Winter is nearly here, and it’s a time of year when people tend to gain weight. For some, this weight gain is intentional, but for most, it is an unwanted seasonal side effect. In this post, we will give you our top tips on how to avoid winter weight gain.
Why does it happen?
There are several reasons why the winter season might cause you to add pounds on the scales:
In the winter it’s common to hear people say, “all I seem to do is go to work in the dark and get home in the dark”. It can be a bit depressing.
Once we head into winter, the days get shorter and the nights get longer. That’s because of our position north of the equator and how the earth sits on its axis in relation to the sun. Known as the winter solstice, December 21st of this year (2020) will be our shortest day. On this day, we will see only 7 hours and 42 minutes of daylight. If we were further north we’d see even less daylight. If you’re in the Arctic Circle, you’d be in 24-hours of darkness!
Obviously this has happened since the earth was formed and our genes have evolved to be accustomed to changing day lengths. For most of us, it’s not a problem. But the shortening of days can cause a lowering of mood in some people. That’s often accompanied by comfort eating and a lack of activity.
In addition to this, because of the darkness, you’re likely to spend more time at home being sedentary and having access to whatever naughty foods are in the house. The combination of less movement and more food will lead to weight gain.
Temperature or weather
As the weather worsens, we tend to reach for comfort foods. You are likely to increase your intake of home-baked and cooked meals such as stews, pies, pastries and so on. Although some of these can be healthy, the increase in calories may mean you end up consuming more calories than you expend.
It is natural as we get cold to reduce our physical activity. It is a natural survival instinct to reduce any non-essential movement. I know, in this modern-day, we have access to heating; however, the cold temperature can have a psychological effect to make you want to limit your activity. In particular, the weather is likely to put a halt to most outdoor based activities. If you take part in boot camps, outdoor sports or classes, they are likely to get cancelled more frequently due to weather conditions, giving you excuses to miss out on your regular activity.
With it being the last week in October, you have Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas all in the next few weeks. During these holidays, you are likely to spend time with loved ones and indulge in the traditional seasonal festivities.
Halloween brings with it the tradition of trick or treat – no doubt you have a box of sweets sat in your kitchen or by the door ready for your visitors? Thanksgiving often comes with a large calorific meal. And Christmas, well, with New Year that can be two weeks of overindulgence. You’ll likely get through large meals, nibbles, chocolates and alcohol, all leading to massive calorie intake.
Not only do we see this increase in calorie consumption, but we also see a reduction in activity. Most people take annual leave around the holidays to spend time with their loved ones. Many gyms will close over Christmas, and with the bad weather and short days people are more likely to reduce their visits to the gym over Christmas. With local lockdowns, many towns and cities across the country have forced closures. If you are in a level 3 area and you don’t have access to home exercise equipment, the thought of exercising in the park during winter is a no go.
Office Christmas parties
Although current lockdown regulations may put a halt to the Christmas office party, people will still be able to socialise in small groups at restaurants and pubs. You may be organising your mini get-togethers with your friends and colleagues to celebrate in your own way. Usually, a heavy night out will lead to a few days of recovery, which generally consists of less activity and more food.
SAD – Seasonal Affective Disorder – is a form of depression which is brought on by changes in the seasons and usually happens during the winter. Although direct causes of SAD are unknown, it has been linked to an overproduction of melatonin and decreased production of vitamin D and serotonin. If you suffer from SAD, the most common symptoms are overeating, lack of energy and cravings for carbohydrates. It is understandable how weight gain is typical with sufferers of SAD, given the symptoms and side effects. If you feel you are suffering from SAD, speak to your GP about what you can do to help alleviate your symptoms.
Current global situation
Although this is not a common reason, it is one that you may be facing right now. With the country in multiple stages of lockdown, you might be one of the unfortunate ones who has been affected either physically, mentally or financially by COVID 19. You may feel fed up and run down, dealing with the consequence of the ongoing restrictions, and this could make you give up and abandon health and fitness goals.
If you are a regular gym user, you will probably be used to the terms bulking and cutting. Over the winter period a lot of gym-goers, especially bodybuilders, will use the winter period to add significant body mass in the hope of adding pounds of muscle on their bodies. During a bulk up, you will add body fat as you create a calorie surplus. The timing of the winter bulk is perfect as, during these colder months, you are less likely to show off your body. Once the winter period is over, the ‘summer shred’ will begin to remove the body fat and reveal the muscle that’s left.
How to avoid the winter weight gain
Unlike a bear, which will over-consume in the build-up to winter, then hibernate, we do not require all the excess calories. Some of you may have got into the mindset of thinking “it’s the winter, I should just accept that I am going to gain weight.” The reality is, that’s just not true. Almost certainly you do not want to gain the extra weight over the winter, but you may struggle to figure out how to keep it off. Below, we give out some of the best tricks and tips to avoiding the winter weight gain.
Curb the carb cravings
When you think of treat food or festive food, what do you picture in your head? For most, the typical foods are sweet based, or pastry-based. We all know that the sugary sweet goods are high in calories and low in healthy goodness – it’s why we want to eat them! Even the savoury treats tend to be a mix of high fat and high carb content, with low nutrient density. The main downside to highly refined and processed carbohydrates is that they are high in calories, devoid of nutrients and create addictive feeding behaviour. Regular overconsumption of these highly processed carbs can lead to metabolic syndrome, which is accompanied by raised blood sugar, insulin resistance, weight gain and, potentially, diabetes.
Insulin, sugar and body fat
Insulin is released into the bloodstream when you eat. Its main job is to transport nutrients into the cells of the body. An important result of this is lowering blood sugar. When you eat fast-acting sugars, such as refined and highly processed grains, you will have a rapid and large release of insulin. Although these sugars will be processed quickly, your insulin levels will remain raised for some time. High insulin levels will inhibit fat burning.
