If you crave curling up with a big bowl of carbohydrate-rich comfort food on a cold night, then you're not alone. Cognitive Hypnotherapist and Life Coach Victoria Ward looks at how to combat the seemingly inevitable winter weight gain...
Researchers at the University of Texas found that we consume an average of 80 to 200 calories a day extra once the nights begin to drawn in around autumn time, while another study noted that we increase our intake of carbohydrates, eat larger portions and raid the fridge more often. Couple this with the decrease in physical activity that comes with the colder weather, and it's no surprise that we put on an average of 4 pounds over this time of year.
Some psychologists believe that this happens because we are hard-wired to seek out extra food over the winter, to keep us fuelled up with a good stock of energy in case of any shortages in food supply. This increase in our natural drive to eat more seems to be triggered by the falling light levels at this time of year, and is a primitive animal impulse that dates back to times when we roamed the forests and lived in caves - when winter famine was a real possibility.
Of course, while this system served us well back then, we have an abundance of food around us at all times now, so no longer need to store fat for a famine that never comes.
Another possibility is that the shorter days cause a degree of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), leaving us feeling low and lethargic. Even without a diagnosis of SAD, most people will be familiar with that low-level dissatisfaction we get when it's cold, dark and wet. As consuming carbohydrates releases the feel-good chemical serotonin, we learn to turn to these when we want a boost in our mood, choosing pastries, pastas, crisps and chips to cheer ourselves up. It has also been noted that low levels of vitamin D are linked to fat storage, and as we go out less and wrap up more we receive little of this immune-system boosting chemical over the winter months.
There is another opinion, however, that suggests we eat more because there are more parties to go to and more celebrations to take part in. The shelves are stocked with a surplus of chocolate treats and sweet indulgences that remind us of the comfort foods of our childhood. Memory plays a strong part in what food we choose, and we learn to associate stodgy, hearty foods with winter, as we were given them when growing up. So it's no surprise that we turn to these - rather than carrot sticks and wholemeal pitta bread! - when we feel the need for warmth and safety.
Whatever the reason for it, the colder, darker days mean not only more opportunities to eat, but less opportunities to be outside to burn all the extra calories off. Here are a few ideas to help you keep healthy until Summer is in sight again.
Ideas to help you keep the weight away
- Eat everything in moderation. Depriving yourself of food you love can backfire and lead to overeating, as we are hard-wired to avoid things that cause us pain. Instead of an all-or-nothing approach, allow yourself a little of what you love guilt-free.
- Up your Omega 3s. Lean protein rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, such as wild salmon, chia seeds and walnuts, have a mood-boosting power that can help to combat SAD.
- Plan mood-enhancing activities. Rather than turning to food to create emotional security, spend time with people who make you feel good. Nurture your creative side, take up a hobby, give yourself permission to take time out for yourself.
- Get more sleep. Our bodies are primed to sleep longer over winter. If we don't get adequate rest, our appetite increases for high-calorie foods.
- Spend more time outside. Boost your essential Vitamin-D levels by taking a lunchtime walk with as much skin exposed as you can safely bear. If you're really struggling with the low light levels, talk to your doctor about light therapy.
- Continue to exercise. Exercise stimulates endorphin production, which helps to relives stress and makes you feel good for hours afterwards. It also elevates your metabolism throughout the day, helping you to maintain your weight.
- Eat more mindfully. Slow down when you eat, enjoy the taste, the texture of the food, so that you can notice when you're satisfied but not stuffed.
- Make healthier choices. Be aware of the conditioning that sees you turn to carb-rich comfort foods. Sometimes a healthier snack will be all that you need to keep the craving at bay.
- Don't binge out of boredom. Plan things to do on those winter evenings - sort your photos, take up a hobby you can do in the home, clear out your wardrobe.
Victoria Ward is a Cognitive Hypnotherapist and Life Coach in Colchester and Harley Street, London.