As the days are getting shorter and the nights are getting colder, you may notice heightened desire to kick back with a bowl of comfort food. If your appetite seems to rise as the temperature drops, you’re not alone.
There’s scientific evidence that your weight will follow a seasonal pattern, too. A study published in Nature found that both food patterns and body weight vary with the seasons. In this study of 593 adults, researchers found that participants ate more calories and fat in the fall compared with the spring. Physical activity was also lowest in winter and highest in spring, making it easier to put on winter pounds. Let’s dig into a few reasons why you gain winter weight and follow up with a fix.
1. We crave high-calorie comfort foods.
If weather is to blame for our increased desire to eat, should we just accept winter weight gain as an inevitable part of the change in seasons? Not exactly. “When we feel chilled, our body sends a self-preservation message to our brain to do whatever it can to warm up, which includes reaching for carbohydrate-heavy foods that provide that fastest ‘heat’ as quick-burning energy,” says Abbey Sharp, RD.
The Fix: To warm up without overloading on refined carbohydrates and excess calories, Sharp — who blogs at Abbey’s Kitchen — suggests choosing “warming foods that are still light and lean, like vegetable-based soups and hot teas.” Broth-based soups can be an excellent way to warm up in cool weather months. In addition, consuming soup before a rich meal has been shown to help reduce overall calorie consumption.
2. Our emotional connection to food gets the best of us.
Do you find it hard to pass up Grandma’s famous mashed potatoes or avoid Aunt Mary’s homemade pie? Research has found that when we know a food has been made with love, we tend to eat more due to the emotional connection. Food is a great way to connect, and part of having a positive relationship with food means being able to eat all foods without feeling guilty. That being said, you shouldn’t throw away your health goals, either. All it takes is a little planning!
The Fix: To survive the holiday season while maintaining a healthy weight, you have to understand the emotional sway some foods have over you. Instead of eating on impulse, follow this simple tip from Amy Gorin, MS, RDN: “At a holiday meal, survey the entire table before filling your plate. Choose the handful of items you must try, then fill the rest of your plate with healthy eats like cut veggies and fruit.”
Gorin also points out that we often eat for reasons other than hunger at a holiday event. “Holiday parties are about socializing,” she says. “If you’ve had your fill of food and want to keep yourself from grazing, fill one hand with a sparkling water and the other with your handbag. If you’re standing up and chatting, you won’t have any hands left to balance a food plate.”
Oftentimes, food gifts can be equally tempting opportunities to overeat. For those treats that are less than nutritious, you can reduce your portions and limit your intake simply by sharing. “Bring extra food gifts to your office,” says Gorin. “You may be less likely to overeat at work than at home –and in any case, the treats will be gone more quickly when sharing with co-workers.” Bringing food gifts to holiday social events or donating them can also be a wonderful way to share the wealth with others without overdoing it on your own.
3. The winter blues can trigger a binge.
Even if you live in a warmer climate, the shorter days and lack of daylight can make preventing winter weight gain a challenge. Seasonal affective disorder, a type of depression that is related to the changes in seasons, tends to occur in the fall and last throughout the winter months. Lack of daylight appears to be a trigger for this form of depression, which can lead to low energy, decreased motivation and increased moodiness. Not only can this disorder lead to changes in mood, but it has been linked to an increase in binge eating as well. One study found that as many as 27% of individuals with this disorder reported incidences of binge eating.
The Fix: If you find that your mood and energy levels significantly alter as soon as the seasons begins to change, discuss it with your doctor. There are many treatment options for SAD that may help to elevate your mood while reducing the desire to binge.