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Why Do People Gain Weight in Winter?

author image Andrea Cespedes
Andrea Cespedes is a professionally trained chef who has focused studies in nutrition. With more than 20 years of experience in the fitness industry, she coaches cycling and running and teaches Pilates and yoga. She is an American Council on Exercise-certified personal trainer, RYT-200 and has degrees from Princeton and Columbia University.
Why Do People Gain Weight in Winter?
Relaxing by the fire feels good, but it burns few calories. Photo Credit: Dave and Les Jacobs/Blend Images/Getty Images

Winter is a time for hot cocoa, cookies and snuggling by the fire. These tempting treats plus a slowdown in physical activity mean you may be eating more calories and burning fewer, causing a calorie surplus -- a recipe for weight gain. But it's not just the treats and cold weather that encourage you to give into fattening behaviors. Depression caused by the change in season influences some people's appetites and moods. You're also genetically programmed to eat and store more calories in winter, as winter was, historically, a time of food shortage.

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Seasonal Depression

Winter triggers seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, in some people. It's usually characterized by depression that starts in fall, worsens in winter and ends in the spring. The Cleveland Clinic estimates that about half a million people suffer from SAD, with symptoms such as profound sadness, irritability, lack of interest in activities that normally bring pleasure, inability to concentrate, extreme fatigue and an increased need for sleep. The majority of sufferers live in Northern climates. Many people with SAD also find they crave carbohydrates and gain weight when they indulge such cravings.

Researchers believe SAD occurs because the short days make for less-available sunlight. The lack of light may reset peoples' biological clocks and negatively affect mood, sleep and hormones. Light also interferes with the brain's release of neurotransmitters, which affect mood and food cravings.

Seek medical support if you experience symptoms of SAD to ensure it isn't related to another physical or psychological problem. Light therapy and proper nutrition are ways to treat SAD.

Less Physical Activity

Cold weather and icy streets mean you're less likely to take an after-dinner stroll, park farther out in the lot or spend the weekend hiking. These minor interruptions in movement add up, so you burn fewer calories all day long. Outdoor exercise is also more limited in winter -- bike rides, outdoor swims and runs are compromised by the colder temperatures. If you don't curb your eating habits to make up for your body's slower pace, you may find yourself with a calorie surplus that leads to weight gain. When you're stuck indoors, you're also in closer proximity to the kitchen and snacks. Boredom can drive you to eat more.

Winter doesn't have to mean hibernation. Use the season to explore new sports, such as cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Join a gym for the winter months so you can keep running or cycling indoors. Even if you're not into formal exercise, shoveling snow, building a snowman with your kids, or taking a walk in brisk temperatures are ways to burn calories in winter.

Holiday Weight Gain

People often blame holiday goodies for significant winter weight gain. The average person puts on just half a pound from mid-November to mid-January, though, reported the New England Journal of Medicine in 2000. The problem with this weight is that you don't typically lose it come spring and summer, so, over several years, it adds up. The heavy, salty foods, sugary treats and high-calorie drinks can lead to water retention and bloating that make you feel larger, too.

To prevent gaining any weight around the holidays, limit the number of calories you consume from holiday treats and drinks. Save your calories for the most delicious options that aren't available at other times of the year. Avoid eating with abandon so you don't defy the odds and gain more than average. Still load half of your plate with fresh, watery vegetables such as leafy greens to keep the calorie count low and your nutrition intake high.

Winter Survival Mechanisms

Winter is also a time to overeat because of the pre-programming of your genes. Your body is designed to deal with winter scarcity, proposed a paper published in a 2014 issue of Metabolic Syndrome and Related Disorders. Researchers suggest people have a natural tendency to eat extra calories when the weather is cold, because, historically, food was less available. When you eat meals in winter, you overdo it because your body is primed to fear it will be your last meal for a while. In modern times, though, food is never too far away, so this outdated survival mechanism may be responsible for some winter weight gain.

You may also be predisposed to crave foods that are usually in season in winter, such as starchy vegetables like potatoes and winter squash. Starchy vegetables tend to be higher in calories when compared to produce prevalent in summer, such as berries and leafy greens.

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