Controlling weight during the cold, dark days of winter is an issue for most of us. Studies show that many people gain at least a pound between November and January. And the worst part: That gain is usually permanent. Blame it on the cold weather that makes outdoor exercise less appealing, cravings for fattening comfort foods, and the seemingly endless weeks of holiday celebrating. And of course, you can hide your expanding waistline under layers of warm clothing. It's a wonder more of us don't gain more than a pound each winter!
Once you no longer have that youthful metabolism that lets you eat donuts, French fries, and fried chicken without gaining an ounce, it is time to cut down -- or even eliminate -- some of the most fattening foods, experts say. It's certainly OK to splurge on the occasional small portion of a decadent food, but most adults do better if they stay clear of the temptations.
"Keep in mind that it is easier to keep your weight stable than it is to take off the pounds" says Jayne Hurley, RD, senior nutritionist for the nonprofit watchdog group Center for Science in the Public Interest.
The foods that "talk" to us in winter tend to be hearty comforting and holiday favorites that are also often packed with artery-clogging fat, calories, and sodium.
"In summer there is an abundance of light foods, but when winter rolls around it is natural to want to beef up and yearn for richer foods," says Katherine Tallmadge, MS, RD, an American Dietetic Association spokeswoman.
And, of course, the American way is to have more than just one calorie-rich dish (witness the popularity of the holiday buffet). Studies show, the greater the variety, the more we eat.
"If there are 10 types of holiday cookies or several creamed side dishes, it only makes sense that you want to try them all," says Tallmadge, "and in the end, a wide variety encourages overeating."
Most Fattening Foods of Winter
So what are the worst winter foods, the calorie-packed culprits that we should stay away from? The truth, experts say, is that there really are no "bad" foods. A few bites of even the most fattening food can fit into your diet. But there certainly are foods that are worse for us than others. When you check out the nutritional numbers on these foods, keep in mind that most adults need fewer than 2,000 calories, 65 grams of total fat, and 20 grams of saturated fat each day.
Here are picks from the experts for the nine winter foods most likely to pack on the pounds:
- Macaroni and cheese. It's an all-time favorite comfort food for both kids and adults, but it can wreak havoc with your diet. A 12-ounce serving of Stouffer's macaroni and cheese has 529 calories, 25.7 grams of fat, and 10.6 grams of saturated fat. Calories can climb higher when ingredients like high-fat meats or sausage are tossed in. And some restaurants even sell deep-fried mac and cheese as an appetizer! Your best bet when eating out is simply to find another side dish. At home, "modify the recipe by using a low-fat cheese, low-fat milk, and stretch it with additional vegetables to improve the nutritional profile and still taste great," says Liz Weiss, author of The Mom's Guide to Meal Makeovers.
- Cream-based soups, bisques and chowders. "Warm soups and chowders feel so nutritious, but if they are loaded with cream, they are also loaded with calories," says Tallmadge. Soups also tend to be high in sodium, and if you crumble salty crackers into the bowl or top with cheese, the sodium level soars even higher. A one-cup serving of Harry's Lobster Bisque (Costco) has 380 calories, 27 grams of fat, 16 grams saturated fat, and 1,240 milligrams of sodium. The New England clam chowder at Chili's, meanwhile, has 940 calories, 65 grams fat, and 34 grams of saturated fat. "Choose soups that are broth based, like vegetable or minestrone, and pair it with a salad or a whole-wheat roll," suggests Tallmadge.
- Cream- and cheese-based casseroles, or those topped with cheese, bacon, fried onions, or buttered crackers. Who doesn't love the traditional hash brown casserole, gooey with cheese and potatoes? But brace yourself, because one serving has 568 calories, 40 grams of fat and 21 grams of saturated fat -- and this is for a side dish! Creamed, scalloped, and au gratin dishes may start out with healthy ingredients like broccoli, green beans, or potatoes. But when you add cream, butter, and canned soups and top them with cheese, bacon, and/or fried breadcrumbs, you can easily quadruple the calories. "Shave calories by substituting low-calorie mix-ins such as fat-free sour cream, low-fat cheese, or reduced-fat soups," says American Dietetic Association spokeswoman Suzanne Farrell. For a tasty, healthy side dish, try oven-roasted vegetables -- 6 ounces of oven-roasted new potatoes has just 100 calories and 4.5 grams of fat.
- Cheesecake treats. Cheesecakes are typically loaded with artery clogging fats. In just one slice of chocolate Oreo mudslide cheesecake from the Cheesecake Factory, you get 1,050 calories, 71 grams of fat, and 34 grams of saturated fat. And don't think ordering a muffin will save you when you're craving a cream-cheese treat. Starbuck's pumpkin cream cheese muffin has 490 calories, 24 grams of fat, and 6 grams of saturated fat. Better to skip these rich desserts and satisfy your sweet tooth with a 150-calorie Skinny Cow ice cream cone -- or suck on a peppermint for a mere 20 calories.
