Many of us gain a few kilos over winter, and it becomes a problem when we can’t shift it come summer. Dietitian Brooke Longfield explains how to avoid gaining the winter kilos to start with.
For most of us, winter means more time on the couch with a blanket and a bowl of comfort food. So really it’s no surprise when our jeans and sweaters start feeling a bit snug. In fact, a 2012 Australian survey found 50 per cent of men and 38 per cent of women expected to gain up to five kilos between the months of June and August.
Oh, 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 we gain weight for extra warmth,” says Flinders University Nutrition and Dietetics associate lecturer Kacie Dickinson. While our Palaeolithic ancestors stored fat in their bodies over winter when food was scarce, we no longer need to do this — our food is available 24/7.
- Boost healthy habits: Don’t buy into the idea that weight gain is inevitable over winter. If you do, you’ll ignore your clothes getting tighter and portions getting larger. Instead set healthy winter goals, such as trying a new nutritious winter recipe each week, or joining a yoga class.
Stodgy carbs are comforting
Bleak, rainy weather can lower our mood, which sometimes develops into a form of depression called seasonal affective disorder (SAD), so we may look to food to cheer ourselves up. When it’s cold we crave hearty stews, creamy pastas and buttery mash. These heavier meals tend to be high in carbs and fat and while stodgy carbs may boost the feel-good hormone serotonin, there’s no need to drown your sorrows with a bowl of carbonara night after night.
- Boost your veges: Eating casseroles and soups is a great way of loading up on vegetables and high-fibre legumes like chickpeas and lentils. Include winter greens like silver beet, broccoli and peas, and add a drizzle of good-quality olive oil. You’ll find plenty of healthy and hearty winter recipes in this issue.
The couch (and takeout) is calling!
Cold weather tends to keep us inside, rugged up on the couch and dialling for takeaways. The Australian survey also found nine out of 10 people ate more high-kilojoule takeaways and fast food during winter. And being at home, it’s easy to grab biscuits or chocolate from the pantry to nibble on while watching a Friday night movie.
- Boost your pantry: Keep your kitchen stocked with easy dinner staples like baked beans, canned tomatoes and instant brown 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 as gourmet vegetarian pizza on a thin base, a vege-packed stir-fry, or a tomato-based pasta.
It’s dark and cold!
Some people gain weight in winter because we tend to move less. With shorter daylight hours we do fewer 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.
- Boost your workout: If you’re a morning exerciser but finding it hard to roll out of bed when it’s cold and dark outside, 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.
I’m always hungry!
If we’re spending more time inside on the couch during winter, then why do we feel so hungry?
Out in the cold our body works hard to keep us warm through the act of shivering, which burns energy. But most of us 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 heartier comfort foods.
- Boost satisfaction: Bulk out your meals with high-fibre veges that fill you up for very few kilojoules. And swap less-satisfying carbs, such as white pasta and mashed potato, for satiating foods such as brown rice and quinoa. See our list of healthier, low-kilojoule comfort foods above.
I’ll eat better in spring …
There’s no need to leave it till spring to eat healthily. While you might think the weight will ‘drop off’ when the weather warms up, research shows it’s much harder to lose weight than to put it on (not to mention a lot less fun!).
- Boost better choices: “We shouldn’t use the changing seasons and colder weather as an excuse to eat badly,” says Dr Dickinson.
“Enjoy the cosy comforts of a night on the couch or a hearty casserole, but with a healthy twist. Your health will certainly benefit in the long term.”
Four winter weight-gain traps
- Milky hot drinks Who can say no to a creamy hot chocolate or steaming cup of coffee? Beware! A large café-style drink can carry up to 2200kJ — the amount in a decent meal.
- Mashed potato It’s smooth and buttery and tastes so good, and that’s why it’s so easy to overeat! Go easy on the butter (a splash of milk is all you need), 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 can be loaded with fat and sugar, so watch the portions and don’t have them too often.
- Creamy soups and sauces Anything based on full-fat cream is high in saturated fat and kilojoules. An entrée-sized plate of creamy pasta can have around 3000kJ, which can be almost half of your daily needs if you’re trying to lose weight.
Swap milky coffee and sugary hot chocolate for a simple cup of herbal tea. As an added bonus, flavonoids found in green tea (and some foods) have been shown to help reduce the severity of winter colds.
Skip the creamy soups and slurp up one with loads of veges. It could also help you lose weight, if you need to, with one study showing people ate 20 per cent fewer kilojoules when they started their meal with a soup.
Pour a small can of reduced-salt baked beans on grainy toast for a warming, high-protein breakfast that will keep you full right through till lunch (or for an even healthier version, try making your own).
Warm and comforting, a bowl of porridge is high in fibre and low in fat, making it an ideal way to start the day (try our Berry yoghurt oats, Almond and mixed seed porridge or Mango, coconut and chia overnight oats).
Can’t shake those sweet cravings? Stewed apples, pears or rhubarb paired with Greek-style yoghurt is a satisfying snack or dessert. Instead of using sugar, add a shake of cinnamon to bring out the natural sweetness.
A good ol’ roast brings back fond memories of Mum’s cooking. But instead of loading up on meat, potatoes and gravy, try roasting carrot, pumpkin and even cauliflower and broccoli to boost your vege intake. Try our gravy and sauce recipes for inspiration.
Turn up the heat, quite literally, with a spicy meal such as chilli con carne or a hot Indian curry. These fiery flavours raise our metabolism enough to make us feel hot and even break a sweat. Use a slow cooker, so you can spend time away from the kitchen.
Article sources and references
- Dietitians Association of Australia. 214. Curb winter weight gain: Trim takeaway tips from nutrition experts. www.daa.asn.au Assessed June 2016https://daa.asn.au/
- Flood JE & Rolls BJ. 2007. Soup preloads in a variety of forms reduce meal energy intake. Appetite. 49:626—34https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17574705
- Ma Y et al. 2006 Seasonal variation in food intake, physical activity, and body weight in a predominantly overweight population. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 60:519—28https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16340952
- Subar AF et al. 1994. Differences in reported food frequency by season of questionnaire administration: the 1987 National Health Interview Survey. Epidemiology 5:226—33https://www.jstor.org/stable/3702365
- The University of Auckland News. 18 May 2015. Flavonoids reduce cold and cough risk. www.auckland.ac.nz Accessed June 2016https://www.auckland.ac.nz/en.html
- Van Staveren et al. 1986. Seasonal variation in food intake, pattern of physical activity and change in body weight in a group of young adult Dutch women consuming self-selected diets. International Journal of Obesity 10:133—45https://www.researchgate.net/publication/20142072_Seasonal_variation_in_food_intake_pattern_of_physical_activity_and_change_in_body_weight_in_a_group_of_young_adult_Dutch_women_consuming_self-selected_diets