5 Winter Pitfalls That Can Lead to Weight Gain and How to Nip Them in the Bud

If the cold derails your regular workouts, pick up a new hobby to stay active.
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Winter is a festive time for many people — full of holiday celebrations, good food, vacations and a lot of time spent indoors being cozy. But the fun parts of the season can also be causes of winter weight gain.

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The colder months are all about gathering around comfort food and staying warm inside, so it's completely normal to gain some weight during this time. On average, people gain 1 to 3 pounds during the holidays, according to the University of Rochester Medical Center. And most of us are familiar with the main pitfalls of winter weight gain, which include:

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  • Overindulgence in sugary foods
  • Lack of exercise
  • Stress
  • Changes in sleep habits
  • Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)

But you don't have to sacrifice the parts of winter you love in order to nip these pitfalls in the bud. Here are some small but effective ways to get a handle on the causes of winter weight gain and still enjoy the season.

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1. Holiday Eating

Holiday weight gain feels inevitable. The winter season is all about food, so it can be hard to be mindful of how much you're eating.

"Let's be honest — holiday eating is not just one or two days of the year, it's often an entire season that lasts for the better parts of November and December," says Whitney Linsenmeyer, PhD, RD, registered dietitian, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and assistant professor of nutrition at Saint Louis University. "This can be a beautiful thing (a season of celebrations), but can also offer indulgent foods we might not normally be reaching for the rest of the year."

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How to Avoid Overeating Holiday Food

Linsenmeyer says not to let holiday food become the enemy, especially because it often holds a lot of cultural or religious significance for many people. Enjoying your festive meals in a mindful way isn't about not eating certain foods — it's about not overdoing it. To avoid overeating, Linsenmeyer recommends the following strategies:

  • Treat the holiday spread like a tasting menu: ​Sample holiday food in small portions without feeling like you have to load up your plate.
  • Ask for a to-go plate:​ It can be hard to communicate boundaries around food to your family and friends​. ​Don't feel pressured to eat all of your food at once; it's OK to finish it at home.
  • Incorporate physical activity into holiday celebrations: ​Try taking a neighborhood walk to look at holiday decorations or having a family dance party.
  • Don't fast all day in preparation for holiday meals: ​Eat small, nutrient-dense meals throughout the day so you don't feel ravenous before big holiday gatherings.

2. Less Physical Activity

The colder weather and shorter days in winter can make it hard to get outside and get our bodies moving.

"For folks who typically exercise outdoors, the colder weather and shorter days can zap motivation to be physically active outside,"Linsenmeyer says. "The prospect of exercising at home or going to a gym may feel like more of a burden with the sun setting in the early evening, especially if our internal clocks are telling us to wind down when it's dark outside."

How to Get More Physical Activity During the Winter

If you can't do or aren't inspired to stick to your usual outdoor exercise routine, Linsenmeyer suggests finding a new form of exercise to enjoy during the winter. "Research supports that variety is actually beneficial to staying physically active long-term," she says. "Use that to your advantage and claim a new form of activity as your own winter sport."

If you don't mind the cold, consider hiking or ice-skating. And if you prefer working out inside, try a yoga class, dance class or indoor swimming.

3. Changes in Sleep Habits

Don't hit that snooze button.
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The cold weather and lack of sunshine can affect more than just your physical activity level. It can also lead to changes in your sleep habits, which can lead you to overeating and choosing less nutritious foods.

"When it's darker and colder outside, we often snooze a few extra times,"says Kylene Bogden, RDN, registered dietitian-nutritionist, co-founder of FWDfuel and wellness advisor for Love Wellness. "As a result, this can throw off our eating timing throughout the day and some even skip breakfast — this can lead to overeating later in the day in addition to higher sugar cravings."

How to Stick to Better Sleep Habits During the Winter

Better sleep leads to more energy and more alertness, which can help you make better food choices. Bogden recommends going to bed and waking up around the same time each day, "This helps keep our circadian rhythm in check, which leads to more stable energy and fewer blood sugar drops/strong cravings," she says.

She also suggests using apps to help you track your sleep quality and to help wake you up when you are in a lighter sleep.

4. Seasonal Affective Disorder

The shorter days and lack of sunlight can have a significant effect on your mood and can trigger seasonal affective disorder (SAD) in some people. SAD is a type of depression related to the change of seasons. About 5 percent of adults in the U.S. experience SAD, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

Symptoms of SAD, may include:

  • Sadness
  • Anxiety
  • Carbohydrate cravings and weight gain
  • Extreme fatigue and lack of energy
  • Feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Irritability
  • Limbs feeling heavy
  • Loss of interest in usual activities, including withdrawing from social activities
  • Sleeping more
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

"Seasonal affective disorder and mood disorders can often correlate with poor diet quality and/or weight gain, " Linsenmeyer says. "These conditions shouldn't be treated by diet and exercise alone."

How to Treat SAD

Light therapy with a SAD lamp may help you feel better, along with some other strategies. According to Linsenmeyer, evidence-based remedies for seasonal affective disorder include:

  • Being physically active at least 30 minutes daily
  • Making sure you get vitamin D through foods like fatty fish and fortified dairy or supplements
  • Eating a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains and lean protein (with limited added sugars and moderate alcohol intake, if any)

You should also speak with your doctor or a therapist to help you come up with a well-rounded treatment plan.

5. Stress

The winter months can be full of joy, but things like the holidays and cold and dreary weather can be a source of stress. And stress can cause your self-care habits to go out the window.

When you're dealing with family members, planning holiday celebrations, freezing temperatures and fewer sunny days, you may turn to food for comfort. Per an October 2018 study in the Journal of Molecular Biology, there is a correlation between stress, overeating and poor eating habits.

Participants who took stress-reduction classes lost more weight over an eight week period than their counterparts who didn't, in that same ​Journal of Molecular Biology​ study. Getting a handle on your stress may help you curb winter weight gain.

How to Manage Stress During the Winter

  • Try meditation techniques or relaxation methods like progressive muscle relaxation or diaphragmatic breathing
  • Use a light therapy lamp
  • Keep a consistent sleep schedule
  • Stay physically active in enjoyable ways
  • Spend time with your loved ones
  • Eat nutritious foods

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