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Truths and myths about winter weight gain

Truths and myths about winter weight gain

Your summer clothes, swimwear and shorts are packed away. It is winter and soups, hot sugary drinks and stews are on the menu. We forget that as we start wearing more layers of clothes our bodies are not in your face. On average during winter we gain 2.6 -3 kg. To put it into perspective it is three one-kilogram tubs of margarine.  The sad part is that we lose muscle and gain fat and most of us start the winter with excess weight. Winter is not an excuse to become chubby.

Evolution and genes

According to a study at The University of Exeter we want to eat more because our genes favour fat storage to survive the colder months. Historically food was more scares and more food were consumed in autumn to prevent starvation. The fact is that we are not affected by famines anymore and we have enough food available throughout the year. When we eat more, we store that fat – we do not burn it. Instead of  eating those sweet, fatty, unhealthy foods you have the choice and control to make better food choices, control portion sizes and be proactive. We should be able to realise we had enough food, but we don’t because we eat artificial food not real wholesome foods that supply all the necessary nutrients.

Seasonal Affective Disorder

Lack of sunlight in winter can have a significant effect on mood and health. We get up and leave for work while still being dark and get home after the sun has set. Some people do develop Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) due to lack of sunlight. Due to the cold weather you may even go out less frequently on weekends and have less activities outside. Try to have lunch outside or even during a tea break. That extra little bit of sun may just do the trick.

The lack of sunlight in the winter can have a profound effect on melatonin that regulate sleep, but it can also play a role in appetite. Melatonin increase, we produce more of the hormone, during autumn and winter according to Dr Perry Barret at Aberdeen University that researches seasonal weight gain and the effect on appetite. In most mammals, this increase in melatonin reduces hunger —  a normal response when food is scarce. However, in some species we get an opposite effect, and this may be the reason why humans are hungrier and gain more weight. This may be a good excuse for some.

Get more info about SAD – Defeating the winter blues.

I get fatter although I do not eat more

Most of vitamin D is synthesised by the skin. This can cause a problem as we cover ourselves with thick clothes and the skin are less exposed to sunlight during the winter months. Dr Dillon, senior lecturer in Nutrition at Lancaster University says that preliminary studies show that people with low vitamin D levels are fatter due to a reduced fat breakdown. Overweight and obese people have lower vitamin D levels. Boost your vitamin D by exposing the fore arms to about 20 minutes of sun per day and by eating more oily fish e.g. sardines, pilchards, mackerel, salmon and trout.

The hormone melatonin that is triggered by darkness makes us sleepier, but it can also increase appetite. Dr Perry Barrett at Aberdeen University researches seasonal weight gain in mammals. Normally melatonin reduces appetite due to scarce food sources however in humans we often get the opposite effect. That may be the reason for the increased hunger and weight gain. A good excuse!


The colder weather makes us more inactive. If we are not outdoors doing activities, we are in front of the TV and we associate eating while sitting on the couch. This is often sugary, fatty refined carbohydrates and even biltong and dried sausage.

Craving starchy high fat foods

During winter months we tend to change the type of food we eat. During summer months we tend to eat more starchy foods while in winter we go for fattier options.

According to Professor Craig Jackson, head of psychology at Birmingham City University, we need fattier foods as a pick me up because we are less happy when it is cold and dark, and we eat twice as much energy dense high kilojoule foods that is sweeter and/or fattier as pick me up. The dilemma we are faced with is that these foods cause sugar highs and lows that leave us with a constant tiredness and craving for more and the extra energy is then store as fat. We put on white fat that does not keep us warm instead of brown fat that babies have and is due to genetic programming increase metabolism and that is in abundance in babies. And metabolically active adults and it help with heat regulation.

Salt and sugar intake is higher.

Comfort foods are higher in sodium which can have an immediate effect on bloating and feeling heavier. We also tend to drink less water in winter and more speciality hot beverages like cappuccinos and lattes and alcohol. This adds to the high empty kilojoule load. Drink plenty of water even if it is hot water with a squeeze of lemon juice or plain herbal teas without milk.

Decrease in raw fresh products

We tend to eat more soups and stew and comfort foods to keep you warm that may have a high fat content rather than fresh fruit and vegetables. The latter will have less kilojoules.

