Mind and Body

5 ways to avoid getting fat this winter

Runners running in winter snow with city skyline background. Healthy multiracial young couple. Asian woman runner and Caucasian man running with Montreal skyline, Quebec, Canada

Runners running in winter snow with city skyline background. Healthy multiracial young couple. Asian woman runner and Caucasian man running with Montreal skyline, Quebec, Canada

People get fatter in winter -- it seems like a natural law. Whether it's because of all the feast-based holidays, the tons of comfort food needed to contend with the cold and dark, or the reduced amount of exercise, we all feel like we've put on about five pounds before spring shows its fat face. The fact is that we tend to overestimate how much weight we've gained.

A 2000 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests that we probably only gain about a pound or two during the winter season. The trouble is that this extra weight accumulates through the years and can be a major contributor to obesity later in life. Granted, it's only a pound, but winter doesn't have to be a bulking phase.

The Dark Side

In nature, winter was always a time of low food supply when all animals would rely on the fat pad that they had built up during the summer months. Those with low fat stores would be at higher risk of starvation and death, so our bodies evolved an acute insulin response to efficiently store carbohydrates.

Long summer days meant continuously elevated insulin to store sugars from fruits, starches from tubers and caramel from your mocha latte. To mammals, including humans, continuously elevated insulin meant only one thing: winter was coming.

Winter was cold, dark period when we would empty our stored sugar from our livers and muscles, and, more importantly, our accumulated body fat. Come summer, the entire cycle would repeat itself and our insulin would remain sensitive for the next four or five months.

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia

Through the miracle of technology, we've eliminated our traditional  famine period. Light bulbs and computer screens provide the artificial daylight, and year-round access to carbs provides the food security. We have confused our bodies into thinking that summer is still here, and, frankly, you can't blame us. Summer is a time of feasting, frolicking and fornicating. Who wouldn't want that to last all year?

But Mother Nature isn't easily fooled. In return for banishing darkness, we suffer from weight gain, seasonal affective disorder, depression, lower immunity, higher stress, and fatigue, all of which falls under the scientifically accurate term "winter blues."

Follow these five steps, and you'll not only avoid putting on a few pounds, but you'll likely lose a few. Let the abominable snowman transform into an abdominal one.

Step 1: Feed Your Hunger For Sleep

Light and dark cycles control insulin through carb cravings but also, more directly, through your stress mechanisms. When the lights are on, your cortisol levels stay up because you need the ability to fight, run and get stuff done. Cortisol mobilizes blood sugar, which means that insulin also stays up to disperse that sugar to your muscles. So staying up to watch Letterman keeps your insulin up longer than nature intended, and that means one thing: You get fat just by smelling a cookie.

As a result, we crave carbohydrates only when we're tired, not when we need food. More and more research shows that chronic sleep deprivation leads to weight gain. So turn off the TV by 9 p.m., get to bed by 10 p.m. and try to get as much sleep as you can without getting fired or divorced.
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Step 2: Eat Fewer Carbs

If you can accomplish Step 1, you'll lose weight naturally and be able to resist carbs more easily. Sugar is an addictive white powder because it raises levels of serotonin in our brains. (Serotonin is a feel-good hormone that is involved in eating and energy balance and emotional functions like mood.) Researchers recently discovered that serotonin transporters are significantly higher in the winter, which means that serotonin is cleared away faster. This is the biological explanation for the winter blues.

The reason this happens is because in nature winter carbs are somewhat hard to come by, so our bodies have evolved to survive on a seasonal low-carb diet. The only winter carbs cavemen had access to were root vegetables and bark. So choose carrots, potatoes, onions, leeks, pumpkin, and turnips instead of pasta, breads and grain cereals. And drop the sugar -- the stuff wasn't even considered a food until the modern era.

Step 3: Eat more protein and fat

After the late-harvest green vegetables were eaten, our bodies would prepare for the coming winter months by progressively relying on free fatty acids instead of straight glucose. Fats can replace carbohydrate energy for virtually every metabolic process. That's how bears survive hibernation. Fats and proteins don't raise insulin like carbs do, so you'll naturally lose weight.

Research also suggests that doing so would give your heart a rest from all those nasty free radicals produced during carb metabolism, which is why the Inuit never had heart disease or diabetes before they started eating modern foods. Besides, meat is a great source of zinc, an essential nutrient for proper immune function. Eat fresh meat every day and stay away from processed packaged meats. Vary your fat and protein sources and include eggs, nuts, hard cheeses, fish, grass-fed beef, pork, or poultry at every meal.

Step 4: Go outside For Your Vitamin

Levels of the sunshine vitamin are notoriously low when people don't get enough ultraviolet-B (UVB) light on their skin. A recent study conducted at the University of Minnesota found that overweight folks have better success at losing weight when their vitamin D levels are increased. Vitamin D is essential for absorbing calcium from our foods, and a deficiency in one means a deficiency in the other.

Low calcium causes a 500-fold increase in the production of an enzyme that converts energy into fat, causing you to pack on the pounds. So brave the cold, go outside and eat foods rich in calcium and vitamin D (not, coincidentally, the same foods you should be eating in winter, such as meat, seafood, dairy, and nuts). When natural sunlight is not an option, supplementation with vitamin D3 is the next best option. As for calcium, dairy products seem to have more of an impact on your health than dietary supplements.

Step 5: Cut the comfort Coffees

At least seven scientific studies provide strong evidence that calorie-high beverages do not properly activate the satiety mechanisms in the body and brain and do not satisfy the appetite as well as solid food. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Nature did not prepare us to process liquid calories since we drank water for most of human history. High-sugar drinks didn't exist until 150 years ago, and they weren't consumed in significant amounts until the past 50 years.

The primary culprits are sodas, followed closely by specialty and gourmet coffees. Skip the hot chocolate and frappuccino and stick to a cafe Americano, espresso or a cafe grande. Fruit juices may sound like a healthy alternative, but they also contribute significant calories from sugars. Whole fruit satisfies the appetite better due to the bulk and fiber content. Ice teas, energy drinks, meal replacement shakes, and even protein drinks contain added sugars that can easily contribute to weight gain. Soup, generally, is an exception. Studies show that soup has a higher satiating value than calorie-containing beverages. So stick with tradition and enjoy a hot, hearty soup to help you cope with the cold.

The key to battling the winter bulge is to emulate your primal ways. This doesn't mean we should go mammoth hunting; it means that we should simply recognize our planet's light-dark cycle and follow some of its rules. Seasons change, and so should your nutrition plan.