Last winter was a doozy. Multiple snowstorms and single-digit temperatures were rough. If you gained weight over the long winter months, you weren't alone.
"Gaining weight during the winter months is a common phenomenon," says Audrey Fleck, MS, RDN, LDN, CFSP of Doylestown Hospital Nutrition Therapy and Counseling. "There are many factors contributing to winter weight gain."
Audrey answers some questions about winter weight gain and offers tips for staying out of trouble.
Does the winter have an effect on people’s diets?I think it depends on the individual person, but warm foods as well as those known to comfort us can do just that – warm us up and comfort us. People can usually always find a reason to eat if they want to and an impending snowstorm can be a reason to stock up on foods that are often considered "junk" or comforting. One may reason that these foods might make it more "fun to be snowed in." In my experience, some people calm anxieties with food as well. Here's an example, I ran into someone I knew in Wegmans supermarket last year right before a snowstorm. She was stocking up on chips and ingredients to make sour cream and onion dip because of the storm!
Why do people crave carbs and other "comfort foods" in the winter?In my experience, people crave carbs and "comfort foods" throughout the entire year. Because sugar can change our brain chemistry and increase serotonin levels (the hormones that make you feel good), more often than not once people are exposed to foods high in refined sugar, they crave more because of the "feel good" effect on the brain. Starting at Halloween and up to the New Year, people are exposed to more sugar than they previously were months before. To the right person, this exposure can trigger out-of -control binges on sugar and processed foods that may continue on throughout the rest of winter.
Does the shortened amount of daylight contribute to weight gain?Definitely! Shorter days mean less sunlight. Insufficient exposure to sunlight has been associated with decreased serotonin levels, carbohydrate cravings, and sleep disturbance. All of these factors are associated with weight gain. Also, with less daylight, there is less time to fit a daily walk or hike in.
What are some strategies for fighting winter weight gain and a staying active even when it's 4 degrees outside?
- Choose warming, healthy foods! If you are making food at home, it is always healthier than if you were to dine out or buy pre-prepared foods. Make a homemade soup or chili once a week.
- Focus on grounding and root foods during this season such as grass-fed beef, chicken, wild caught fish, eggs, sweet potatoes, turnips, and winter squash.
- Choose seasonal produce like dark leafy greens (spinach and kale), broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts.
- Mindful eating can be the single most effective thing you can do to prevent weight gain around the holidays. Mindful eating brings non-judgmental awareness to the act of eating. For example, if someone at work brings a platter of cookies to share, instead of mindlessly having one because it’s in sight, you may try to decide first if you are truly hungry.
- Indoor exercises are aplenty! If you usually walk for exercise, you may consider joining a 6- or 12-week program at a gym, where you may not necessarily have to be a member. Dumbbells and exercise bands, as well as body weight exercises, are effective and can be done from your home. To get cardiovascular exercise, look into DVDs or sometimes you can find free exercises On Demand from your cable provider.