Why does it seem like you gain an extra layer of pudgy padding from more than just your puffy coat every winter? Cold weather seems to bring out the bear in all of us, causing us to want nothing more than to slow down, move less, eat more, curl up, get cozy and take a long snooze until it warms up outside again.
But while acting like a hibernating bear all winter long sounds perfectly pleasant, starting to look like one definitely does not. People tend to put on an average of 2-5 pounds every winter season, which really starts to add up as the years go by. But there’s no reason to accept weight gain as an inevitable feature of frosty weather. Understand why you tend to put on more pounds in the wintertime and how to stop this pattern in its tracks, so that the cold doesn’t freeze your much-deserved weight loss success.
People often report feeling hungrier during the colder seasons, and some theorize that this behaviour hails back to ancient times. Long ago, bulking up on high-calorie foods and a seasonal metabolic slow-down allowed our bodies to build up extra fat reserves that we relied on to prevent starvation and freezing to death in the long winter months of food scarcity. However, today, with year-round access to plentiful food and heated homes, these very same behaviors prevent nothing more than the ability to zip up our pants after supper time. While our genes may still tempt us to prepare for long-gone winter famines and freezing, this is no longer our reality and so those extra fat stores never get used up.
DO THIS: Cold weather is no excuse to start making exceptions to your diet plan. Don’t give in to your base instincts by keeping your higher brain alert, tracking food portions and logging exactly how much you are eating. While our desire for calories may seem to increase in the winter, our actual calorie needs do not.
2. SAD Leads to Sag
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a common type of depression that many people experience with the onset of the dark winter months. One of the causes of SAD is believed to be an increase in the production of the hormone melatonin, triggered by longer hours of darkness. Melatonin controls sleeping and eating, and just like hibernating animals, it’s believed that changes in melatonin levels can start to affect the sleeping and eating patterns of many humans in the winter time as well. However, according to Dr. Barry Garret of Aberdeen University, while increased melatonin typically decreases hunger in most mammals (as a strategy to cope with winter food scarcity), in other species it has the opposite effect, which may help to explain increased hunger and weight gain in humans.
DO THIS: To combat SAD and the hormonal fluctuations that can occur in winter, get as much outdoor time as you can, preferably during natural daylight hours. Bundle up and take an outdoor walk during your lunch break, or better yet, make an effort to perform even higher intensity exercise outside, like jogging, hiking, snow shoeing, skiing, etc. While venturing outside may feel like the last thing you want to do at first, natural light combined with outdoor activity is not only one of the best ways to balance hormones and conquer SAD, but it’s also invigorating and helps to burn major calories – even more calories than exercise on warm days, say some studies.
3. In a Funk with Fat
While case studies show that people lean towards carbohydrate foods in the spring and summer time, cravings for fattier foods tend to increase in the winter. Head of Psychology Department and professor Craig Jackson of Birmingham City University believes that this is simply driven by a desire to cheer ourselves up in the winter. Even for those who aren’t suffering from all of the symptoms of SAD, most people still report a generally lower level of happiness during colder and darker times of the year. In order to cope, people stray towards comfort foods as a pick-me-up, which are usually energy-dense caloric foods that are sweeter and fattier.
DO THIS: Certainly, fatty foods stimulate your taste buds, produce a sensation of warmth and seem to make everything feel a bit better for a brief moment. However, certain spices also have a similar effect on you, minus all the calories. In fact, many of these warming spices are also hailed as metabolism boosters, balancing blood sugar and helping you shed fat. Look for low-fat flavorful recipes that feature spices like cayenne pepper, chili, paprika, turmeric, cinnamon, curry, cumin, ginger and saffron. Seasoning low-cal chilies, soups and stews with these families of spices produce happy hormones and warmed bones without the fat and weight-gaining side effects.
4. Darkness Makes You Doughier
Research shows that low levels of vitamin D, a vitamin-like hormone that our bodies produce when exposed to sunlight, can affect your weight in the winter. In the winter time, there are less daylight hours, people go outside less and, when they do, they tend to be covered head-to-toe. This is why the amount of vitamin D that our bodies normally synthesize significantly drops. The lack of vitamin D reduces fat breakdown and triggers fat storage, encouraging a larger percentage of the calories you eat to be stored in fat cells rather than be burned up for energy. Studies have consistently shown low levels of vitamin D in overweight and obese individuals.
DO THIS: Boost your vitamin D levels by eating more oily fish (such as salmon, trout and mackerel and tuna) and egg yolks (no more than 3 – 4 times a week). Try to get at least 20 minutes of outside time during daylight hours every day, leaving your face and hands exposed if the weather allows for it. Or, with a doctor’s recommendation and supervision, some people use special ultra-violet lamps to help stimulate their bodies to produce more vitamin D naturally during the winter. An extremely convenient source of vitamin D can be found in liquid supplements that should be taken at recommended dose daily. Vitamin D3 liquid drops can be found in most drug stores.
While warm weather beckons us outdoors and invigorates us for high intensity physical activity, cold and darkness leads to lethargy, fatigue, more time spent indoors and, very often, a serious case of couch-itis.
DO THIS: Dragging yourself outside or to the gym on dark winter mornings or evenings can be difficult, but you can use other things to pump yourself up for an exercise session. Set a phone alarm with a photo of the body type you dream of, to go off every day at the time you’ve schedule to go to the gym. Blast high-energy music as you get dressed for exercise and all the way to the gym. Pre-pay for your exercise class, and see if you can arrange it so that the exercise studio deducts the payment from your credit card for that day’s class just a couple of hours before the class begins, motivating you to have something to show for that money already spent. Or make a commitment to meet a motivating friend at the gym every day. For serious snow days or times when it really is impossible to get outside or to the gym, stock a jump rope, some kettle bells, an exercise ball, a mat and some exercise videos at home, removing all tempting excuses to skip out on winter-time exercise and allow the pounds to just pile on.
Don’t use the cold and darkness of winter as crutches to let go of your weight loss goals. No matter what the weather is outside, stick to your active exercise, eating and weight loss plan. Once the winter ends and warm weather and bathing suit season come round again, you’ll be incredibly grateful that you did.