Why We Gain Weight In Winter – and How To Avoid It



Let’s face it – it’s all too easy to pile on the kilos along with the winter woolies. We spend longer indoors, move less and eat more. By the time spring arrives, that few extra kilos (or insulation!) has crept on and you’re wondering how you’re going to shift it before it’s time to get back on the beach. But there are ways to prevent winter weight gain. The key is understanding the scientific, evolutionary reason behind why it happens and what you can do differently over the coming months.


Why We Gain Weight In Winter

Evolutionarily speaking, being overweight has never posed a serious threat to our survival. Being underweight has. In winter, our natural instinct to maintain body fat is stronger than any other season. In fact, research suggests we tend to consume approximately 200 additional calories per day in the cooler months. This can be attributed to an innate fear of not being able to source the necessary nutrients when foods become more scarce in winter.

The lack of sunlight can also affect our hormones and cause your pineal glads to respond by producing more melatonin, the sleep hormone. Higher melatonin levels tend to increase appetite while making you feel sleepy and zapped of energy or motivation. The net result? We find ourselves eating more and moving less, which leads to weight gain.


How to Avoid Winter Weight Gain

The key lies in prevention. Get back to the basis of eating real foods, exercising regularly, being consistent and mindful:

  • Change your mindset. Don’t give yourself psychological permission to gain weight during the cooler months. Many of us use winter as an excuse to bunker down, skip the gym and eat heavy, comfort foods. Instead, have a goal and make yourself accountable. After all, it’s much harder to take off weight than it is to put on!


  • Make moving a priority and schedule it in as a necessary part of your day. You don’t have to spend endless hours sweating on the treadmill, just adding a 30 minute walk to your day is a great kick-start. Exercising with a friend is also a good way to stay motivated and on target.


  • Stop counting calories and Just Eat Real Food. Research has shown that dieting, or restricting your calorie intake, does not lead to long-term weight loss. Instead it increases cortisol levels and perceived stress – two factors that are known to cause weight gain. Rather than fixating on calories or restricting yourself so you feel deprived, focus on quality calories by eating whole, nutritious, unprocessed foods. Bulk up your meals with lots of filing vegetables, switch to fibre-rich wholegrain rice, bread and pasta, and include good quality protein each time you eat (such as eggs, nuts, seeds, fish, seafood, lentils, beans, chickpeas, organic meat, quinoa or fermented tofu).


  • Be wary of alcohol. When you drink alcohol, it’s broken down into acetate (basically vinegar), which the body burns before any other calorie you’ve consumed or stored, including fat or sugar. So if you drink and consume more calories than you need, you’re more likely to store the fat from the cheeseburger you ate on the way home from your big night out night, because your body is getting all its energy from the acetate in the G&T’s you sucked down! Studies also show that alcohol temporarily inhibits “lipid oxidation”. In other words, when alcohol is in your system, it’s harder for your body to burn fat that’s already there.


  • Stay hydrated. Drinking enough water is just as important in winter as it is during summer. Make sure you’re getting at least 1.5-2 litres of water daily to help with metabolism and keep your appetite in check. 


  • Plan ahead. Rather than having UberEats on speed dial, focus on home cooking. This way you can see exactly what goes into your food, are able to make healthier choices, and control portion sizes.


  • Look after your gut health. There is increasing evidence indicating that our gut bacteria are involved in the control of body weight. “The more diverse your gut microbes, the more likely you are to be healthy and lean, and the more sparse your microbes, the more likely you are to be overweight,” says Tim Spector, a professor of genetic epidemiology and author of The Diet Myth [Hachette]. “This is knowledge that didn’t exist five years ago.” To find out more, you can check out my Guide to Good Gut Health.


  • Be consistent. It’s unsustainable to vow to never indulge in treats all winter long, or to exercise for two hours, seven days a week. Instead, be realistic with what you are doing and make sure it’s  enjoyable so you’ll want to stick with the changes you’ve introduced.


Illustration by Anna Parini
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