It is a scientific fact that winter, especially the holidays, are horrible on your waistline.
On average, people gain around 1-2 pounds each holiday season. This might seem like a small amount, which it is, but it appears that 1-2 pounds isn’t lost the subsequent year.
So while New Year’s resolutions are great, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure… or something like that.
Now the story of the holiday weight gain is probably less due to the singular days of Thanksgiving and Christmas and even New Years, and more due to the cumulative change in behaviors that happen over the winter that drive you to move around a lot less, train a lot less, eat a little more, and apparently, drink A LOT more.
This year is going to be different though. This year, you are going to avoid the winter weight gain by implementing these easy strategies.
1. Beat the Blues
All physical battles are mental battles so you have to win the battle between the ears first. Avoiding the winter weight gain often starts with beating the winter blues and keeping yourself in a good mental space so you can actively pursue your health and fitness goals.
The winter blues are a real phenomenon and are described in the medical literature as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)… so yes, many of us do get SAD in the winter.
SAD has been a very well-studied mental condition and it has been linked to eating behaviors, physical activity, and weight gain during winter months1,2.
Beating the winter blues can be as simple as getting sunlight or light that mimics the sun (aka phototherapy). In fact, several studies have shown that getting light that mimics natural sunlight can decrease SAD symptoms, improving sleep, mood, and feelings of well-being3.
Now it has been claimed that UV therapy in the form of sun-tanning can be beneficial for SAD; However, this appears to be much different than the natural light therapies used in other medical studies and there doesn’t appear to be any evidence to support this.
In fact, one study published in JAMA Dermatology found that people who were frequent tanners were associated with higher rates of SAD than those who did not tan4. Now it may be that people with SAD tan more because they feel like they need sun, but there doesn’t appear to be evidence that tanning has the same effect as “phototherapy”.
2. Embrace the Great Outdoors
Many of us have the hermit gene. OK, that isn’t really a gene, but many people have the tendency to spend much more time indoors, at home, and isolated during the winter.
This often leads to lower levels of physical activity in terms of both structured exercise and also lower levels of NEPA (non-exercise physical activity) or NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis). This decrease in NEPA/NEAT is a big contributor toward weight gain and finding ways to keep that high can make a huge difference in combating the winter weight gain.
While the winter months may be cold, there are still plenty of outdoor activities you can do that lead to increased levels of physical activity.
For example, snow shoeing, cross country skiing, downhill skiing and snowboarding are high energy requiring activities one can do in snow bound environments. In colder, but not snowy places hiking is an excellent way to get additional activity in.
An additional benefit to engaging in these types of activities is that they increase your sun exposure, which is often very low during the winter months. And as you know from the section above, getting “light therapy” is a great way to help combat SAD.
3. Nail Your Sleep
Sleep is kind of a big deal. It affects almost every single thing about your health including your body weight.
There are a lot of direct effects (e.g. hormones and changes in metabolic rate) and indirect effects (e.g. changes in hunger control) to support the role of sleep in weight gain and it is very clear that poor sleep is associated with weight gain5,6,7,8.
So now that you know that sleep is key for weight management, I need to hit you with some news… Winter wreaks havoc on your sleep.
Finding strategies that help you maintain proper sleep schedules and high sleep quality can be incredibly helpful for helping you get through the winter and manage your weight.
- Set a sleep routine. Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day. This will help you mentally and physically establish sleep behaviors and patterns that ensure you get adequate sleep.
- Limit blue light (aka screens) 60-90 minutes before bed. Use the night time feature on your phone or the f.lux app on your computer.
- Limit caffeine consumption after noon. Caffeine can increase the time it takes you to fall asleep.
- Don’t train super hard or heavy right before bed.
- If you are food sensitive don’t eat right before bed as that can cause you to have trouble falling and staying asleep.
4. Supplement Smart
Winter often takes a giant toll on your micronutrient status, both due to the lack of sunlight and due to the lack of fresh fruit and vegetables.
Vitamin D status is super key to staying healthy and keeping you in the training game during the winter months. In fact, supplementing with vitamin D has been shown to help prevent colds and flu viruses in people with low levels of vitamin D9.
Additionally, maintaining adequate vitamin D may also help you maximize your training and your recovery as low levels of vitamin D are known to be associated with poor athletic performance10.
In addition to taking vitamin D there are a lot of other vitamins and minerals that you ought to consider supplementing with to stay on top of your micronutrition in the winter. Specifically vitamin B12 (if you don’t get much red meat), vitamin C, and vitamin K. Many of us get enough vitamin E from foods like nuts, avocados, and oils.
5. Take it Easy on the Booze
Alcohol can be the ultimate weight gain device, especially in the winter as people drink more alcohol during the winter than any other time of year. In fact, one industry report indicated that December 1 through March 31st is the “peak drinking” seasons based on average blood alcohol content11.
For starters, alcohol intake is often consumed as excess calories and very quickly increases one's overall calorie intake. 1-2 drinks a day at an average of ~130 calories per drink can add up to 2,000 calories a week pretty easily. Also, most of us make much worse food choices after a few drinks which often adds insult to calorie injury!
The holiday/winter weight gain lingers long after it happens so avoiding it in the first place is a better idea.
One of the biggest things that gets people is the mental battle of trying to stay focused and fit during the winter. Seasonal affective disorder is a real thing and getting some light, exercise, and getting outdoors are ways to help hold it at bay.
Poor sleep contributes to weight gain and most people have really disrupted sleep cycles in the winter. Improve your sleep by limiting screens before bed, set a sleep schedule, and limit caffeine at night.
Smart supplementation to help shore up nutrient deficiencies can keep you healthy and training through cold and flu season. Load up on vitamin D, C, and K this winter.
Be smart about your alcohol intake as large consumption of empty calories in the form of booze is a sure fire way to take a step backwards.
- Eating style in seasonal affective disorder: Who will gain weight in winter?
- Seasonal Affective Disorder: A Description of the Syndrome and Preliminary Findings With Light Therapy
- Light treatment of seasonal affective disorder in Switzerland
- Association of Frequent Indoor UV Tanning With Seasonal Affective Disorder
- Increases in leptin levels, sympathetic drive, and weight gain in obstructive sleep apnea
- A single night of sleep deprivation increases ghrelin levels and feelings of hunger in normal-weight healthy men
- Short Sleep Duration and Weight Gain: A Systematic Review
- Association between Reduced Sleep and Weight Gain in Women
- Vitamin D supplementation to prevent acute respiratory tract infections: systematic review and meta-analysis of individual participant data
- Plausible ergogenic effects of vitamin D on athletic performance and recovery
- Americans Drink the Most During Winter Months