While you may think that winter weight gain is inevitable with the colder, shorter days; the holiday bustle; and your inherent urge to hibernate more, consider these tips for taking charge of your weight and health.
1. Eat Whole Foods
You may have heard of the whole food movement. This eating style is focused on eating foods that are in their whole forms (or as close as possible), such as fresh fruits and vegetables, unprocessed meats and proteins, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and healthy unrefined oils.
Ultra-processed foods—such as white flour, fast food, sugar, and classic junk food—are associated with an increased rate of obesity, increased metabolic syndrome, higher fasting glucose levels, and increased total and LDL cholesterol levels.
To prevent winter weight gain this year, steer your grocery cart to the perimeter of the store, where fresh, unprocessed, and whole-food options are usually located.
2. Balance Your Blood Sugar
Your biochemistry is governed by insulin, a hormone that allows cells to absorb glucose, a sugar, from the blood. When your blood sugar level frequently rises and falls into unhealthy ranges, it can drive your insulin out of balance and cause your body to store more fat. On the other hand, when your blood sugar is stable throughout the day, your body is better able to regulate metabolism, burn fat, and maintain your optimal weight.
To keep your blood sugar levels stable, avoid eating foods made with processed sugar and other refined carbohydrates, such as candy, crackers, bagels, and even foods that are commonly touted as “health foods,” but which can contain high levels of refined sugars: granola, some energy bars (check the labels), and sweetened yogurt. Some research has found that eating frequent small meals (and snacks) throughout the day creates more stable blood sugar levels and leads to a lower body mass index. However, these mini-meals or snacks need to include a balance of protein, fat, and carbohydrates.
3. Upgrade Your Comfort Foods
Enjoying food is a primal desire of human beings. The good news is that you don’t have to eliminate your favorite flavors and treats to keep winter weight gain at bay. Rather, experiment with substituting higher quality ingredients to upgrade the health value of your favorite comfort foods, so they include more whole-food, low-sugar, and healthy ingredients.
For example, switch out white sugar for honey, maple syrup, or monk fruit. Instead of white flour, use whole-wheat flour, gluten-free flour, or almond flour. Upgrade your oils, (avoiding processed oils such as trans fats and hydrogenated oils), to less refined options such as coconut oil, olive oil, or avocado oil.
4. Sweat Regularly
There are many types of exercise and many exercise strategies that can help you avoid seasonal weight gain while offering many other benefits for your overall health and well-being. Regardless of what kind of physical activity you choose, the research shows that consistent exercise, when combined with healthy eating, not only helps to prevent weight gain but also helps people who have lost weight to maintain that weight loss in the long-term.
For greater success and longevity with your exercise routine, focus on the following elements:
- Variety: Vary the type of exercise you perform within a week. For example, try including some cardio, some resistance training, and some strength and flexibility (such as yoga) in a given seven-day period.
- Enjoyment: For greater inspiration and improved weight management, explore activities you enjoy. One study confirmed that enjoyment during exercise improved weight loss for overweight women.
- Consistency: Creating consistency with your exercise plan will help you to stave off winter weight gain. One study found that participants who exercised approximately 60 minutes per day had more success with keeping their weight down. You don’t necessarily need to exercise an hour every day, but moving your body every day, or most days, will be beneficial.
Did you know that dehydration is a primary cause of low energy and fatigue? When you’re tired, you’re less likely to want to engage in the physical activity that boosts your mood and helps keep your weight balanced. Additionally, sometimes when you think you are hungry, you may actually be thirsty. In fact, researchers have found a significant association between inadequate hydration and elevated BMI, and between inadequate hydration and obesity.
Ensuring that you are well hydrated is a great way to avoid winter weight gain. Each day, aim to drink half of your body weight in ounces (more if you are exercising). For example, if you weigh 160 pounds, drink at least 80 ounces of water each day.
6. Manage Your Stress
You may have heard that stress affects your body weight. When you experience physical or psychological stress, your body releases cortisol, a hormone that increases your blood pressure and blood sugar levels while suppressing your immune system. It also stimulates the appetite. Researchers have found evidence that chronic stress and elevated levels of cortisol are predictive of future weight gain. Many people experience high-stress levels through the winter season, which means that they may also have higher levels of cortisol and a tendency to gain weight.
Ultimately, you don’t have control of the potential stressors life throws at you, but you can work on how you manage stress. Try creating more downtime for yourself, simplifying your life, taking long deep breaths, focusing on the positive, and practicing gratitude.
7. Practice Meditation
Regular meditation practice offers many health benefits. As researchers have found, sitting quietly, breathing intentionally, calming your mind, and slowing down can help to reduce anxiety and insomnia, positively affect gene expression, decrease your biological age, lower blood pressure, and reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke—just to name a few of the benefits. However, you may not realize that maintaining a healthy weight is also on this list.
