Why you tend to get fatter in winter (and why you don’t have to!)
Half of us will gain a few kilos this winter, and it can be difficult to shift. Dietitian Brooke Longfield shows how you can avoid winter weight gain.
For the majority of us, winter means more time on the couch with a blanket and a bowl of comfort food.
So, it’s no surprise when our jeans and sweaters start feeling a bit snug. In fact, 50 per cent of men and 38 per cent of women are expected to gain up to five kilos between the months of June and August.
‘Oh, but it’s just my ‘winter coat’
It’s easy to blame those extra few kilos on the need to stay warm over winter. “It’s a myth that we gain weight for extra warmth,” says Dr Kacie Dickinson, Associate Lecturer in Nutrition and Dietetics at Flinders University. “Any influence of cold temperature on weight gain is minimal here in Australia where our winter is mild.”
While our Palaeolithic ancestors stored fat in their bodies over the winter months when food they hunted was scarce, we no longer need to live this way, as our food is available 24/7.
What you can do
Don’t believe that weight gain is inevitable over winter. If you do, you’ll ignore that your clothes are getting tighter and meal portions are getting larger. Instead, set yourself healthy winter goals such as ‘try a new nutritious winter recipe each week’ or ‘join a yoga class’.
‘Stodgy carbs are comforting’
When it’s cold, we crave hearty stews, creamy pastas and buttery mash over light salads. These heavier meals tend to be high in carbs and fat.
Bleak, rainy weather can also lower our mood, which can develop into a form of depression called seasonal affective disorder (SAD). So we may use food to cheer ourselves up. But while stodgy carbs may boost the feel-good hormone serotonin, there’s no need to drown your sorrows with a big bowl of spaghetti carbonara, night after night.
What you can do
Eating meals full of vegies helps you feel positive and energised. Having casseroles and soups is a great way to load up on vegetables and legumes, like chickpeas and lentils, which are high in filling fibre, so you’re less likely to eat huge portions. Include winter greens like silverbeet, broccoli and peas.
‘It’s dark and cold’
We also tend to gain weight in winter because we move less. With shorter daylight hours, we do less kilojoule-burning outdoor activities like going for walks, taking the kids to the park and even getting out in the garden. “More time spent indoors means less physical activity, which is a common reason for winter weight gain,” says Dr Dickinson.
The good news is that modern conveniences such as 24-hour gyms and indoor, heated pools make it a bit easier to increase our activity levels in winter.
What you can do
If you’re a morning exerciser but are finding it hard to roll out of bed when it’s cold and dark, why not change to an evening workout schedule? Ask your partner or a friend to join you so you have an incentive to get out.
‘The couch and takeout are calling!’
Cold weather tends to keep us indoors, rugged up on the couch, dialling for takeaway. According to a 2012 NSW Food Authority and NSW Health Survey, nine in 10 of us eat more high-kilojoule takeaways and fast food during the winter season. And being at home, it’s also easy to grab a pack of biscuits or chocolate from the pantry to nibble on while watching that Friday-night movie.
What you can do
Keep your kitchen stocked with easy dinner staples, like baked beans, canned tomatoes and instant rice, and healthy snack options such as nuts, fruit and reduced-fat yoghurt. There’s nothing wrong with the occasional takeaway, but they’re generally higher in kilojoules and salt than a home-cooked meal. And if you do order a takeout, go for healthier choices such a gourmet vegetarian pizza on a thin base, a stir-fry packed with vegies or a tomato-based pasta dish.
‘I’m always hungry!’
The cold months find us burning fewer kilojoules as a result of our tendency to spend more time indoors. So why do we still feel so hungry?
Outside in the cold, our body works hard to keep us warm by shivering, which burns energy. But, given that we’re usually rugged up inside, and are blessed with much milder winter weather than Europe and Northern America, we can’t use the excuse that our bodies are burning hundreds of kilojoules, shivering, to keep us warm.
Instead, that urge to eat is often due to ‘comfort’ hunger, as opposed to ‘true’ hunger. Cold weather leads us to seek out hearty, comfort foods.
What you can do
Bulk your meals out with high-fibre vegies which will fill you up for very few kilojoules. And swap less-satisfying carbs like white bread and mashed potato for satiating foods like brown rice, quinoa and sweet potato. (See our list of healthier, low-fat comfort foods below.)
Hot drinks: Who can resist a warm, fresh coffee or creamy hot chocolate? A large cafe-style drink can give you up to 1400kJ (335cal) — twice the kilojoules of a healthy snack. Choose smaller sizes and ask for reduced-fat milk.
Mashed potato: It’s smooth and buttery, and tastes so good! And this is why it’s so easy to overeat. Hold back on the butter (adding just a dash of milk) and try mashing in some cauliflower or carrots to boost your fibre.
Puddings: In summer, fruit is a refreshing way to end a meal, but in winter we search for something warming. Rich, self-saucing puddings and crumbles are loaded with fat and sugar, so watch the portions and don’t have them often.
Creamy sauces: A small dish of creamy pasta has close to 3000kJ (720cal), almost half your daily needs if you’re trying to lose weight. Tomato-based sauces are the best option, and add a teaspoon of grated parmesan if desired.
Try these low-kJ comforts
Sip on herbal tea: Swap milky coffee and sugary hot chocolate for a herbal tea. Green tea can also help reduce your risk of catching a cold.
Slurp up vegie soups: Skip creamy soups and spoon into one with loads of vegies. Plus, studies show that people eat 20 per cent less when they start their meal with soup.
Dig into baked beans: Pour a small can of reduced-salt baked beans on grainy toast. This warming, high-protein breakfast will keep you full right through until lunch.
Make a meal of porridge: Warm and comforting, a bowl of porridge is high in fibre and low in fat, making it the ideal way to start the day.
Spoon on stewed fruit: For those sweet cravings, stewed apples, pears or rhubarb with Greek-style yoghurt are a satisfying snack. Add a shake of cinnamon to bring out natural sweetness.
Roast more vegies: Instead of just potatoes, try roasting some carrots, cauliflower and broccoli to boost your vegie intake.
Shake on the chilli: Turn up the heat with a spicy meal such as chilli con carne or a hot Indian curry. These fiery flavours raise our metabolism.
Did you know? In winter, 90% of us eat more high-kilojoule takeaways.