MADISON, Wis.- Winter weight gain doesn’t have to be a fact of life—even with the body’s chemical changes that can compel you to binge on carbs and “comfort foods.”
“There’s quite a bit of science that shows levels of serotonin, which regulates appetite and mood, dip in the winter time,” says Dr. J. Adam Rindfleisch, associate professor of family medicine at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health (SMPH).
“When the brain senses a serotonin level drop, it signals a craving for carbohydrates. Carbs can provide a quick burst of serotonin,” explains Rindfleisch.
A drop in serotonin levels, in addition to less activity in cold-weather months, can be a recipe for significant weight gain. Two studies published in 2000 show holiday weight gain alone can range from just under a pound to five pounds. And the really bad news is that most of us do not take off those extra pounds. Also, the weight gain appears to be on the higher end of the range for people who are already overweight.
“It is possible to satisfy your cravings for carbs and comfort foods, without weight gain,” says Donna Weihofen, clinical nutritionist at University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics.
Weihofen points out that not only are we physiologically inclined to pack on pounds in the winter, we’re socialized to crave warm, sweet, creamy and hearty foods.
“If it’s cold outside, the last thing we want is a salad! We want warm apple pie, pot roast and mashed potatoes and other foods with extra calories,” says Weihofen. She says with a little creative thinking, and good recipes, it is possible to satisfy cravings without high-calorie foods (see recipes).
“Things like chili and soup with rice or pasta and a fresh roll can be very satisfying and filling. French onion soup with a little cheese sprinkled on top can be as little as 200 calories,” says Weihofen.
What about the inevitable sugar cravings?
“You have to have sweets or you’ll binge,” says Weihofen. Her advice is to pick a few treats every once in awhile and eat them without guilt.
Rindfleisch agrees that the key to cracking the craving conundrum is balance.
“If you make mostly healthy food choices, enjoy an occasional treat and get as much activity as possible, you can survive the winter and maintain your weight,” he says.
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