How to avoid weight gain:

  1. Avoid refined white flour products like flour, potatoes, sugar, chocolates, cappuccinos, lattes and sweets.
  2. Add lots of high fibre foods such as seed loafs, fruits, vegetables, whole grains e.g. barley and brown rice, and legumes like lentils and beans. It fills you up and keep hunger at bay, stimulate the appetite-controlling hormone leptin, and keep glucose from flooding your blood stream.
  3. Be cautious of beverages, cereals, all processed foods like salad dressings, flavoured yogurts, desserts, alcohol.
  4. Eat more high-quality protein that will avoid muscle loss and support fat loss. Fish, chicken eggs are great options.
Defeating the Winter Blues

Defeating the Winter Blues

Can you improve your mood naturally?

Statistics reveal that four in ten people complain of feeling low and about one in ten suffer from depression. According to recent surveys the number of drugs prescribed for depression and related symptoms, are on the increase at an alarming rate.

Surveys amongst 22000 participants in the UK showed that 52 % feel lethargic and have a lack of enthusiasm most of the time while 42 % feel depressed. This is probably only the tip of the ice berg.

From time to time we may all experience symptoms that range from happiness to severe depression. Three times as many women will suffer and be diagnosed having depression than men. This is probably because women are more likely to ask for help.

Can winter increase the tendency for depression?

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that happens during winter when you don’t get enough light because of shorter days. Some people are particularly prone to these winter blues or SAD. Shorter days effect people more.

The primary reasons for this:

  1.  Serotonin (Happy Hormone) levels drop partly since light stimulates the brain to manufacture serotonin and other brain chemicals.
  2. A lack of mood boosting nutrients due to poor eating habits
  3. Lower activity levels

Solving the problem: Stabilising moods

  1. As light directly effects the brain, it will control sleep and the time you wake up. In winter you wake up while it’s still dark. This is neither natural nor ideal.
    To counter act this, you can use a “dawn simulation alarm” that has got the full spectrum of sun light. This is a bed side light with a build- in dimmer and alarm clock. This alarm clock simulates the breaking of dawn. The clock is set to wake you up at a certain time, but the light will turn on and steadily increasing in intensity over a period of 20 minutes. If this doesn’t wake you up, the alarm will go off at the set time. Most people will be woken by the light with much more energy, alertness and a happy feeling.
  2. A deficiency of vitamin D may increase winter blues. Vitamin D is made by the skin if exposed to sunlight. Half an hour per day of direct exposure will provide about 15 mcg of Vitamin D. Oily fish will supply an additional 5 mcg. It is recommended that a multivitamin with Vitamin D3 is taken to supply a total of 30 mcg per day. A blood test to determine vitamin D Levels can be done and often the levels are so low that a supplement should be prescribed in higher dosages.
  3. Ensure that blood sugar levels are always stable during the day. Five to six small meals per day are vital. Include protein with all main meals, a small portion of low GI carbohydrates and lots of vegetables. The snacks can include a fruit and a handful of nuts/seeds. Eat fatty fish e.g. sardine, salmon, mackerel 3 times per week. Mood boosters would include tryptophan an amino acid found in cheese, oats, yogurt, egg, turkey and chicken which will boost serotonin levels. Enough tryptophan helps to curb carbohydrate cravings.
  4. High homocysteine levels may be an indicator to predict depression. There is growing evidence that some people are more prone to depression because they don’t “methylate” accurately. Methylation is a process that happens in the brain and body by turning chemicals into one another. Certain nutrients like folic acid, Vitamin B6, B 12 can receive or donate these methyl groups for the brain and body to function at an optimum level. People prone to depression normally have a weakness (Genetic defect) with methylation and therefore will greatly benefit from supplementation. Dark green vegetables are high in folic acid. Omega 3 fats are also converted by B vitamins into hormone type substances that increase the brains ability to produce serotonin and other vital chemicals.
  5. Exercise: 30 minutes of exercise at least five times per week, e.g. walking, can produce a considerable drop in depression.
  6. Essential oils mainly Bergamot, geranium, petitgrain or neroli oils can boost your mood.
  7. SAD (winter blues) may also be caused by the depletion of negative ions in the air due to winter winds. To be outside in nature, increases the negative ions that are good for us. The air near waterfalls, beaches, mountains and forests has got more health promoting ions in the air. An ioniser in your room will also have a similar effect and significantly relief symptoms.
  8. Avoid sugar, stimulants, smoking, alcohol and excess stress.
  9. Increase Magnesium intake by eating plenty of vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds and consider supplementing 300-500 mg magnesium per day.
  10. Be aware of what triggers your moods and learn how to control your thought patterns. Counselling may be beneficial.

Enough exercise, supplementation and healthy eating habits can put you on a path to defeat the winter blues.

By Ina Nortjé – Wholistic Wellness Practitioner