With the change in weather comes a change in dietary intake as we swap our summer salads for hearty winter casseroles. For those looking to optimise their general health, on the straight and narrow to achieving a weight loss goal or maintaining a healthy weight, the arrival of the cold winter months presents new challenges. You may find you’re constantly seeking comfort in front of the fire, staying warm in bed for an extra half hour each morning or indulging in heavier foods. While this warmth is satisfying, it can see health-related aspects of life such as diet and physical activity change, tipping your overall energy balance (i.e. energy in vs energy out) toward weight gain.
Does it matter?
It is important to weigh up if slight seasonal weight changes are really that important to you. Imagine a straight sliding scale ranging from most important to least important. Now plot all significant aspects of your life such as relationships with friends and family, careers, health, community and anything else you can think of. Where does weight sit on this scale for you and more importantly, why? Seeking assistance from a health professional can help you explore this if weight is a challenge for you.
Having said this, this scale is contrasting for all of us and these aspects (along with weight) sit at different points for different people at different times. One important life aspect we should all prioritise, however, is mental health.
Energy intake and physical activity are two primary factors that are impacted by an extensive list of cofactors which determine your overall energy balance (and therefore determines whether you gain, maintain, or lose weight). One of these is mental health, which can be affected by a condition known as ‘seasonal affective disorder’ (SAD), otherwise known as ‘the winter blues’. Seasonal Affective Disorder is associated with colder weather and increases in self-reported depression, weight, appetite, and carbohydrate cravings (de Castro, 1991). Although carbohydrates are not to be feared (especially if you train), these cravings can result in consuming comfort foods high in energy, refined carbohydrates, saturated fat and trans-fat (e.g. a warm cinnamon donut, cake or pizza).
Having the compounding effects of low physical activity and high consumption of these ‘sometimes foods’ triggered by SAD can unfavourably effect our health in a variety of ways. SAD can arise due to a lack of sun exposure which sees a decrease in the levels of your 'happy hormone' – serotonin and Vitamin D. Doing some exercise in the sun each day will not only assist your mental health, but will contribute to your daily physical activity. If this isn’t possible, then using a Vitamin D3 supplement such as True's SUPER C during the winter is a good alternative to natural sun exposure, especially since low vitamin D has been linked with depressive disorders (Anglin, Samaan, Walter & McDonald, 2013) (Ju, Lee& Jeong, 2013) (Lansdowne & Provost, 1998). Visiting a GP is advised if you’re experiencing symptoms of SAD, however, other cofactors can affect our general health and weight too.
Dietary Intake and Physical Activity
An observational study following 593 American adults who were predominantly overweight found that there was a small increase in weight during winter which may have been attributed to a decrease in physical activity (Ma, Y et al., 2006). Interestingly, although we associate heartier, dense foods with winter, research has shown there is little to no change in total energy intake in the colder months (de Castro, 1991) (Subar, Frey, Harlan & Kahle, 1994) (Langeveld, 2016).
So, what does all of this mean? Well if we take the simplified equation for weight change of energy in versus energy out and apply the results from these studies, it might explain the weight gain commonly associated with winter. According to the evidence, a surplus is typically created during winter not because intake goes up per se, but because physical activity goes down (noting that this is just the general trend which might not apply to all individuals). This leaves those wanting to avoid weight gain with 3 options:
- The energy consumed from food and drinks needs to come down during the winter to cater to the decrease in physical activity;
- More exercise (in the form of frequency or intensity) must occur to maintain the energy deficit needed to lose weight or:
- You embrace putting on a little weight during the winter, acknowledging that it is not so harmful but may pause your progress for the meantime.
Depending on personal factors such as how motivated the individual is, they might choose option 1 or 2, or be able to go with option 3 and pick up where they left off when it gets warmer again. If they’re struggling for motivation or direction then coming up with an individualised plan with an Accredited Practicing Dietitian is a great option.
If you’re someone looking for ways to avoid winter weight gain and maintain health as things slow down, here are some useful strategies:
1. Adjust your intake to align with changes in physical activity
As described above, finding that happy medium between energy in versus energy out is usually skewed in winter compared to the warmer months. All this means is that you need to adapt to whatever has changed for you. If you’re working out less days per week and for shorter times during the winter, then decreasing your carbohydrate intake to match the difference in training load and perhaps even lowering fat intake will ensure that your intake matches your output. How much to decrease these macros by and when to do it is completely individual.
2. Practice intuitive eating to ensure comfort eating does not become overeating
Intuitive eating involves becoming more mindful of your feelings and behaviours while enjoying a meal. The enjoyment of consuming a warm, hearty meal in the winter can sometimes leave us coming back for seconds, without acknowledging our hunger cues which leads to overeating. This could also be attributed to being less social, especially during weeknights, where we are ‘stuck’ inside in front of the TV instead of going for an afternoon walk, catching up with friends or exercising after work. Strategies for combatting these eating behaviours include putting cutlery down while chewing, eating until you feel around 80% full and having distraction-free (e.g. no TV and phones) mealtimes.
