Researchers Say That You Aren’t Gaining Weight Because Of Your Birth Control
Like anatomy in general, birth control can be intimidating, confusing, and even a little scary. But it doesn’t have to be! While there are endless ideas about how birth control affects the body (it gives you acne, it makes you gain weight, it changes your moods, lo que sea), the truth is that everyone’s experience is different. For some, all of these claims might be true—and for others, none of them may be. Yet although each form of birth control impacts individuals in unique ways, there are definitely certain trends to watch out for. So if you’re curious about how birth control might affect your body, get ready for some seriously helpful—and possibly surprising!—information.
For years, many healthcare providers and users of birth control have believed that hormonal methods can lead to excessive weight gain. While bodies fluctuate and weight gain happens naturally for lots of different reasons, people often avoid this type of contraception—which includes the patch, the pill, monthly shots, and some IUDs—in order to avoid that alleged extra poundage.
However, many decades of research seem to dispel the myth that hormonal birth control leads to weight gain.
A 2014 review of 49 trials comparing 52 different birth control methods led to the conclusion that neither pill nor patch caused significant weight gain. Although “the evidence was not strong enough to be sure that these methods did not cause some weight change,” the reviewers found “no major effect on weight.”
Some studies focused on the combined pill (a version of the pill that contains many different—and often synthetic—hormones), while others investigated pills containing real progesterone, a hormone that our bodies naturally produce. The result was clear: no matter the contents, neither type of pill has a side effect of weight gain. Why, then, do we associate a higher number on the scale with the use of contraception?
According to Maria Gallo, an endocrinologist at Ohio State University who co-authored the review, the notion of weight gain as a symptom of birth control is rooted in a natural human bias.
Gallo suggests that when people are influenced by certain ideas or patterns (for example, if a small number of people report gaining weight after starting a new medication), those ideas seem to manifest in real life—even if the data doesn’t support those observations.
“It’s the same reason why there’s this idea that vaccines can cause health problems,” says Gallo. “If you give them to a population, you’re going to have some people who have health problems, whether they’re linked to the vaccine or not.”
In regard to the connection between weight and the pill, Gallo acknowledges that adults of both sexes gain roughly a pound each year, beginning in our early twenties. She points out that this is also the age when people start using contraception. Yet while Gallo asserts that the pill-weight connection is ultimately a myth—and that weight gain is likely attributed to different external factors—she confirms that the pill definitely does change the body in other ways.
Reviews indicate that birth control can change a body’s shape and composition, affecting muscle growth, fluid retention, and overall fat distribution.
A 2009 study showed that women taking a pill with a certain type of synthetic progesterone were unable to achieve their desired muscle gains. The fake progesterone, it turns out, was competing with a natural hormone called DHEA, which helps promote muscle growth. The impact of the synthetic progesterone kept women from meeting their desired fitness goals, because without a certain amount of DHEA, their bodies were incapable of supporting new muscle development.
On top of that, another study found that different hormones have different effects on fat cells. Estrogen and progesterone are responsible for feminine features, like wide hips, breasts, and booty. The fat that lives on these parts of the body is called subcutaneous fat, and it contains a large number of estrogen receptors. So, the study demonstrated that pills with higher estrogen levels often resulted in more subcutaneous fat and, therefore, a more “pear-shaped” silhouette.
And finally, the puffy feeling we all know too well—bloating—may also be a symptom of the pill. While we might feel bloated after un par de tacos or a big bucket of movie popcorn, that sensation is different than bloating caused by hormones. Estrogen impacts the way our bodies metabolize water, so high-estrogen birth control methods can make the body retain more fluid. Sometimes, this fluid seeps into fat cells, causing them to swell and create the illusion of weight gain. This means that while we may not actually be gaining weight, our clothes might fit differently, and we may feel sort of uncomfortable.
All in all, birth control can absolutely impact the way your body functions—it’s designed to do that! The trick is understanding your own body and finding a method that works for you and keeps you feeling healthy.
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