Winter is the season for celebration. Back in December, you likely enjoyed fresh baked goods, hot chocolate, and candy canes. Then came New Year’s Eve, which you may have celebrated over late-night hors d’oeuvres and bottles of bubbly. More time spent on the couch as outdoor temperatures plummeted likely followed, and now, you’re regretting not signing up for that gym membership on January 1, after all.
Winter weight gain is a real thing, according to research published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM). But when it comes to your widening waistline, that might not be all that’s going on. “There are many reasons a person’s weight can fluctuate, including genetics, behavior, appetite signals, and your environment. It’s not something to freak about,” says Ted Kyle, a pharmacist and health advocate in Pittsburgh.
Factors that affect your weight will change throughout your life, says B. Gabriel Smolarz, MD, the medical director of Novo Nordisk in Plainsboro, New Jersey. “You may have worse sleep in your thirties, or more stress in your forties and fifties,” he says. “These things may impact the way you gain or lose weight over time.”
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And simply being female makes your weight more likely to fluctuate. “Menstrual cycles and pregnancy can result in fluctuations both up and down in weight,” notes Alicia Blittner, RDN, a nutritionist in Mamaroneck, New York.
If weight gain is a concern, it’s worth following up with a healthcare provider who understands how human physiology regulates body weight, says Kyle. “In particular, board-certified obesity medicine physicians have the credentials to show that they have this understanding. Once you figure out how your own body works, you can start to figure out how to deal with [weight gain] in a healthy way.”
And if it’s any consolation, “balancing against those factors is the possibility that winter can activate something called brown fat to burn more energy,” he adds, a notion that’s backed up by research.
If you’re still thinking that your winter festivities may have been to blame for extra unwanted weight, read on for the possible culprits — plus, what to do to change those numbers on the scale.
1. You Indulged a Little Too Much Over the Holiday Season
Do you feel like you consumed all the sugar cookies and drank all the eggnog in December? “[While] we all know about pressure to eat during the winter holidays, the question of winter weight gain really varies from person to person,” says Kyle. In fact, the aforementioned research in the NEJM reveals that most people only gain about a pound between September and March. “That’s quite a bit less than people assume,” says Kyle. “But over a lifetime, winter weight gain can add up if you gain a pound every year.”
The same actions that can help you maintain your weight can help you shed winter weight gain. “Research has found that the weight gain can be combated by weight-maintenance-related behavior, like self-weighing and enrolling in weight-monitoring programs,” says Blittner.
If your workplace offers WW (formerly Weight Watchers) or a corporate wellness program, consider giving it a go. In a study published in June 2019 in Nutrition and Health, state government employees enrolled in a 10-week weight-gain-prevention program lost about four pounds on average. The program included self-monitoring, weigh-ins, and a team challenge.
Work for yourself or don’t have this type of program available? Find workout and healthy-eating buddies in your area through groups like Meetup. Just make sure to weigh yourself at the same time of day and wearing similar clothing if you’re self-monitoring. And you can always enroll in your own weight-loss challenge through HealthyWage.
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2. Winter Hormonal Changes Caused Your Hunger Cues to Go Haywire
“As we age, it can get harder and harder to lose weight, and many of us end up gaining weight instead,” says Patricia Bannan, RDN, a healthy eating expert in Los Angeles. Middle-aged adults tend to gain about 1 to 2 pounds a year, per research from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. “This can come from normal hormonal changes that appear with age, such as drops in estrogen in women and lower testosterone in men,” she says. “Our metabolism also starts to slow down as we age, which can lead to weight gain.”
And it’s not just your age-related hormones that may lead to weight gain. “Research has shown that levels of melatonin, the hormone responsible for our sleep-wake cycle, as well as increased appetite, are as much as 80 percent higher in the body during the winter,” says Bannan. Disrupted sleep can increase appetite, which may contribute to a higher intake of calorie-dense foods, and an increased chance of weight gain, she adds.
If you suspect your weight gain is due to hormonal changes, you may not be able to deal on your own. “A person’s BMI, or body mass index, can indicate if someone is classified as having obesity,” says Dr. Smolarz. “Obesity can impact many aspects of a person’s physical and emotional well-being, and is linked to more than 50 other health conditions. So a complete care approach — including healthy meal planning, increased physical activity, consultations with your doctor about weight and health, a registered dietitian, and other healthcare professionals — is recommended.” You can find a registered dietitian nutritionist in your area by using the “find an expert” tool at Eatright.org.
