Anti-hibernation: Avoiding Winter Weight Gain

There’s no denying winter is upon us. Snow scrapers have reclaimed their spot in the backseat and darkness strikes at 5 o’clock. For some folks, winter is a breeze; meanwhile, others question why their belt seems a little tighter without having made any significant changes to their diet and exercise routine. So what causes this sneaky seasonal weight gain and what can we do to fight back?

Food Composition
Ever find yourself craving a fresh, crisp salad during a cold winter day? Probably not. Why? Because the type of food we desire varies seasonally. In warmer months, we crave more carbohydrate-based foods like fruits, veggies, pasta salads and sweet beverages. Once autumn falls upon us, we tend to crave fattier, calorically dense comforts foods like casseroles, specialty coffees, macaroni and cheese, and creamy soups. In restaurants where soup or salad is offered as side options, notice that most people tend to choose salad in the summer and soup in the winter. This overlooked unconscious swap from a light salad to a small yet heavier soup is one example of how those 1-4 pounds might sneak up on us during colder winter months. Our portion sizes may remain the same; however, our caloric intake can be greater due to fat providing more calories than carbohydrates and proteins. Though swapping a salad for a soup may seem minimal, over time these small differences in macronutrient composition can add a notch to the old belt.

Some people claim to feel more tired and less motivated during fall and winter. Summer workouts go from being a daily occurrence to an “I’ll go tomorrow.” For those looking for an excuse, you can potentially blame melatonin. When the sun goes down, the body begins to actively produce melatonin, the hormone that causes the body to feel less alert, helping one feel sleepy and fall asleep. This may be one of the reasons some don’t feel motivated to exercise, cook or simply do anything once the sun goes down. 

It’s a given that the holiday season is filled with social gatherings, which typically revolve around one thing: food. What most people don’t realize is that it’s not the holidays per se that lead to weight gain… it’s the aftermath. Think about Halloween night, Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day. Though we might consume two handfuls of candy on Halloween night and an extra-large serving of turkey and pie on Thanksgiving Day, consider the days following. One word: LEFTOVERS. And not just a day’s worth of leftovers, but multiple! The point is, a few Christmas cookies isn’t going to make or break the scale, but a few Christmas cookies every day for 7-10 days definitely might make it budge.

To Do List to Fight Winter Weight Gain:

1. Move more, sit less.
Humans are not meant to sit for long periods of time. However, most spend over ten hours per day sitting! Metabolism slows after just 30 minutes of sitting. This said, stand whenever possible: when talking on the phone, waiting for a ride and please, use your legs to personally deliver a message instead of calling, emailing or texting. We are all guilty of texting someone down the hall…

Be active every day, whether that means taking your dog out, practicing yoga, hitting the gym or simply walking during a part of your lunch break. Start with 10-20 minutes a day!

2. Step out when the sun’s out.
Exposure to sunlight is thought to increase the brain’s release of serotonin. This hormone is associated with boosting mood and helping a person feel calm and focused, rather than agitated and stressed. This is why you might feel happier and more productive on bright sunny days vs. gloomy rainy days.

3. Get more vitamin D.
During warmer months, most can get their daily dose of vitamin D by spending just 10-15 minutes in the sun. That’s not so realistic during northern winters. Even if it’s sunny, we are so layered up that we aren’t absorbing those rays. Therefore, consider taking a vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) supplement (2,000 IU/day), consuming 12 ounces of fatty fish such as salmon, tuna or mackerel per week, and making sure your milk is fortified with vitamin D.

4. Eat home-cooked meals.
Cooking at home leads to an increased consumption of fruits, vegetables and whole grains in addition to a decreased consumption of carbohydrates, sugar, fat, sodium and total calories. Home-cooked meals also provide more fiber, calcium and iron compared to food purchased or prepared away from home. Plus, you could save thousands of dollars each year by cooking rather than having someone else do it for you.

Utilize slow cookers, rice cookers, instant pots and one-pan meals to save yourself some precious time. Some slow cooker meals take ten minutes or less to prep; everyone has ten minutes!

5. Track your weight.
Catch gains before they happen by tracking your weight or how your clothes fit. Research shows that individuals who weigh themselves on a consistent basis (daily or weekly) can avoid putting on weight and lose weight, too! Though weighing-in cannot be directly linked to weight loss, it appears that frequently “checking in” motivates people to engage in healthier eating and exercise behaviors.

6. Get the ball rolling.
Don’t let winter keep you from reaching your goals. Start by making a list of what you want to accomplish and focus on just one thing at a time. Then, dissect tasks into tiny pieces to make them more achievable. For example, the hardest part about exercising is not the actual workout; it’s initiating the first step. It’s getting off the couch. It’s getting your workout clothes on. It’s driving to the gym. Once you get the ball rolling, it’s all downhill from there! So don’t think about the lengthy process. Just think about the very first thing you need to do, whether it’s putting your socks on or taking out the cutting board.

7. Enjoy yourself.
The holidays can be crazy and stressful. Don’t forget to take time to enjoy it. When you find yourself running around, pause. Breathe. Take a minute to appreciate the festive decorations and Christmas spirit. Also, don’t forget to take a minute for yourself; get your nails done, take a bath or slowly savor your favorite cup of coffee.

When it comes to the abundance of delicious food, find a balance between depriving yourself and overdoing it. Have a Christmas cookie or two and enjoy every bite; just don’t eat the entire batch!

Danielle Rancourt700x700_Rancourt is a performance dietitian with Sports Advantage. She enjoys cooking, baking, working out and spending time outdoors to keep busy.

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