consider if weight is an issue

If you're okay switching to another type of birth control, the various birth control pills, patches, rings, and hormonal IUDs are less likely to make you gain weight. The copper IUD (Paragard) contains no hormones and shouldn't affect your weight.

A new vaginal gel, Phexxi, is another option. It's different from spermicides of the past. Although those products killed sperm, they also caused trauma to sensitive vaginal tissues, making you more likely to contract STIs such as HIV¹¹. Phexxi temporarily lowers the pH of your vagina¹², making it harder for sperm to travel through your cervix and fertilize your egg.

All of the options above come with their side effects, which you should talk about with your doctor when deciding which birth control to use.

You can always use condoms (either internal or external), too. There are non-latex options of both if either you or your partner has an allergy. The internal (female) condom is also ideal if your partner is especially well-endowed and external (male) condoms don't fit well. In addition, the female condom offers better protection against some STIs than the male condom¹³, especially the ones transmitted via skin contact, because it covers portions of your vulva.

If you don't want children, you can consider permanent birth control procedures such as tubal ligation or vasectomy, both of which may be reversible¹⁴. However, it's not always possible to reverse sterilization surgery. Furthermore, sterilization offers no protection against STIs, so you may still want to use condoms.

It’s important to discuss any changes with your doctor as each form of contraception had differing side effects and effectiveness at preventing unplanned pregnancies and STIs.

The lowdown

While taking birth control can make you gain weight and make it harder to lose weight, you're not destined to this fate because you want a reliable way to prevent pregnancy. Whether you gain weight also depends on the birth control you're using. Studies show that the shot and implant are more likely to cause weight gain than other types of hormonal birth control. Give birth control a try to decide if it's right for you. You may have to kick your workouts up a notch to keep the weight off if you notice a difference. Otherwise, consider switching to a different type of birth control, especially one without hormones, to see if it helps.

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