One study found that overweight or obese participants who practiced mindfulness meditation experienced significant improvements in dietary restraint and eating behaviors, as well as greater weight loss, in comparison with a control group. While this is a new area of research, the results indicate that meditation may be a helpful tool for weight management.
If you are new to meditation, start slow. Give yourself just five to 10 minutes a day to practice beginner meditation—sitting quietly, tracking your breath, and resting in the present moment.
8. Get Enough Sleep
You may tend to stay up late, trying to get more done or simply hoping to unwind from the busyness of your day. However, a lack of sleep can throw off your hunger hormones—leptin and ghrelin. Leptin is your satiation hormone. Leptin decreases with lack of sleep, leaving you more likely to eat more the next day. Conversely, ghrelin is your hunger hormone. Ghrelin increases with lack of sleep, which also increases your appetite when you don’t sleep well.
Lack of sleep (and the subsequent hunger hormone shifts) can make it hard to avoid winter weight gain. Set yourself up for success by getting the restful sleep you need (most adults need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per night).
9. Set Your Intentions
Setting intentions (or goals) is an ancient yogic practice that is said to help shape your destiny. Setting a clear intention to maintain your current weight (or to lose weight) helps to focus your attention and energy on what you want.
It helps to write your intention down and post it somewhere you will see it regularly, such as next to your computer or by your car dashboard. You can learn more about setting intentions here.
10. Plan Your Menu
Looking ahead at your day and/or week gives you the opportunity to move away from being impulsive and move towards being intentional with your eating. People often gain unwanted pounds due to being hungry, left without a plan, and allowing the impulsive side of their hunger to take control. Research shows that menu planning is associated with a healthier diet and lower overall weight gain.
In addition to planning your menus, try cooking your food in bigger batches so that you can freeze leftovers and always have a healthy meal ready to go. Think ahead about what healthy options you can bring with you to work or have on hand. Reach for the menu-planned items instead of other foods when you are busy or on the run.
11. Create a Support System
Studies have found that when people have consistent, scheduled support and accountability, they are more likely to succeed in their weight loss goals. You can also benefit from having a support system to help you stay healthy and avoid gaining weight during the winter months. Your support system can take many forms, including one-on-one coaching, an accountability buddy, or an online or live support group. You may need to explore and figure out what kind of support would best suit your needs and lifestyle.
12. Stay Focused
Research shows that setting weight goals and staying focused enhances healthy eating. On the other hand, a loss of focus and impulsive food choices may be one of the most common ways people sabotage their weight goals.
The good news is that staying focused is a practice that gets easier with time and frequency. Try taking a couple of minutes each day to meditate, journal, talk to an accountability friend or coach, and review your health intentions and goals. This will help you stay focused on your weight management goals and avoid winter weight gain.
13. Schedule Your Success
Too busy for health? One of the biggest challenges many people face in today’s demanding world is effectively managing their time. Although it’s common to hear people claim that they don’t have time to exercise or prioritize their health, a recent study has discovered that Americans actually have a lot more free time than they realize—about five hours per day. The key is to take advantage of these hours by consciously choosing how to use them.
Sculpting your time to match your goals, your focus, and what you want to achieve with your weight is a great way to stay on track. Consider planning when you will sort out your menu plan and grocery shop each week. Find regular times when you will do some weekly food preparation and physical activity. Schedule when you will revisit your focus each day and when you will check in with your support network. Each of these detailed and scheduled weight management steps will ensure that you are setting yourself up for success.
14. Elevate Your Pleasure
Have you heard of oxytocin, the pleasure hormone? Oxytocin also regulates many physiological processes, including eating behavior and metabolism. A pilot study of overweight and obese participants found that oxytocin treatment led to substantial weight loss. Other research has found that oxytocin may play a large role in satiety, which could help people avoid overeating. While these studies investigated the role of externally administering oxytocin, you can elevate your own levels of oxytocin through simple and pleasurable activities such as petting a dog or other beloved pets, taking a warm bath, hugging, sharing a meal, and surprising someone with a gift.
Pleasure uplifts and creates a positive response in your brain chemistry. And by making sure you have a variety of pleasurable activities in your life, you are less likely to turn to food or overeating for comfort when you have the winter blues or are feeling stressed. Treating yourself to non-caloric pleasures will help prevent winter weight gain while enhancing your feelings of happiness.
This winter season, use these strategies to prevent seasonal weight gain and create greater health and well-being. As you experience the benefits, you will be likely to find that you will want to keep using these tips all year long.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; it does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health programs.
Deepak Chopra will guide you through the best wellness practices to nourish body, mind, and spirit in our introductory online course, Discovering Ayurveda. Learn More.