The Truth About Why We Gain Winter Weight (And How To Get Rid Of It)

It's a combination of both evolutionary and lifestyle reasons.
This pretty much sums it up.
This pretty much sums it up.
Getty Images/Blend Images

If you haven't gained at least three kilos over the course of winter and can still (comfortably) fit into your skinny jeans, we're not jealous of you one bit.

But really, many of us have put on a bit of weight over winter and while we could attribute that to those extra few bowls of creamy carbonara on a regular basis, there are actually a few other fascinating scientific and evolutionary reasons why we tend to gain weight in the cooler months.

With spring time mere hours away, The Huffington Post Australia spoke to three health experts to find out: a) why winter weight is a thing, and b) how we can get back into shape in a healthy, easygoing way.


Reason one: we're preparing for 'hibernation'

Your constant evasion of social events (and choosing Netflix and hot chocolate instead) is proof that most of us hibernate like bears in our cosy beds and homes during winter. This instinctual tendency to hibernate or 'hide' from the cold is one possible reason why we can gain weight in winter.

"Scientists suggest our primitive instincts kick in and we feel the need to stock up on calories, much the way bears prepare for hibernation," body science expert Moodi Dennaoui, aka The Diet Doctor, told The Huffington Post Australia.

"We tend to consume approximately 200 additional calories per day as the sun starts to set sooner. This can be attributed to an innate fear of not being able to source the necessary nutrients when foods become more scarce in winter."

Reason two: we produce more of the 'sleep' hormones

Much to our dismay, the days are much shorter in winter, meaning there is less sunlight (and heat) to enjoy. This lack of sunlight can also affect our hormones (in particular our sleep hormones) and some people may develop seasonal affective disorder.

"When we are seeing less daylight, our pineal glands respond to the lack of sunshine by producing melatonin, the sleep hormone that can make use feel ready to sleep," Dennaoui explained.

"That feeling of sleepiness, especially when it is not actually time to sleep, can result in a lack of energy and motivation. The higher melatonin levels tend to increase appetite."

Choosing our cosy bed over exercise is just one of the reasons we may gain winter weight.
Choosing our cosy bed over exercise is just one of the reasons we may gain winter weight.
Brand New Images

Nutritionist and celebrity chef, Zoe Bingley-Pullin, echoes this sentiment.

"The hormone melatonin, which controls our sleep-wake cycle, is also believed to be increased during winter and is tied to heightened appetite. This means we may find ourselves eating more and moving less during the cooler months, which if poorly controlled, can lead to weight gain," she told HuffPost Australia.

Reason three: our metabolism increases

"Our metabolisms increase in winter in order to burn more energy to stabilise our body temperature and stay warm, meaning we require more food for the body's extra energy demands," nutritionist Pip Reed explained.

However, this doesn't necessarily mean we should be eating more to compensate, especially in a warmer climate like Australia.

"In this day and age we have temperature controlled surroundings, meaning it's very rare we would require this extra food as our environment is generally a stable, warm temperature at home and at work," Reed said.

Reason four: we reach for warm comfort foods

Dennaoui said another reason we eat more -- particularly warm, comforting and dense foods -- is because when our body is metabolising food it generates heat, meaning our bodies may naturally crave more food to help heat us up.

Mmm, spaghetti carbonara.
Mmm, spaghetti carbonara.
Stuart West

"While we don't just automatically gain weight because the temperature has dropped, the cooler air and shorter days can trigger some changes in behaviours which encourage fat storage. Specifically, eating is a way to raise body temperature and so when cold, we seek out food where we ordinarily may not," Bingley-Pullin explained.

"Cold weather often means we increase comfort foods such as roasts, pastas, creamy sauces, hot puddings and red wine," Reed added.

Reason five: we're less likely to exercise

It goes without saying that we all feel much less motivated to go to the gym in winter because we would much rather eat aforementioned warm comfort foods (and are far too busy binge watching Friends for the fiftieth time).

