The belt has to go up a notch; your underwear elastic is forming a geometric pattern on your waist; the dryer seems to be shrinking everything. It's weight gain!
And if you're like many folks, the scale can tip as much as 10 pounds before you even realize it's happening.
"Some people gain weight any time there is a change in their normal routine. Whatever they are doing just isn't allowing them to eat the way they did before, so the extra pounds start to creep up," says Susan Kraus, MS, RD, a clinical nutritionist at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey.
But whether it's the result of overdoing restaurant dinners, a few too many laps around the cruise ship pastry table, or because you've been sidelined with a fitness injury, if you eat more or move less, weight gain will result.
And, experts say, if you don't lose those extra pounds right away, you could be in for an even bigger surprise down the road.
"People wonder how they gained 50 pounds between age 20 and age 50. But if you add just two or three pounds a year, every year -- there are those extra pounds, and you don't even realize how it happened," Kraus tells WebMD.
Another point in favor of catching that weight gain early? The longer you keep it on, the harder it is to take it off.
"The longer you are at a certain weight, the greater chance your body will perceive that weight as normal -- so when you try to diet it's going to perceive that as abnormal and send signals to correct it, like hunger and cravings," says Robert Yanagisawa, MD, director of the Weight Management Program at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York.
Even if your weight gain doesn't spiral out of control, sometimes adding just five or 10 extra pounds is enough to put your health at risk, Yanagisawa says.
"It all depends on where you are at when you gain the weight," he says. "If your BMI (body mass index) is already high; if you have high blood pressure, or diabetes, for example; if the gain causes a jump in your waist size; then even a small amount of extra weight could jeopardize your health."
Checking Weight Gain: Where to Start
If you've had a break in your normal eating routine -- because of the holiday season or a vacation, for example -- you may only need to return to your previous eating habits to lose the extra weight, Yanagisawa says.
"You may not even have to diet, per se, but if you just start eating like you did before you gained the weight and if you do it right away, you might be able to drop those extra pounds without too much trouble," says Yanagisawa.
At the same time, he cautions, this might not be as easy as it sounds.
"Once you've been overeating for several weeks it's easy to say, 'What's one more cookie or one more piece of chocolate?' When you're in the mindset of eating more, it's easy to keep eating more and not return to how you ate before you gained the weight," he says.
If you find this is the case for you, a more formal diet may be necessary, even for just a few weeks.
"Some people just need the mindset of being on a diet in order to stick with an eating plan," he says.
When choosing a diet, says weight management expert Abby Aronowitz, PhD, look for one that's balanced, but focuses on a lower calorie intake than what you have been eating.
"The most important tool for weight loss isn't the foods you eat, but that you burn up more calories than you have taken in," she says.
Aronowitz suggests taking pen to paper and figuring out how many calories you were eating before you gained the weight, then choosing an eating plan that falls a little below that number.Checking Weight Gain: Where to Start
The Art of Cutting Down
If a formal diet plan is not for you, you can still accomplish your weight goals if you master the subtle art of "cutting down," experts say.
One of the best ways is to reduce your intake of snacks and treats -- the area where most of our empty calories lie, Kraus says.
"You can eat your regular meals, and they can even be hearty meals, but you should cut out or at least cut down on desserts, sweets, and between-meal treats," says Kraus. "And watch the coffee break; it can be a diet-killer."
Just can't give up desserts? Eat everything you were eating before, says Aronowitz. Just don't eat all of it.
"Leave over a few bites of everything on your plate -- or ditch a little before digging in if you feel you want to eat the whole thing," she says.
Another strategy: Substitute a low-calorie liquid meal or nutrition bar for one regular meal per day.
"Again, the idea is to take in less calories than you were taking in when you gained the extra pounds, and it really doesn't matter how you do it, as long as you do it," says Aronowitz.
In fact, you don't need to cut out many calories to lose even as much as 10 pounds.
"To lose one pound of weight, you have to reduce your caloric intake by 3,500 calories – which over seven days is 500 calories per day," says Kraus.
While that may seem like a lot, she offers this example:
- Substitute water or unsweetened iced tea for just one can of soda and save about 200 calories.
- Use non-fat milk instead of half-and-half and save as much as 100 calories.
- Eat one less cheese cube and save another 100 calories.
- Cut out just four small cookies and save 160 calories.
"That's already over 500 calories and you'd hardly notice," says Kraus.
At the same time, Aronowitz says, don't just assume your "cut down" is working.
"Get on the scale, and if your weight is not moving within a couple of weeks -- and especially if it seems you have gained weight -- you'll have to tweak your strategy," says Aronowitz.
Shake It Up With Exercise
If cutting down or even a full-fledged diet doesn't seem to be doing the trick, it's likely you'll need to increase exercise time before you see results.
"To lose weight effectively, you really should combine calorie cutting with exercise. Either one alone is not as effective as the two together," says Yanagisawa.
If you're already at a high level of exercise, he says, small cutbacks in your food intake and slight increases in physical activity should do the job. If you're a couch potato, though, you'll need to start really moving before you see the pounds melt away.
And can you lose those extra 10 pounds by exercise alone? Experts tell WebMD it's not likely.
Says Yanagisawa: "If you were capable of doing the amount of exercise it would take to burn off 10 pounds without dieting, then you probably would never have gained the 10 pounds to begin with!"