Winter weight gain blues

Posted: March 13, 2014

UNDOUBTEDLY, this has been my winter of discontent. As much as I hate to admit it, and in spite of my valiant efforts, I was TKO'd by winter weight gain.

For years, I categorized winter weight-gain theories as old wives' tales or urban myths. Until this year, when I was overtaken by this monster who had an insatiable appetite - for chocolate, in particular, but also an unrelenting desire for Herr's potato chips and my favorite vegan peanut butter bars.

If I was unsure before, I'm very clear about this now! Who knows, I may even have an undiagnosed case of SAD (seasonal affective disorder). The frigid temperatures, lack of daylight and cabin fever had me climbing the walls one minute and crying hysterically the next. In between those raging highs and lows, I found myself almost eating snacks salty, sugary, crunchy and/or chewy.

To confirm my suspicions, I asked a few friends how they were faring with the harsh winter, eating and exercise motivation. Only one said that she had not gained an ounce.

What did all this mean? I surely wasn't alone. Even my loyal gym comrades were complaining. Sure, we were all working out, but we were also eating more comfort foods than normal. Hence, winter weight gain.

Recent years' milder winters must have offered me some protection against this assault, which is why I was caught off guard during the 2013-14 snow season. Now, I see that winter weight gain is real and driven both biologically and emotionally.

So, what's to blame?

The lack of sunlight alone made me feel sad and lethargic as I dragged myself through bitter cold days. Unknowingly, to boost my feel-good chemicals (serotonin) and to manage my malaise, I soothed my soul. My body was craving a quick hit and I was defenseless.

And, yes, I did maintain my workouts throughout, albeit with less enthusiasm.

Now, while I remain strong, there is a little more of me to love. Seven pounds' worth.

While I am temporarily dismayed about this, there seems to be some scientific evidence that explains that we are genetically programmed to pack on pounds when it gets cold.

In 1962, geneticist Dr. James Neel proposed the thrifty gene hypothesis: Our ancestors were programmed to increase fat storage during winter to make it through the famine. Problem is, now we have too much food and don't need thrifty genes, if that is indeed the culprit.

Others hypothesize that the increase in the hormone melatonin (produced by the pineal gland) makes you sleepy during the dark cold winter and can influence your appetite, too.

Other experts link lower levels of vitamin D to increased weight gain. Insufficient exposure to sunlight (a source of vitamin D) can cause lower levels of vitamin D. During the winter we just had, everybody was wrapped up from head to toe. It's almost impossible to get natural vitamin D during times like these.

So, while I abhor having lost an hour of sleep, I welcome this year's time change. In fact, I'm ecstatic! Already, with the increased light I'm feeling an improved sense of well-being.

Now, I'm praying for an early spring.

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