"With shorter daylight and colder weather we are more likely to make excuses for not hitting the gym or going outside for our usual activities," Reed said.

Us running to the fridge...
Us running to the fridge...

Now that we know why we can gain winter weight, with spring upon us, many are looking to return to their pre-winter fitness and shape.

Here are seven easy, non-intimidating tips to get you started.

1. Don't stress about it

So you've gained some weight, don't worry about it. Be kind and gentle to yourself and slowly ease back into it.

"Don't stress and don't deprive your body. This will only create a more difficult state to lose weight in," Bingley-Pullin said.


"Instead, focus on re-assessing -- knowing what you have not eaten or moved in a way conducive to your health goals is powerful. Have a goal and know why you want to create change -- this will help you put a plan in place and be accountable to that plan."

"Make de-stressing a priority," Reed added. "Relaxation and mindfulness are just as important for the body as exercise and food."

2. Avoid fad diets

Before you start that five-day juice cleanse, Dennaoui advises to stay away from all fad diets and focus on eating a balanced diet instead.

"Avoid fads, particularly as they rear their ugly heads in winter. Don't voluntarily confuse yourself and impose further restrictions upon yourself. [Eating healthily] is difficult enough in a modern world and diets are not sustainable," Dennaoui said.

Juices are great drinks, not food.
Juices are great drinks, not food.
Matilda Delves

3. Make healthy food swaps

"Make healthy food swaps instead of trying to ditch them altogether," Reed said.

"If you're craving sugar, swap the 3 p.m. chocolate bar for a couple of medjool dates and a handful of walnuts which are packed with fibre to keep you full, omega 3 for brain health and satiety, as well as tasting like caramel when combined.

"Swap your milk chocolate for dark, and add blood sugar stabilisers like cinnamon and almonds to meals."

4. Fill up on whole foods

"There is ample opportunity to turn things around here with simple education and training our mind and body into what whole foods are easily accessible," Dennaoui told HuffPost Australia.

"Increase your consumption of quality calories with a high satiety rating. Put simply, consuming steak or another source that is high in protein, increasing your veggie portions and having soup are all effective methods of making you feel fuller without adding on the pounds."

To prevent over-eating, Dennaoui recommends avoiding skipping meals or getting to the point of feeling extremely hungry.

"That only works for so long before things go sour and you start binge eating," he said.

"Some great food options that may help curb the cravings without adding to the calories include omega 3 rich foods such as oily fish, chia seeds, flaxseeds and walnuts, bananas, broccoli, brussel sprouts, cauliflower and sweet potatoes."

Process some medjool dates with nuts and cacao, and roll in coconut for quick, easy energy balls.
Process some medjool dates with nuts and cacao, and roll in coconut for quick, easy energy balls.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

5. Avoid products with health claims such as 'low fat'

"To help avoid gaining winter weight, avoid the colourful labels and the fancy jargon that exists on these labels, particularly the fallacies such as 'low in fat' because that just usually means 'low in nutrition and high in nasties'," Dennaoui said.

"Try to eat a diet rich in whole foods and low in preservatives, drink plenty of water and make sure you keep up with exercise as when you exercise you tend to crave healthier foods."

6. Plan ahead

To make healthy eating easier, try preparing one or all of your meals and snacks for the day ahead.

"Prep breakfast the night before if you know you have an early start, make enough salad for lunch when cooking dinner and have healthy snacks handy such as raw dried fruit and nut balls, natural yoghurt, fresh fruit, seed and nut mixes, homemade dips and vegetables," Bingley-Pullin said.

7. Get moving

"Prioritise movement -- get out in the fresh air daily or schedule in a class you enjoy," Bingley-Pullin said.

"Increase your activity. You don't need to go from a sedentary lifestyle to a marathon runner. Just adding a 20 minute walk to your day is a great kick-start," Reed added. "Get an exercise buddy to help you stay accountable and motivated."

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