By Rebecca Turner, MS, RD, CSSD, LD
Does an ancient human instinct lead us to eat more during the winter? Some researchers believe we could be driven to consume more calories and eat faster when the days grow shorter and the weather turns colder, despite the fact that we now spend most of our time in climate-controlled offices and homes. Maybe we haven’t come as far out of the “cave” as we thought.
Winter can be a challenging season for those navigating a healthier lifestyle journey. After surviving the holidays with all the tempting foods, the onset of colder weather can pose new obstacles, making dieting a daunting undertaking. Colder weather and shorter days can interrupt your workout routine, make you more likely to reach for comfort foods like chowders or hot cocoa, and can disrupt your mood, all of which can lead to overeating. Seasonal weight gain is likely to go unnoticed until you are standing in your closet come spring blaming the clothes-shrinking fairies for the unflattering fit. This year, be prepared for the season and beat winter weight gain.
The trick is not to let seasonal comfort foods end up making you uncomfortable in your clothes. Good old-fashioned gooey macaroni and cheese, chowders, soups, and freshly baked goodies can still warm your body without expanding your waistline. All you need to do is tweak your recipes a bit, stay within proper portion, and set reasonable boundaries.
Lightening up your favorite winter dishes is easier than you may think. Rich casseroles, fruit or potato salads, crumb crusted meats, and simple sandwiches typically call for some sort of milk, cheese, or mayonnaise or all three. Swapping full-fat milk, cheese, or creams for their lighter version such as skim milk, 2% cheese, or fat-free creams, will still make meals that are creamy and delicious, but with significantly less saturated fat and calories. Even if weight loss isn’t your focus, reducing a recipes overall saturated fat content will make your heart happy. Switching from traditional mayo to plain Greek yogurt will save 100 calories and 10 grams of fat per tablespoon. Think, if a recipe calls for a ½ cup of mayo that is 800 calories and 80 grams of fat that would magically disappear. Plain Greek style yogurt provides the same creamy texture for only 10 calories and 0 grams of fat per tablespoon.
A heated bowl of vegetable soup, beef stew or classic chowder can warm the body and soul. But it can also cause you to retain water from excess sodium and feel puffy and fluffy. You can beat the bloat by making better ingredient choices in the supermarket. Choosing the lower sodium options for canned beans, tomatoes, and broth, all staples for winter meals, can reduce added salt by 50 percent. Taking time to drain and rinse beans under cool, running water for 10 seconds can reduce the sodium content by an additional 40 percent. Avoiding sodium overload may not help you lose weight, but your blood pressure will benefit from reduced sodium and it will also help you prevent fluctuations on the scale that can be so discouraging.
When the weather outside is frightful, it keeps us indoors and in the baking mood. Baking is a science, but experiment with using whole wheat flours over all purpose for added goodness. Try unsweetened applesauce in the place of added sugar, oil or butter. Pureed avocado can also be a nutritious swap for butter. Testing recipes with stevia, a natural sugar alternative, can truly make an impact in total calories and sugar grams. For those living with diabetes, learning to bake with less sugar can keep you one step ahead of the disease.
Even if you incorporate all these tricks and tips into the kitchen, proper portion control is key to staying on track all year long. Sensible meals aren’t made up of just one dish. Balance rich casseroles with a side salad or steamed vegetable. Try eating a cup over a large bowl of cream-based soups paired with half a sandwich or salad. Aim for a fruit or vegetable or both at every meal and snack. Set realistic boundaries with baked goods. If they are super tempting for you, don’t bring them into the house. Limit muffins, seasonal breads, pies and cookies to one splurge weekly, without guilt. Keep in mind the calories and sugar sneaking into your coffee or cocoa cups. Lighten up seasonal drinks by requesting sugar-free syrup, no whipped cream, or choose the smallest size with skim milk. Avoid drinking your calories and opt for a hot tea or plain coffee.
In the end, winter weight gain isn’t inevitable. Be mindful to not binge on food simply out of boredom. Make exercise or physical activity a priority. Treat yourself to a walking monitor and get your steps in. On the coldest days dust off that treadmill or visit your local mall to get in exercise. Every morning set three small health goals for the day and tackle the winter months one meal, one mile, and one day at a time.
Rebecca Turner is a registered dietitian, certified specialist in sports dietetics and author of “Mind Over Fork.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram @RebeccaTurnerNutrition.