Ask the Nutritionist: How to Combat Winter Weight Gain

  Every winter, I gain weight. I can’t figure out the reason because I don’t seem to do things much differently. Why does this happen?  
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  Every winter, I gain weight. I can’t figure out the reason because I don’t seem to do things much differently. Why does this happen?  

Question: Every winter, I gain weight. I can’t figure out the reason because I don’t seem to do things much differently. Why does this happen? 

Answer: You’re not the only one who suffers from winter weight gain. There are several possible explanations. For one thing, it’s natural. In the animal kingdom, fattening up for the cold winter months is critical for survival. The human animal, on the other hand, doesn’t need to fatten up for survival. Maybe we did years ago when food was less accessible in winter and shivering in the cold caused us to burn our fat stores quickly. But now, with temperature control,improved agricultural techniques and a Starbucks on every corner, that leftover instinct just causes trouble.

Today, we humans fatten up just for the fun of it.Though these old instincts are plausible as a partial cause of winter weight gain, there are more complex—and controllable—causes too. The most important involves a decrease in both sunlight and physical activity. Together, they can contribute to enough of a calorie imbalance to cause weight gain. Here’s how.

Physical Activity 
When it’s cold, we tend to cut back on subtle calorie-burning activities such as short walks and light outdoor chores. These caloric expenditures may only add up to 100 calories burned per day, but this translates into a 3-4 pound weight gain during the winter months.

Some people are particularly sensitive to light deprivation, caused by the decrease in daylight hours during the winter, particularly in the northern third of the country. About 5 percent of the
population becomes markedly depressed with seasonal affective disorder (SAD). About one-fifth of us are affected to some degree, prompting increased food cravings and weight gain in susceptible people, says Norman Rosenthal, MD, a SAD expert and author of Winter Blues. These food cravings may be a result of the seasonal changes in the brain chemical serotonin.

What can you do to both improve your mood and curb your cravings? Increase your intake of healthful carbohydrates. Carbs increase serotonin production, and serotonin regulates mood and
appetite, says Judith Wurtman, director of the women’s health research program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Clinical Research Center, Cambridge, MA. Eating more healthful carbs—such as whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables—increases serotonin levels. And that cuts cravings and helps keep you from putting on pounds.

What else can I do to prevent winter weight gain?  

Actually, quite a bit. There are several steps you can take to fight those cold-weather pounds.

Increase your exposure to sunlight, especially in northern zones. Bundle up and go outside
to reverse the symptoms of light deprivation. The amount of needed daylight varies for each individual. In general, the more the better. Rosenthal suggests one hour daily. If you can’t spend an hour outside every day, several hours on the weekends may help make up for
a lack of sun during the week.

If going outside doesn’t do the trick or isn’t always an option, light therapy—also known as photo-
therapy—may help. Special “sunny” light bulbs mimic the sun’s spectrum and include harmless ultraviolet rays that are absent from most artificial lights. You can buy these through

Up your activity level, even just a little. During just one bout of exercise, your brain releases feel-good chemicals called endorphins. These chemicals increase feelings of well-being and elevate your mood. If you’re active regularly, the benefits multiply. A brisk 30-minute walk just three times a week relieves major depression just as effectively as an antidepressant in most adults, according to a 1999 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

Indoors or out, get moving. Go to the gym, walk in malls and take stairs instead of escalators. Get some good walking shoes, and if you drive to work, park several blocks away; if you take mass transit, get off one or two stops early. Walk to the grocery, to the movies, to the library —even if it takes 45 minutes. Move!

Make some dietary changes. Try eating more protein—it can help reduce the cravings for cakes, cookies, chips and other fatty carbohydrates that can be caused by light deprivation, says Rosenthal. Wholesome protein sources include soymilk, tofu, legumes and low-fat dairy products.

Make things easier on yourself by stocking up on hearty, delicious, lower-calorie foods. Get rid of rich, salty or sweet snacks, and replace them with foods that are filling but not fattening. Think soups, stews or other low-cal yet satisfying entrées.

Medications. If none of the above helps enough, talk to your doctor. New research shows that the anti-depressant Wellbutrin XL, if started early in the winter, may prevent the development of winter depression, says Rosenthal.