3. Think of creative ways to incorporate all food groups
Cooking with seasonal produce and finding opportunities to sneak in some extra nutrition can be a fun game during winter. One study conducted by J.E. van der Toorn et al (2019) found intakes of legumes (chickpeas, lentils, beans, peas, soybeans, peanuts etc.), whole grains, red/processed meats, tea and nuts peaked during the wintertime. On the other hand, intakes of dairy, vegetables, fish, alcohol and sugar-containing beverages were lowest at this time.
Although this study was conducted in the Netherlands, the results somewhat paint a similar picture of an Australian wintertime diet and give direction as to what gaps to fill. Slow-cooked meals, soups, stews can be packed with extra vegetables such as celery, carrot, potatoes, tomatoes, onions, spinach, capsicum and any other vegetable you can think of. Foods high in protein or fibre are more satiating, helping to keep fuller for longer which in turn will help avoid overeating. Vegetables (and other fibre sources) combined with a source of protein (e.g. fish, eggs, tofu) have an additive effect on satiety and offer an array of micronutrients.
4. Maintain your immunity to stay on track
The higher prevalence of immune-depleting illnesses means our immune system must be ready for battle. Feeling under the weather is a major barrier to our productivity and something that can sometimes be evaded with the right nutrition. Including plenty of colour in the form of fruits and vegetables ensures you’re covering most bases in terms of vitamins, minerals and fibre – classes of nutrients which support the immune system. Adding in a serve of lean animal sources (65g red meat, 80g poultry, 100g fish) and/or dairy (1 cup milk, 2 slices cheese) at each meal further supports the immune system, providing protein, vitamin B12 and zinc. Not only does protein support immunity, but it also assists in weight management.
5. Consider your breakfast
Whether it be because you’re sleeping in a little more or morning motivation is low, the colder months do make it substantially harder to have a well-rounded breakfast. However, breakfast is an opportunity to squeeze in fruits and vegetables and may also help some individuals regulate their eating patterns. Choosing options high in protein and fibre facilitate weight management through regulating satiety. They also are associated with healthy whole foods which are important for nourishing the body. An example of something quick and easy is overnight oats mixed with chia seeds and your choice of milk. This can be thrown into the microwave in the morning and topped with berries, offering protein from the milk, fibre from the oats, and micronutrients from the berries. If you have a little more time, poached eggs on one slice of whole-grain toast with mushrooms and spinach provide a similar nutrient profile. In saying this, some individuals find they benefit from skipping breakfast without feeling the need to overeat later on in the day. Choose what works best for you.
It is completely normal to feel lost as our lifestyle is tweaked during winter. Knowing how to adapt what you eat is an important skill to have when trying to maintain general health or managing weight. Identifying what has changed for you, whether it be physical exercise, mental health or cravings, and working around this is key. Regardless, remember to embrace the comfort that comes with winter, taking the opportunity to warm up with meals that emphasise colour, protein, fibre and micronutrients and fill in the gaps according to your needs.
- de Castro, J.M. (1991). Seasonal rhythms of human nutrient intake and meal pattern. Physiology and Behaviour, 50(1), 243-248.
- Anglin, R.E.S., Samaan, Z., Walter, S.D., McDonald, S.D. (2013). Vitamin D Deficiency and Depression in Adults: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. British Journal of Psychiatry. 202, 100-107.
- Ju, S-Y., Lee, Y-J, Jeong, S-N. (2013) Serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D Levels and the Risk of Depression: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Journal of Nutrition, Health and Aging. 17(5), 447-455.
- Lansdowne A.T.G, Provost, S.C. (1998). Vitamin D3 enhances mood in healthy subjects during winter. Psychopharmacology. 135, 319-323.
- Ma, Y. et al. (2006). Seasonal variation in food intake, physical activity, and body weight in a predominantly overweight population. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 60(4), 519-528.
- Subar, A.F., Frey, C.M., Harlan, L.C., Kahle, L. (1994). Differences in Reported Food Frequency by Season of Questionnaire Administration: The 1987 National Health Interview Survey. Epidemiology. 5(2), 226-233.
- Langeveld, M. et al. (2016). Mild cold effects on hunger, food intake, satiety and skin temperature in humans. Endorcrine Connections. 5(2), 65-73.
- van der Toorn, J.E. et al. (2019). Seasonal variation of diet quality in a large middle-aged and elderly Dutch population-based cohort. European Journal of Nutrition. 59, 493-504.