It's cold hand over those carbs It’s officially that time of year…days are getting shorter, the air is getting colder, the trees are turning bare, and the “holiday season” is right around the corner!

While some people love this time of year because, let’s face it, winter is simply magical, others transform into angry grizzly bears, entering hibernation until spring. No matter your opinion on the matter, this time of year also brings about many challenges for achieving or maintaining good health. The lazy-gene turns on and people throw in the towel on making positive health changes. “I’ll just wait until January 1st is a very common mentality that can actually be quite damaging. A lot can happen in the timespan from Halloween to New Years, so it’s important to understand the temptations and challenges that accompany the holiday season and ways to combat the negative effects it can take on your waistline.

Why Do People Gain Weight In the Winter?

On average, people gain about one pound over the holiday season. Now, you might be thinking to yourself: “Just one, little, meaningless pound? Who cares? Totally worth it if I get to eat my cake, eggnog and any other delicious treat!” The problem is that people typically don’t lose that extra pound during the rest of the year. Fast-forward 20 years, and that’s a whopping 20 pounds of extra fat. That’s enough to make a healthy-weight individual overweight and unhealthy.

So let’s dissect this problem a bit further. I’m sure you’re already aware of most of the reasons for weight gain and the decline in healthy habits throughout the fall and winter months. Exercise habits die down because of changes in temperature, less hours of daylight, cold and flu season, and reduced desire to keep a nice figure while covered up in those bulky winter sweaters! Less exercise not only means less calorie burn and reduction in lean muscle mass, but it can also lead to increased appetite, cravings and total food intake.

Also, food choices tend to take a negative spiral with an increase in what I like to call “The Cs,” which are better known as Cookies, Cakes, Candy, and Comfort foods…basically Carbs! Not only are these foods more prevalent during the winter in our meager attempts to boost the feel-good hormone serotonin and combat Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), but they are also more desired! What changes within us to bring out our inner cookie-monster? Don’t worry, science can explain it!

It’s true that our appetite changes during the colder months. One reason for this change is due to our memories. When Memorial Day weekend rolls around, I don’t start daydreaming about eating pumpkin pie while sipping on a pumpkin spice latte. Memories associated with certain times of the year may cause cravings for certain foods. Aside from our memories, we also know that foods available on a seasonal basis often dictate food choices. If only watermelon, fresh blueberries, and asparagus were available all winter long then maybe I would consume lighter-fare. Heavier, starchier foods are available in the fall and winter like winter squashes, pears, and tubers. There’s also less fresh produce available to purchase at the grocery store. That means you should probably forget about trying to shop at Farmer’s Markets after October!

At this point, it almost seems like nature is telling us to stock up on starches. Internally, there are also other changes happening. When the temperature cools down, the body wants to heat up…which can be accomplished with either our cozy, fleece Snuggie or by consuming warming foods. Eating more food overall, but especially carbohydrates, provides the body with the fuel needed to increase internal temperature and energy levels.

Because of the lack of sunlight exposure during winter months, people also tend to think and feel they need more energy (aka food and carbs) to stay awake and focused during the day. Sunlight regulates the body’s circadian rhythm. When the sun rises, the body slows down melatonin production to keep us awake. When the sun sets, the body speeds up melatonin production to induce sleep. Thanks to the modern-day light bulb, humans no longer have to listen to Mother Nature’s cry to slow down during the winter. Instead, we try to combat this natural urge with the use of more caffeine and often more sugar.

There’s also a phenomenon I like to call “The Vampire Effect”, when people tend to make poorer food choices after sunset. There’s just something about the privacy of darkness and the quiet nature of the evening hours that provokes our inner vampire to attack the pantry, which we all know is loaded up with “The Cs!”

“Alright, alright we get it…now leave us alone and let us be sloths this winter.” Not so fast, people. Instead, try some easy tips listed below to help you survive this holiday season.

Tips to Beat the Holiday Bulge:

  1. Have your cake and eat it too, just make sure to find a healthy cake recipe!
    • You don’t have to deprive yourself of yummy comfort foods this season, but try modifying the recipe a bit. Instead of using the typical sugar cookie recipe that’s laden with butter, white flour, and white sugar, try finding a cookie recipe that uses nuts, whole grains, and fruit instead! Or, if you find yourself craving the leftover pumpkin pie that’s screaming your name, stock up on pumpkin pie flavored Lara bars (my new special treat these days). But, if you must have the real thing to help conquer a craving, use mindful eating techniques. Take what you envision to be a “normal” portion size and cut it in half. Now, eat it slowly and savor each bite!
  2.  Stop cravings before they even start by eating protein-rich foods with every meal and snack.
    • Studies show that protein can help with weight loss by increasing satiety and reducing total food intake.  Try a protein smoothie for breakfast, beef and bean chili for lunch, and salmon over a spinach salad for dinner. Snack on hard-boiled eggs, nuts, or string cheese instead of handfuls of leftover Halloween candy.
  3. No more excuses! Develop a physical activity plan for the winter months.
    • A well-developed plan will give you options and motivation to stay active. Sign up for a gym in your area and pick a few group fitness classes to try throughout the week. Buy a DVD program to implement in your home like P90X or Insanity. Or, if you’re on a tight budget, try following free videos offered on YouTube or Exercise OnDemand. People often enjoy the Tone It Up girls, Jillian Michaels, and Biggest Loser programs. Download free fitness apps that provide an exercise guide and tracking system. I like Nike Training, Sworkit Lite, and BodySpace.
    • Scope out Groupon to see if you can find a new fitness class in your area that’s offering discounts for first-timers or new members. This is how I was introduced to CrossFit, Bikram yoga, and a few other exercise programs over the last few years.
    • Lastly, buy a pedometer or a Fitbit and just keep track of your daily movement. Try to move more and aim for 10,000 steps per day! “What’s the best exercise?” The exercise you’ll do…so be sure to find something you like and just stick with it.
  4. Do things that make you happy!
    • Exercise, spend time with friends and family, go shopping, laugh at a comedy show, take a vacation. Do something to boost those serotonin levels without the consumption of simple carbohydrates.
    • I’ve also used a product called SeroSyn by Metagenics which contains 5-HTP, B-vitamins, and L-theanine. These can naturally help increase the body’s production of serotonin, promote a positive mood, and reduce cravings for sweets.

Stay strong and take action this year to be active, eat well, and get and stay healthy! Don’t let the winter season stop you from being your best. A healthy mind and body is the best present you can give to yourself.