The answer from the nutritionist community? Not exactly. Contrary to popular belief, “During the winter, your metabolism actually increases,” says Lisa Cohn, R.D., M.M.S. owner, Park Avenue Nutrition in New York City. “The body is a very adaptable machine, and it adjusts your metabolic rate according to its workload. When your body is exposed to cold temperatures, it exerts more energy to keep you warm, which means the metabolic rate actually rises.”
The danger, it seems, stems from staying inert indoors, avoiding the cold in lieu of takeout-delivery apps and Netflix marathons. “Winter months weight gain is usually attributed to less exercise, heavier meals, and less water,” says Yvette Rose, Certified Health Counselor and founder of Joulebody. “Colder weather means staying in, eating the great harvest of root vegetables and meat while drinking less water. Our body isn't releasing electrolytes from perspiring, so it’s not signaling the brain that it's thirsty.” Heavier foods + less movement + less hydration = a slower metabolism.
“People go into a sort of hibernation,” says Cohn. “They bear up."
“Your body adapts to using less energy to operate,” adds Cohn. “The body is always going to be responsible with the stores of energy. If you’re outdoors or the temperatures of the home are colder, your body has to burn more calories to keep it warm. In the winter, we become less active so we, in turn, burn fewer calories.” Add to that those of us who get the winter blues (a.k.a. Seasonal Affective Disorder, a depressive state brought on by lack of light as the days become shorter) and that some anti-depressants cause weight gain due to increased appetite — and you could be in for a wild ride of mood swings compounded by comfort food-induced belly fat.
Decreased exercise with increased appetite causes weight gain, peeps. It’s really just that simple.
You know what else causes seasonal weight gain? Stress, particularly the holiday variety that involves travel, relatives, and drama around the dinner table over long-buried familial angst (anyone else have a soap opera-level secret blurted out over turkey?). “Stresses on the body will cause the body to burn more energy,” says Cohn. Hooray, right? Not so fast. “But, during times of holiday stress, we eat more junk food, bagels, fried food at chain restaurants while traveling, fatty foods at holiday meals, etc. Heavy times of stress cause us to seek fattier, saltier, sugary “comfort” foods, and we gain weight due to a higher calorie intake.” In other words, fighting with your relatives while surrounded by calorie-dense holiday foods and tons of eggnog is quite possibly a recipe for disaster, and missing that right turn while driving home for the holidays is NOT a reason to supersize it.
Ok, so since holiday stress and the occasional marathon of TV and carbs are bound to happen, exactly how do we avoid a slow-down of winter metabolism? Our nutrition experts have some great tips to help you kick up your winter metabolism and beat holiday weight gain once and for all.
Since getting your exercise in during the summer is easier, we tend to take it for granted. Now is the time to dig deep and get your sweat on, especially if you can do it outdoors. “Get a workout in. It doesn’t matter what it is,” says Arielle Fierman, Board Certified Health Coach and founder of Be Well with Arielle. “Whatever gets you moving and sweating will do it.” Also, have a plan to sweat during the holidays. “Plan to be active — walk, exercise, do things outside of the food table,” says Cohn. “Plan outdoor activities, things you really enjoy doing. Be aware you need to plan activities other than eating.” In other words, a nice walk after dinner will help your metabolism and possibly your blood pressure from that encounter with your crazy Aunt Sally. “Use the colder weather to take a brisk walk,” advises Rose. “Walk at least 15 minutes a day, especially on the days you are not fully exercising, and walk faster than the usually pace.
If you know you’re prone to seasonal depression or you’ve got a particularly stressful holiday season coming up, why not seek professional help in advance? “Be proactive,” says Cohn. “A professional can help you come up with a plan to help you get through it.”
Since a good defense usually stems from a good offense, try going in with a plan to avoid the heavier foods — gravies, stuffing, fried items, things that appear to be showered in butter, salt and sugar, excessive carbs, etc. Also, eating in season will also help increase your metabolism. “In winter, nature provides us with more warming foods, such as root vegetables, cabbage, squashes and pumpkins, Brussels sprouts, kale and collard greens, onions, radishes, etc. Figure out what’s seasonal for where you are. When you eat with the seasons, you actually help your metabolic rate, especially if you warm those warming vegetables as part of your food preparation.”
“There are certain spices that can be used all year to raise your metabolic rate, regardless of the time of year,” says Fierman. “Ginger is great because it speeds digestion. Also, cinnamon, garlic, cayenne pepper — these can all help raise your metabolic rate.” You can also toss pumpkin pie spice on healthier foods, since your sense of smell doesn’t exactly have discerning taste buds. Also, starting the day with hot water with fresh lemon or sliced fresh ginger can help you avoid the dreaded Holiday Heft.
Since we know that stressful times can cause many of us to down entire plates of comfort foods, how about going in with a plan of action before we sit down for a holiday meal? “Drink a whole 16-ounce cup of water before you get ready to eat a meal,” says Rose. “Sometimes the signals you interpret as, ‘I'm hungry’ are actually saying, ‘I'm thirsty.’ Also, take 15 minutes after you eat a plate of food before you grab a second serving or dessert.” Other helpful tricks include working out prior to a holiday meal, eating a protein-based snack prior to hitting the holiday party circuit and keeping your hands full at cocktail parties; It’s hard to dive into the hors oeuvres if you’ve got a glass of seltzer in one hand and a handbag in the other.
Look, some of us just know it’s going to happen, so beating ourselves up is futile. “Some people fluctuate five to eight pounds from November 1 and carry it through New Year’s,” says Cohn. If you know that you just can’t live without mom’s special recipe for delicious stuff, add extra cardio and an extra helping of forgiveness for yourself. Sometimes, it’s just not worth the struggle.