Alarm Clock with Four Seasons

Why Do We Gain Weight In The Winter?

By wlr staff Trudi Purdy

You're not alone if you feel the need to eat more in the autumn and winter. Studies have shown the urge to eat more is linked to levels of light and our body's seasonal rhythms.

  • Are they the only reasons?
  • Is it a mix of psychology, physiology and a touch of the winter blues?
  • What can we do about it?

Let's find out.

Seasonal rhythms to blame for weight gain?

Circadian (seasonal) rhythms are mental, physical and behavioural changes that follow a 24 hour cycle. All living things, plants, animals, humans, live with them. It’s what makes birds migrate, bears hibernate and squirrels start finding their stores of food.

Migrating birds - example of circadian rhythms

If you’ve ever noticed that you tend to get energised and drowsy at the same times each day, that’s your circadian rhythms at work.

A study 1 by the University of Massachusetts has established a link between gaining weight in the winter and our body’s circadian rhythms.

The study collected and analysed data from 593 20-70 year olds with an average BMI of 27.2. The data showed a drop in physical activity and an increase in fatty, sugary foods consumed.

No surprise there really.

However, the study says this is down to survival instincts, implanted in our brains a long time ago.

Survival of the fittest?

Harking back to a time when it truly was survival of the fittest, those of us who upped our calorie intake before winter would be more likely to survive the cold and lack of food available.

Cardiologist, Ira Ockene, was involved in the Massachusetts study. He said,

“When days get darker earlier, we are biologically compelled to seek out more food at once and eat faster than usual, just like a chipmunk would.”

During the study, Ockene et al discovered that the ladies were more susceptible to a greater calorie intake, as were the people in the 40-50 age group.

Physical activity also dipped across all of the groups in the study. That doesn’t help with the weight gain.

All that said, the average calorie increase was 86 cals a day. Participants in this study gained 1-2lbs over the winter months.

“Laying down fat to keep warm?” I hear you say. That’s not so bad is it?

It’s not so bad if you can get rid of it in the spring. Allie McCallister, MD and author, says,

“Many people who are around 50 years old are also 30-35lbs heavier than they were at 20. Those pounds are roughly equal to 30 winters of a heartier appetite so, it does really add up.”

One study 2 from the University of Georgia tracked and increase of 200 calories per day. That’s an extra 1400 calories a week. Yikes!

It was also noted in another study that people who were already struggling with their weight gained more than someone who wasn’t.

That’s interesting. Maybe it isn’t just circadian rhythms?

Could it be SAD?

29% of the UK suffers with symptoms of SAD at this time of year. SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) is a type of depression caused by the lack of sunlight when the days are shorter. Symptoms range from low energy levels and low self-esteem to anxiety.

The decrease in sunlight causes a decrease in serotonin in some people. This, in turn, causes them to feel down (some more so than others). Foods high in carbs and sugar give us a serotonin rush, so for SAD sufferers eating sugary foods is a way of self-medicating.

The problem is, these types of foods create a high and then a sudden crash, leaving you craving more fairly quickly. And, of course, these types of food are generally higher in fat and calories. A vicious circle really.

SAD only affects 29% of the population though so what about the rest of us?

Baby it’s cold outside

Some experts believe that when the temperature falls outside, your body follows suit. When that happens, we crave food to warm us up.

Basically, the self-preservation mode kicks in and tells the body it needs to warm up. That quite often leads to cravings for sugary, fatty foods.

As an extra kick in the teeth, because it’s cold, we are less likely to be motivated to exercise.

The problem is that exercise releases the feel good hormones. If you’re used to getting some exercise in, the lack of these can leave you craving foods you wouldn’t normally go for. Add to that the fact that you are being more sedentary than normal, you can see why weight gain would happen.

Any other factors involved in winter weight gain?

What else could be causing us to gain weight over the winter? We put our heads together to see what our members have said over the years.

  • We associate this time of year with rich food

    • Tradition and memories of rich, comfort food at this time of year from our childhood can be hard to suppress. Halloween, Bonfire Night and Christmas are all associated with over-indulgence. All of this nostalgia can have us craving rich, sugary foods in no time.

Weight Gain Inevitable? Chocolate and Scales

  • We believe weight gain is inevitable

    • If you believe something is going to happen, chances are it will happen. With weight gain, if you believe it is inevitable, you are setting yourself up for failure and making it much more likely.
  • The start of the party season

    • Drinks with friends, parties, buffets, meals out. These all add up quite quickly, especially if you’re finding your will power a little lacking.
  • Office treats

    • Chocolates, cakes and sugary treats. It is the party season after all!

