Stop winter weight gain in its tracks

Don't take winter weight gain sitting down – fight it with these kilojoule-busting tips.

06 August 2014
by Lynne Gidish

It’s easy to blame a sluggish metabolism for those excess winter kilos, but here’s the kicker: contrary to popular belief, your metabolism should actually speed up during the colder months. Yip, you read correctly: speed up! That’s because your body uses energy to keep warm, burning kilojoules in the process, explains Claudia Gravenorst, Healthy Weight Coordinator and Registered Biokineticist at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa (SSISA).

In theory, this means that if you stick to healthy eating and regular exercise – especially if you venture outside to do so – winter should be a time when you lose weight. But this is rarely the case, mostly because seasonal lifestyle shift is real. That is, we tend to reach for comfort foods and dash under the nearest duvet (sound familiar?) when the temperature drops.

So how do you tweak your winter habits and stick to healthier choices? Firstly, it’s important to understand that there’s a tricky web of factors that influence weight gain. We asked the experts to talk us through the tangle and share solid strategies for fighting back.

Your metabolism

Simply put, your metabolism is about how fast and efficiently (or otherwise) your body processes everything you eat and drink, converting all that sugar, protein and fat into energy, explains registered dietician Mayuri Bhawan. “Everyone’s body works differently, and everyone has a different metabolic rate – the amount of energy expended in a given period of time.”

The good news? You have more control over your metabolic rate than you might imagine. “What you eat, how much you eat, and how much exercise you do all have an impact. ‘Heavy’ foods, a sedentary lifestyle and too little water all work together to slow down your metabolism, increasing fat stores and leading to weight gain,” says Bhawan.

Gravenorst agrees: “As a result of our tendency to ‘hibernate’ in winter, our bodies adapt to using less energy to operate. And since we’re eating more to keep warm, those kilos pile on.”

In other words, our duvet-clutching, carby-eating habits override the metabolism’s natural inclination to speed up in cold weather. It’s a cruel cycle but, according to Bhawan, by far the best way to increase the rate at which your body burns kilojoules is to get moving.

Speed up your metabolism

  • Venture outdoors every day no matter what the weather: the colder it is, the more kilojoules your body burns to stay warm.
  • Instead of piling on clothing, keep warm by staying active throughout the day.
  • Work on building muscle, which burns more kilojoules than fat. Interval training, which incorporates brief bursts of intense exercise into an otherwise moderate workout, can also help boost your metabolism for several hours.

Your eating habits

Yes, you do seem to feel hungrier during the winter months, but beware. Because they cause your blood sugar to spike and then crash, all those high-carb comfort foods, such as potato chips, sweets, biscuits and chocolates, will only leave you hungrier than before – and with an expanding waistline, says Bhawan.

And another thing, cautions Gravenorst: exercising doesn’t give you the license to double up on your portions – even if it’s cold outside!

Control your cravings

1. Brush up on fibre. Aim to get at least 25-30 grams of fibre per day from sources such as veggies, quinoa, oats, bran flakes, and pearled barley. These will ease hunger pangs, advises Bhawan.

2. Love your legumes. They’re also high in fibre, offer slow-release energy, and can easily be snuck into daily meals. Add lentils to veggie soups, chickpeas or soybeans to stir-fries, and beans to casseroles. Serve hummus (a chickpea dip) with veggie sticks for a healthy snack.

3. Think before you drink. A steaming cup of something sweet will surely warm you up, but it’s also one of the easiest ways to pack on the kilojoules. Ditch the fancy chai teas and sugary flavoured lattes and stick to regular coffee or tea (without sugar, if you can, or with sweetener, if you have to). Make hot chocolate with plain cocoa powder, milk and a no-kilojoule sweetener of your choice (rather than using high-sugar instant hot chocolate).

4. Stay well hydrated. Drink herbal teas without milk or sugar. Warm water with a squeeze of lemon juice, a slice of ginger and a sprig of mint is an excellent option.

5. Warm up on soup. This winter favourite can be nutritious and satisfying without significantly increasing your energy intake. Just be aware that store-bought, pre-made soups are often high in sugar and unhealthy fats, so it’s best to make your own and freeze them for convenience.

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