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Winter Weight Gain: Why It Happens and How to Prevent It

Winter Weight Gain: Why It Happens and How to Prevent It

Jonathan Ross

Problem: It’s cold and miserable outside.

Solution 1: It’s not cold and miserable; it’s just cold. Make a promise to yourself (and everyone else around you) to stop complaining about the weather. If you go into anything believing it will suck, then I guarantee you it will. I don’t love freezing and I live in a cold climate. I find that people often complain about the cold because they are poorly dressed for the conditions—and then blame the conditions. When I do something outside for any length of time, I dress properly for it. The times when I don’t, I feel miserable, too. But that’s due to my lack of preparation, not because weather hates me.

Solution 2: The winter sky and air are more refreshing and clear, and with no leaves on the trees, you can get a better sense of the curves of the terrain. Hiking trails and beaches that are free from annoying crowds or taking a walk in snow can be a peaceful, serene experience. When you decide to find positive things to focus on, you’ll be less miserable. Just try it once. Go outside and for 10 minutes, commit to not being miserable and instead finding something positive to enjoy about the outdoors in winter.

Problem: We get less vitamin D in winter.

Solution: Eat fatty fish, nuts and other foods high in vitamin D and/or supplement with vitamin D. Your body needs sunlight to synthesize vitamin D, but in winter there are fewer daylight hours. Plus, the daylight is less strong because the sun doesn’t rise as high in the sky.

Preliminary studies suggest that people with low levels of vitamin D store more fat, though the precise mechanism has yet to be identified. It appears that lack of vitamin D reduces fat breakdown and triggers fat storage, so the calories you consume are stored in fat cells rather than used for energy. 

Problem: Winter makes you feel “blah.”

Solution: In winter, we can develop a general lower level of happiness. This is basically low-level dissatisfaction—not depression—that we can get when it’s cold and dark. 

When this occurs, we are twice as likely to use comfort foods as a pick-me-up than we would under more temperate conditions. In winter, we go for energy-dense, calorific foods, which tend to be sweet or have high fat content. We know that food itself is a comfort as far as mood goes, because it actually impacts the same circuitry of the brain as drugs do.

Instead, we can plan social gatherings with friends and schedule time doing activities we enjoy, using natural and true mood enhancers rather than food-based mood enhancement as a quick-fix. The sense of true enjoyment and connection we derive from these activities will last longer and help us avoid the health-eroding effects of junk foods.

Problem: Our physiology can make it potentially more likely to gain body fat in winter.

Solution: Make your fitness and health plan mistake-proof by planning workouts, trying new fitness classes or sports, and planning meals when necessary to make it easier to make healthier choices when the environment might make it harder.

For ancient humans, the winter months were associated with famine. One theory is that we’re genetically programmed to increase fat stores in autumn to help us survive winters with fewer available food sources.

The problem is that we no longer need to store fat because we have an abundance of food available all year round. The famine never comes, so our extra stores stay stored.

Melatonin, the hormone triggered by darkness that makes us feel sleepy, increases in the winter so it can be harder to find our get-up-and-go during the winter. This is where implementing routines and scheduling can help you avoid using willpower constantly to stick with what should be a regular behavior. Willpower is for doing the occasional hard thing, not the daily thing.

This last one is one of my personal challenges during the winter. If I have a day that isn’t scheduled around teaching classes or working with clients—a home-office “creative work” day—I find it harder to get into the right physical rhythm for a workout, especially if it’s cold and dark. If I let it, this can drive me to stay indoors and cozy. Fight this tendency with the power of routine and scheduling to make it easier!

Win This Winter

With a little understanding of the subtle shifts that can add up to winter weight gain, you can stop blaming yourself and instead start working against the factors that promote it. Don’t just survive the winter—get fitter, make progress and start spring with a physical and mental head start.