Most people fear gaining weight around the holidays but it’s not just the holidays that put you at greater risk for weight gain. The winter season itself is fraught with opportunities to cushion your frame. In fact, the issue of holiday weight gain may have been overplayed. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine showed people gain only about a pound during the holidays that fall between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, not five pounds as many people believe. The bad news is that extra pound often sticks around long after the holiday festivities are over. Imagine if you gained a pound every holiday season and never took it off? A number of factors make it easier to put on weight in the winter. Here are four to be aware of.
Increased Appetite and Carb Cravings
When the weather outside is frightful and you’re stuck inside, there’s more opportunity to nosh on high-calorie and carby comfort foods. A cardiologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School studied this phenomenon. Based on his research, calorie consumption increases as the temperatures drop. One theory to explain this is we’re evolutionarily programmed to stockpile calories to survive the winter. Another theory is people eat more when it’s cold to encourage their body to produce more heat. Whatever the reason, increased snacking on comfort foods is a problem for many people. Then there’s the ready availability of holiday foods, most of which are aren’t waistline friendly.
How can you appetite in check when it’s cold outside? Keep the bad stuff out of the house and replace it with healthier snack options. If you tend to eat more in the winter, keep a food journal so you’re aware of how much and what you’re eating. Create lower calorie versions of the comfort foods you typically reach for in the winter. Rather than snack, warm your body up but with a short, high-intensity workout that generates heat and ignites your metabolism.
Less Exposure to Light
Less light exposure during the long winter months can disrupt your body’s biological clock. Your biological clock regulates a number of bodily functions and hormones, including appetite hormones. Plus, reduced exposure to light in the winter can trigger feelings of mild sadness and fatigue in some people. As a result, you feel less like being active and have more of an appetite for high-carb foods.
One way to avoid this is to increase your exposure to light in the early morning hours. A study published in PLOS One, showed participants who exposed their eyes to sunlight early in the day felt less hungry and consumed less food later in the day. Plus, they weighed less. So, open up the shades first thing in the morning and soak up the light up with your eyes. If you live in an area that gets little sunlight in the winter or experience the winter blues, a light therapy lamp that delivers rays that mimic natural sunlight may be helpful. Take advantage of sunny days. Step outside and take a brief walk, weather permitting. Open up the curtains and shades and let as much light in as possible.
Another drawback to less light is a drop in vitamin D level. Your skin produces vitamin D precursors when you expose your skin to sunlight. Some studies show vitamin D may help with weight control. At the very least, a low vitamin D level can make you feel tired and less energetic. Ask your doctor about taking a vitamin supplement during the winter if you get little sunlight.
The winter holidays are supposed to be a jolly time but they can also be a source of stress. Between shopping, cooking and preparing for family gatherings, you may feel under more pressure than normal. Most people are also more pressed for time and sleep less. Both stress and lack of sleep can be hard on your waistline. Chronic stress and too little sleep can boost your cortisol level. In turn, cortisol can increase carb cravings and predispose you to more belly fat.
How can you get a handle on holiday stress? Keep things in perspective. Don’t obsess over every little detail. Set aside time for yourself. A hot bath, a short yoga workout or few minutes spent meditating can pay off dividends. Keep working out. The endorphin release you get from a short sweat session has a calming effect. If you have to due to time constraints, do a shorter workout and make up for duration with intensity. Circuit training and HiiT training are effective workout options when you’re strapped for time.
Getting Off Track
As fun as the holidays are, they can throw off your regular schedule and reinforce bad habits. When you’re holiday shopping, it’s tempting to grab something unhealthy at a mall food court or fast food restaurant. Combine that with holiday goodies and it’s easy to see why weight control is such an issue in the winter. Stay on course by keeping an exercise and food journal to stay accountable. Here are some tips for staying on track:
Work out first thing in the morning so you won’t skip if you’re short on time.
Spend a few minutes every day thinking about your health and fitness goals and why they’re important to you.
Plan ahead so you know when and what you’re going to eat ahead of time so you won’t end up grabbing something convenient and unhealthy.
Keep the kitchen stocked with healthy, whole foods and keep the holiday indulgences and high-carb comfort foods out of sight.
The Bottom Line
Yes, it is easier to gain weight in the winter, but with a little planning you can stay on course with your health and fitness plan.
WebMD. “Control Your Winter Appetite”
N Engl J Med. 2000 Mar 23;342(12):861-7.
National Public Radio. “Why Are We More Hungry in the Winter?”
Scientific American. “Morning Light Exposure Tied to Lower Weight”
Mayo Clinic. “Seasonal Affective Disorder”
PLOS One. “Timing and Intensity of Light Correlate with Body Weight in Adults” April 2, 2014.
Fred Hutch Cancer Center News Release. “Vitamin D and its effect on weight loss examined in new study” (April 2014)