  • Speciality coffee drinks

    • Your favourite coffee shop launches its Christmas fare. Warming hot chocolate with cream, mince pies with cream, gingerbread lattes with cream. (Cream features a lot doesn’t it? But you get the idea.)
  • Sugar is everywhere

    • From Halloween right up to Christmas, sweets, chocolate, toffees etc. are in abundance. Lurking around each corner to tempt you.

  • Keeping warm

    • Out come the chunky jumpers, hats and scarves. But hiding your body under all this means you may not notice an expanding waist line.

  • Too cold to get out and about

    • Why on earth would you want to leave your cosy sofa to take Fido for a walk or get some exercise? It’s so cold out and it looks like rain! (Maybe even snow.)
  • Comfort eating

    • It’s so easy to slip into the habit of opting for stodgy, comforting evening meals to make yourself feel a bit better. Salads and fruit are out the window because it’s cold and taking their place are copious amounts of potatoes, pasta and rice. While these aren’t bad in normal portions, it’s easy to over-egg the portions when you want comfort.

16 tips to beat the winter bulge

  • Fight the SAD feeling

    • Get outside in the daylight as often as possible to soak up the little bit of vitamin D there is!

  • Don’t confuse boredom with hunger

    • When you’re stuck inside because the weather is bad, it’s easy to confuse being bored with being hungry. Try wrapping up warm and taking a brisk 20 minute walk. You’ll feel warmer when you get home and the feel good hormones will help. Or try drinking a glass of room temperature water. Sometimes we confuse hunger with thirst. If after 30 minutes, you still feel hungry, have a healthy snack and polish your halo.

  • Don’t deprive yourself

    • This is not carte blanche to go mad on all the foods you love because it’s cold and dark. What we mean by this, is factor your favourite foods into your calorie allowance and enjoy, guilt free.
  • Keep calm and pet the dog

    • Instead of reaching for comfort food when you're stressed, try to find things that will calm you that don't involve food. Catch up with a friend, play a game with the family (maybe NOT Monopoly), play with the dog, have a relaxing bath, pamper yourself a little. Anything that will make you feel good without taking you over your calorie allowance.

Woman relaxing in warm bubble bath

  • Try having a shower or bath

    • If you’re cold to your bones after being outside and craving something to warm you up, take a shower or a leisurely bath. The hot water will warm you through. Make sure you have a lovely, fluffy dressing gown or pair of PJs ready to wrap yourself up in afterwards.

  • Use your time wisely

    • So you’re stuck at home because the weather is horrible. Why not use that time to cook up a storm in the kitchen and batch cook some warming soups, satisfying stews and hearty hotpots ready for meals for the week?

  • Try low GI

    • Low glycaemic index foods really do help to keep you fuller for longer. They help to keep blood sugar levels stable. Have a look at our Low GI Plan for some meal ideas

  • Heat it up

    • Try heating up your normal cereal with warm milk in the morning or opt for porridge. Porridge is a great start to a cold day. It will warm you up and help you feel fuller for longer.

  • The power of PMA

    • PMA stands for Positive Mental Attitude. Stay positive, think positive thoughts and PMA will help you power through.

Sources of Protein

  • Protein is the way forward

    • It’s pretty normal to feel happy when you’re filling up on carb-laden food. That’s a medical fact. But it won’t last long. Try opting for lean protein and fibre instead. It will satisfy you and keep you going.

  • Motivation to move

    • Make a list of all the exercise and things you did in the spring to get moving. Then see if you can match them to activities you can do in the winter.

  • Avoid portion distortion

    • Keep a close eye on your portion control. It's so easy to add more than you actually need to your plate. Weigh it, check it and enjoy it. If there's leftovers, have them the next day or pop them in the freezer for another time. Waist not waste!

  • Low-calorie comfort food

  • Spice it up

    • Add some spice to your food (within reason of course). Not only will it warm you up and invigorate you, you might find new combinations that spice up your old favourites.

Cup of warm herbal tea

  • Make a brew

    • Warm yourself with an herbal tea. Depending on what time of day, go for something to awaken your sense and get you going for the day or a calming one at the end of a long day.

  • Hug someone

    • If you’re looking for comfort, experts say find someone to hug. The kids, your other half, your dog, your cat, your neighbour. Maybe not a stranger though!

References

1. Seasonal variation in food intake, physical activity, and body weight in a predominantly overweight population

2. Seasonal rhythms of human nutrient intake and meal pattern

More Reading

Fatness and fitness: exposing the logic of evolutionary explanations for obesity

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