- Chili and stews loaded with ground beef, sausage, and/or cheese. When you make them yourself, with small portions of lean meat, lots of vegetables and beans and a sprinkle of low-fat cheese, chili and stews can be nutritious and filling. But when you order them out, beware. At Chili's, a bowl of chili with cheese will cost you 500 calories, 35 grams of fat, and 15 grams saturated fat. At Quizno's, the bread bowl chili has 760 calories, 23 grams of fat, and 7 grams saturated fat. "Stews or chili have the potential to be very hearty, high in protein, and a great meal as long as you control the high-fat ingredients such as ground meat, sausage and cheese," says Hurley. Stick to your own recipe or go to Wendy's for a cup of chili with 220 calories, 6 grams of fat, and 2.3 grams saturated fat (without cheese or crackers).
- Pies topped with whipped cream or ice cream. These winter favorites often start with healthy ingredients, like heart-healthy nuts or antioxidant-rich fruits, but they also include high-calorie ingredients. "Rich, buttery pie crusts on the top and bottom, sweet fillings, and the customary whipped cream or ice cream topping make these pies decadent and full of calories," says Farrell. A slice of coconut cream pie at Denny's, for example, will set you back 701 calories, 32 grams of fat, and 20 grams saturated fat. Shoney's apple pie a la mode has 1,203 calories, 53 grams of fat, and 23.7 grams of saturated fat in one serving -- equivalent to the total daily calories in some weight loss plans. "Skip the crust(s), add a dollop of light whipped topping, and serve yourself only a sliver" if you want to enjoy these desserts, suggest Farrell.
- Cookies. Enjoying one small cookie is not a problem. "Most small (about 1 -2 ounces) cookies are around 200-250 calories, which is not bad if you eat only one -- but who can stop at one?" asks Tallmadge. The CD-sized cookies you commonly find at bakeries and restaurants pack a real caloric punch. At Dunkin' Donuts, the peanut butter cup cookie (4.5 ounces) has 590 calories, 29 grams of fat, and 13 grams saturated fat. At Panera, the shortbread cookie (2.5 ounces) has 350 calories, 21 grams of fat, and 12 grams saturated fat. So split it in half, or take along a 100-calorie pack of your favorite cookie.
- Fried side dishes -- chili cheese fries, onion rings, and plain old French fries. Sadly, the most popular vegetable in the U.S. is the French fry, which is loaded with fat, calories, and salt. Most people think nothing of adding a side of 6-ounce fries to their order at McDonald's, even though it adds an additional 570 calories, 30 grams of fat, and 6 grams saturated fat. Sharing a Chili's Awesome Blossom (1/2 portion) gives you 1,355 calories, 101 grams of fat, and 18 grams saturated fat – all before the entree. A serving of Del Taco's chili cheese fries has 670 calories, 46 grams fat, and 15 grams saturated fat, while White Castle onion rings have 750 calories, 39 grams of fat, and 6 saturated fat. "Best bet: Have a side salad with your entrée and skip the high-calorie, deep-fat fried appetizer, and look for something that is not fried and has vegetables," says Hurley. Think bruschetta or edamame.
- Creamy pot pies with pastry on the top and bottom. It looks innocent enough but when you have pastry on the bottom and top, you get a double dose of high-fat crust plus the filling. The individual Boston Market chicken pot pie has 780 calories, 47 grams of fat, and 17 grams of saturated fat. Forget the creamy pie and enjoy a roasted chicken breast and a whole-wheat roll for a fraction of the calories.
More Tips to Avoid Winter Weight Gain
Beyond limiting the most fattening foods, here are some more general expert tips for avoiding winter weight gain:
- Have plenty of low-sodium soups and stews that are broth- or tomato-based and contain lots of vegetables. Studies show that eating broth-based soup before a meal can fill you up and help you eat fewer calories during the meal.
- Heat up your food with spices and peppers to give it more pizzazz so you won't miss the high-fat ingredients.
- Use only lean meats in casseroles and other dishes. Even then, remember to keep portions reasonable.
- Drink plenty of water with your meals
- Include plenty of lean protein in your diet to keep you feeling full and satisfied
- Replace cream in recipes with fat-free half-and-half or low-fat milk
- Use 2 egg whites instead of each whole egg in recipes.
- Get plenty of natural sunlight, and stay fit to keep your metabolism perking.
- Keep your menus simple and reduce the number of choices to reduce the temptation to try everything, Tallmadge says.
- During the holiday season, "keep your routine as normal as possible, and if you do splurge, just get right back on track so Thanksgiving dinner does not extend all the way to New Year's Day," says Hurley.