The other issue with high insulin is that, if your insulin sensitivity is healthy, it can lower blood sugar very rapidly. This can lead to a blood sugar low, ravenous hunger and subsequent poor eating behaviours. It’s likely you’ll go for refined carbs throughout the day as you go through cycles of hunger and sugary short-lived instant gratification. For example, if you were to have orange juice and cereal at breakfast, a bagel at lunch, a cereal bar as a snack and a hamburger, chips and large soft drink in the evening, you’d be getting a lot of sugar spikes and regular large insulin responses. Your insulin levels are likely to be raised all day.
Another downside is that these foods are high in calories and low in nutrients. That’s a recipe for weight gain and ill-health
How do we fight carb cravings?
Well, the honest answer is to avoid the cravings in the first place! The easiest way for you to do that is to avoid refined and sugary carbs. Instead, slow-release sugars from complex, unrefined carbs will keep your blood sugar and insulin on a much more even keel. Reserve the refined carbs for occasional treats or post-workout.
You might have heard of the Glycaemic Index (GI) before. GI ranks a carbohydrate on how fast it raises blood sugar. The lower the number, the more slowly it raises blood sugar and the healthier it is.
It may come as no surprise that sweets, refined carbs and sugary drinks sit high on the index. In contrast, wholegrains, whole fruit, vegetables and legumes sit low. Make sure your diet contains mainly low GI carbohydrate sources.
High satiety foods
Satiety is the sensation of feeling full after eating food. The more satiating a food is, the longer you will go before feeling hungry again. Why is this important? Well, a lot of unhealthy processed foods are high in calories, but they are not filling. When you eat them, you may feel satisfied at first, but it won’t be long before you’re hungry again.
A typical example is breakfast cereal. Most breakfast cereals – even bran flakes – are highly processed, lacking fibre, and high GI. They’re going to leave you hungry an hour or so later. You’re very unlikely to make it to lunch without raiding the vending machine or grabbing the biscuit tin if you’re working from home. A better choice is a piece of protein and a bowl of porridge. You’ll feel full and make it to lunch without taking in more unhealthy calories.
The satiety list
An early study of filling foods was conducted in 1995. Dr Holt and her colleagues at the University of Sidney conducted a study into satiety. They gave participants an equal-calorie portion of multiple food groups and measured how long they felt full. The conclusion was the heavier the food, the longer it made you feel satiated. What this study didn’t take into account was the nutrient content of the foods. Although the foods they scored may have been highly satiating, they may not have been that healthy. A more recent method to guide you on what foods to eat for satiety is to use ‘the fullness factor’.
The fullness factor
The fullness factor, unlike the satiety list, takes into account the nutrient density of the food, meaning healthier foods will score higher on the scale. Simply put, the foods that have the best fullness factor tend to be high in protein, high in fibre and high in liquid. The foods that score best on the fullness factor tend to be meats, grains, pulses, fruits and veggies. By combining these on a plate, you can have not only a filling low-calorie meal but also one which is high in nutrients and full of health benefits.
In this link, you will find the list of foods on the fullness factor scale. The scale itself operates between 0.0 and 5.0. The higher the score, the better the fullness factor. As you will see from the list, veggies, seeds and beans score high on the scale, with foods like honey, butter and bread scoring low. If you read our previous blog on good food choices, you will see that what we suggest aligns with the principles of the fullness factor.
Plan your indulgences
Life is all about balance. I am not suggesting that you live like a saint this winter. Any good diet should be balanced and include foods you like and enjoy. Best practice is to plan for these indulgences. If you plan when you are likely to have additional calories, you can plan most of your day around this. Let’s say you are going out for a meal with friends on Saturday evening. You will be able to view the menu in advance and pick possible meal choices. If you wanted to be sensible, there would be low-calorie meal options and calorie-free drinks which would allow you to socialise whilst doing minimal damage to your diet.
However, if you want to indulge, that’s ok. You can work out a rough calorie calculation for the food and drinks you are likely to consume whilst you are out. Once you know these numbers, you can adjust the rest of your day’s eating for ‘damage control’. Just ensure that, during the day, you still consume a meal every three hours containing at least 18g of protein. Please don’t starve yourself all day then gorge in the evening.
Stay regimented with your activity!
If you find that you lose the motivation to train or that you struggle to get in the gym and work out, you might benefit from using your diary. If you write your gym sessions in your diary, you are more likely to commit to them as an appointment. You could set an alarm on your phone as a reminder to have your daily workout. If you are currently in a weight loss phase, make sure to add in a weekly check in to your diary. Imagine you are your coach; hold yourself accountable to take your weight, photos and measurements each week. If you do this, you are less likely to go off track when it comes to your regular activity.
Enjoy the season!
If your indulgence is a one-off and not a weekly occurrence, then having that one extra treat every now and then is not going to undo all your hard work. The issue arises when ‘every now and then’ becomes ‘every other day’ or worse, daily!
But, if you’re someone who is consistent with your diet and training for a prolonged period, having a few days off exercise can act as a chance to fully recover from training. In this case, having a few extra calories once in a while is not going to undo all your hard work.
Your mental health is just as important as your physical health, and although the two are linked, sometimes, the mental health does need to take a priority. A short pause in training and a few extra calories can do wonders for your mental health.
It has been a challenging year for most of us, and if you have the opportunity to spend time with your loved ones, relax and have fun, then do so; that’s important.
If you fall victim to “winter weight” gain, there are plenty of ways to try and avoid it. It will require some planning and some self-control, but you can still stay productive and proactive towards your physique goals this festive season. Make sure you enjoy yourself and indulge a little; just ensure that ‘a little’ doesn’t become ‘a lot’.