Trying to get more and better shut-eye? Use your Fitbit or a product like Hello Sense to track your sleep and get a baseline. Then make modifications if needed — such as adding blackout curtains, white-noise machines, and fans to make the environment more comfortable. If nothing’s helping, you may need to see a sleep specialist.
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3. Holiday Stress Contributed to Your Winter Weight Gain
We’ve all been there: There’s a holiday lull (thank goodness!) with work — and then in January, returning to the office or sending your kids back to school can be hectic. “High amounts of stress, coupled with a lack of sleep, is a recipe for increased stress hormones in the body — namely cortisol and adrenaline,” says Bannan. “In turn, those hormones appear to increase the amount of visceral, aka tummy, fat that your body stores.”
Have a stressful job? It’s like the forces are working against you when it comes to weight. When faced with a high-demanding workload, women may be more likely to gain weight, per a study published in December 2018 in International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health.
“Finding a stress-management routine like yoga or meditation — as well as prioritizing sleep by powering down electronics and aiming for seven to nine hours of shut-eye each night — can be helpful,” says Bannan.
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4. Your Activity Level Hit Rock Bottom — and Stayed There
After months of watching Hallmark movies by the fire, you may have gotten used to less activity than normal. “It’s colder in the winter, which means people are generally less active and burning fewer calories,” says Smolarz. Frequent exercise falls to its lowest point in the year in December, according to a 2011 Gallup and Healthways survey. Besides planned exercise, physical activity may also drop during winter. “Especially for people living in colder climates, people are less likely to walk or bike places,” notes Angie Asche, RD, a sports nutritionist in Lincoln, Nebraska. “It may also become more difficult or less appealing to take walks outside over your lunch break.”
“Physical activity can be an integral part of your winter routine,” says Smolarz. “You can be active even when it’s cold outside by being a little creative and finding things inside your own home — like stairs, weights, treadmill, or yoga.”
Not feeling super self-motivated? Stream workout classes to your home via an app like H3 On Demand, which features everything from HIIT to yoga on a number of streaming and mobile app services. Or try Burn, which guides you through 28-minute workouts starting at $3.99 per month. You can also invest in active games like Ring Fit Adventure for Nintendo Switch or BOXVR for PS4. You’ll pass the time while moving around, getting sweaty, and having fun.
Also make sure to wear proper footwear so getting in steps doesn’t feel like a chore. Sneakers are important for exercising and commuting, and comfy dress shoes are also key. Sole Bliss, for instance, is a United Kingdom–based shoe brand that recently launched in the United States. The shoes are specially designed to provide more cushion — they’re made with memory foam and have a stretch panel for bunions.
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5. You Gave Up on Those New Year’s Resolutions
Did your resolutions involve healthy eating? Those intentions may fall by the wayside come mid-January. “One study found that while people had the best intentions to abide by New Year’s resolutions to eat healthier, their grocery purchases did not mirror those intentions,” says Blittner. In the study, published in December 2014 in PloS One, purchases of less-healthy foods remained at holiday levels — even though sales of healthy foods increased by 29 percent after the holiday season. “The takeaway, and the potential cause for the winter weight gain phenomenon, was that sales of less-healthy foods remained at holiday levels in January, on a dollar-for-dollar comparison,” says Blittner. “Once the higher-calorie items were in people’s diet, they stayed there.”
Why those extra pounds appear may be what you’re not eating. “People may be reducing their intake of fresh produce in the winter months,” says Asche. Americans eat less fruits and vegetables in the winter months, according to the survey by Gallup and Healthways.
Step one of buying nutritious food is getting it in your grocery cart. Doing it online can help you make more mindful eating choices. According to a study published in December 2018 in Public Health Nutrition, online grocery shopping may increase healthy choices and reduce unhealthy impulse purchases. Try FreshDirect in the northeast, Amazon Fresh in select locations throughout the country, or Instacart to get groceries from local stores.
If you’re not sure what nutritious choices are to begin with, the MyFoodDiary food tracker’s virtual nutritionist will rate food choices for you.