5 Reasons Winter is Making You Gain Weight
And to throw the cherry on top, you might notice your pants can’t button, or your favorite sweater is stretching just a bit tighter across your midsection.
So go ahead and blame winter for your growing gut. Here are 5 reasons the crappy season might be causing your weight gain—and what you can do to fight back.
Reason #1: You avoid the outdoors.
As the temperature drops, so does your motivation to move, says John Raglin, PhD, an exercise researcher at Indiana University Bloomington’s School of Public Health. Once you’re home for the night, do you really want to take a trip back outside to head to the gym?
So chances are, you’re not logging as many weekly workouts as you were before it got so cold. And even if you do make an effort to hit the gym regularly, you’re probably spending more time inside when you’re not working out. Think of all the time you spend in the summer walking your dog or just strolling along sightseeing. All that movement adds up to more daily activity, meaning you were burning a lot more calories then than you are when you’re just killing time with nightly Netflix binges, Raglin explains.
Plus, when you’re cooped up indoors in front of your TV, you’re at greater risk of mindless snacking, says nutrition researcher and educator Alan Aragon, MS.
And you’re probably choosing junk: In fact, one Portuguese study found that people who watched more than 120 minutes of TV per day—just one after-work flick—were significantly more overweight and ate fewer fruits and vegetables, he adds.
So go outside, even if it’s just for a little bit, suggests Raglin. Try making a pact with a buddy to hold each other accountable. Take a quick walk once a day during lunch, shovel each other’s driveway, or even start doing a winter sport together (these three winter sports are our favorites). It’s a simple way to incorporate more daily activity and boost your energy levels, Raglin says.
Reason #2: You can't resist party food.
From Super Bowl parties to extravagant Valentine’s Day dinners, food-based holidays are no less tempting after you ring in the New Year. And even if you try to watch what you’re eating throughout the week, you might completely veer off course once a weekend full of parties hits, says board-certified sports dietitian Marie Spano, RD, CSCS.
That’s a problem: Your calorie intake needs to be balanced throughout the week if you want to maintain or lose weight, she says. So constantly treating yourself on these special occasions can do more damage than you think—especially if you’re still carrying a few extra pounds from Thanksgiving through Christmas.
But you don’t want to be a buzz kill and stay home either, so you probably will find yourself surrounded by tables full of all kinds of delicious snacks. The bad news is, most of these are going to be loaded with empty calories, she says.
Plus, research suggests that you tend to down more food when you’re around lots of people, says Aragon, which can lead to eating more than you would otherwise.
Your best bet is to plan ahead for these gatherings—but don’t worry, we’re not going to tell you to eat at home first. (Where’s the fun in that?) What you should do, though, is to fill your plate accordingly. Load up on foods rich in fiber, like fruits and vegetables, and protein, like deviled eggs, turkey, or ham. This trick will help you stay fuller longer, so you’re not tempted to hit up the dessert table for seconds when you’re done.
Reason #3: You reach for comfort food.
Not only is winter depressing, it can spike your stress levels, too, says Richard Weil, MEd, director of the weight loss program at the New York Obesity Nutrition Research Center. You’re constantly running late because you have to scrape ice off your car, your energy bills have skyrocketed, and you feel sluggish from a winter cold so your work has piled up.
So you might turn to food for comfort, he says. Past research from the University of Florida suggests that consuming salt can actually decrease the amount of stress hormones, like cortisol, in the brain. Plus, your levels of oxytocin—the feel-good hormone associated with pleasure and comfort—spike. Sugar can have a similar effect, too. So it’s no surprise that many of the foods we reach for when we’re stressed are calorie bombs.
Your move? Give in to your comfort-food craving—within reason. Having a little of it once in a while can actually help you avoid binging on those foods later, says Keri Gans, RD, author of The Small Change Diet.
Just make sure it doesn’t make up a bulk of your plate, she says. Aim to eat a balanced meal: Protein should take center stage, supplemented with one side of vegetables and one side of your favorite comfort food.
Reason #4: Your mood takes a hit.
As the days become shorter and darker, you might feel more depressed, explains Weil. It’s called seasonal affective disorder, and it’s characterized by the fatigue, irritability, and depressed mood you might feel during the winter months.
And that’s bad news for your gut: When you feel depressed, anxious, or irritable, you tend to make up for it by eating more, says Weil. And research shows that you may tend to reach for more sugary, starchy foods too, which are often higher in calories.
If food doesn’t help you feel better, you might turn to booze to boost your mood even more, he says. That can mean a load of extra calories—for instance, just two cans of beer can cost you an extra 300 calories. If you did that daily, you could be taking in 1,530 extra calories each week. Plus, research suggests drinking alcohol can mess with your cravings and actually cause you to eat more high-fat, savory foods than you normally would.
But the good news is, you can get out of your winter funk—follow these tips on how to survive the rest of winter without feeling miserable.
Reason #5: Your sleep schedule suffers.
When your mood takes a dive, you might also have trouble sleeping, according to research from the University of Pittsburgh. In fact, if you’re struggling with seasonal affective disorder, you might spend more time resting or relaxing in bed without actually sleeping, like insomniacs do, the researchers say.
And even if you’re not dealing with these disorders, you still might feel like you need to sleep more during the winter months, even though your actual need for sleep doesn’t increase, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.
Not getting enough sleep, or getting too much of it by lounging in bed all morning, can throw off your circadian rhythm, your body’s internal clock that controls sleep cycles. That’s bad news for your waistline: Research suggests that messing up your sleep schedule can reduce your levels of the satiating hormone leptin, which can boost your appetite and lead to weight gain.
If you feel like you’re tossing and turning, check out these expert-approved tips on how to sleep better every night. As hard as it may be to fight the urge to lay on the couch all day, making the effort to get up and move will help you stick to a more regular sleep schedule