Winter can be a bleak time of year for dieters, and not just because of the holidays. The cold weather can interrupt your workout routine, make you more likely to reach for comfort foods like mac and cheese, and can even send you on a mood roller coaster that can lead to overeating.
"Although seasonal weight gain varies from person to person, there have been surveys that show an average of a five to seven pound gain in weight in winter," says Lawrence J. Cheskin, MD, founder and director of the Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center and associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.
The good news about fighting the pounds of winter is that cold and dark do not appear to be responsible for overeating, for most of us.
"A small percentage of people in winter may develop seasonal affective disorder, which is clinical depression brought on by winter's short days; many of these people may have trouble overeating," says Cheskin. "But that is due to the depression itself, and people with this disorder are just as likely to undereat as to overeat, which is true of all people who suffer clinical depression.
For the rest of us, winter weight gain is largely the result of reduced exercise and increased eating, Cheskin says. "Research studies show that the 'hibernation theory' of winter overeating does not hold up for the vast majority of us who do not have seasonal affective disorder."
So this year, be prepared for the season with our five-point plan to beat winter weight gain.
1. Exercise, exercise, exercise
"Setting a regular fitness schedule is the key to keeping weight off in winter," says Lisa Giannetto, MD, an assistant clinical professor in the Diet and Fitness Center at the Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C. "Come five o'clock, when it's pitch black and cold out, you're a lot more likely to go to your warm home and watch TV if you don't have a regular fitness schedule that includes a variety of types of exercises."
2. Never go to a party hungry
"Fruits and vegetables are where we need to get our carbohydrates, and not from alcohol and brownies," says Jule Anne Henstenberg, RD, director of the nutrition program at La Salle University. "Use high-fiber fruits and vegetables to fill up before a party." Eat a bunch of baby carrots, a big salad, or an apple, for example, to curb your desire for empty party-food calories.
"When we eat outside the home, studies suggest that we may take in 40% more calories than we would otherwise," says Cheskin. "We even have seen this finding replicated in animal models."
So much of our eating is not related to hunger, he says. The more variety of foods available at a meal, the more likely you are to eat more food.
"The stress of a social setting and an environment with many food choices and alcohol will tend to foster overeating," Cheskin says. "So these are good times to be on guard."
3. Avoid alcohol
Alcohol is loaded with calories. And since "many holiday celebrations involve drinking, it's easy to take in a lot of calories without being aware that you are," says Scott Isaacs, MD, clinical instructor of medicine at Emory University and medical director at Intelligent Health Center. "Drink a glass of water or a diet soda before and after each alcoholic beverage to help pace yourself and to dilute calories," says Isaacs, who is also the author of Hormonal Balance: Understanding Hormones, Weight and Your Metabolism.
4. Practice calorie damage control
"If you do overeat, don't 'fall off the wagon.'" says Isaacs. "Make up for it by cutting your calories for a few days and adding extra exercise."
And get exercise in anywhere you can, says Giannetto. Take a brisk walk on your lunch break and after dinner. At work, use stairs rather than the elevator.
"When you get just 100 fewer calories per day through dieting and exercise or both, that is the equivalent of 10 pounds per year."
5. Remember to have fun
"The main reason you're at a party is to see people and celebrate, not to eat a lot of high-calorie foods," says Cheskin. "So be aware of why you're there and make that your focus."