It starts innocently, with a pumpkin spice latte with your bestie in the late September sun. It then drifts casually into a handful of candy corn and a couple (or ten) miniature chocolate bars in October. Then with ninja stealth, it creeps into buttery whipped potatoes and Aunt Jo’s secret ingredient green bean casserole, in November. Next, it flies into a frenzy of decadent holiday baking and a diabetic array of delicious drinks in December. Finally, it comes to an abrupt and sober end in January, when you throw your favorite jeans into a heap at the back of your closet because you can’t do the freaking button up anymore.
Seasonal weight gain is upon us, friends.
It’s not uncommon for people to gain a couple (or five) pounds from September to December. Clever marketing hype, holiday festivities, and environmental and physiological factors lead us to eat more and do less during this calendar stretch.
Colder weather causes us to deviate from exercise routines.
We don’t like to be cold, so we naturally spend more time indoors. Darker mornings make us want to stay in bed longer, and chilly evenings urge us to stay inside. We stream movies and scroll on phones instead of going for a workout, dog walk, bike ride, or run. We slow down, seek warmth, and sleep more.
Sleeping it off.
Less sunlight during fall and winter affects the hormones that regulate sleep. The release of melatonin is tied to sunset, so when the sun sets earlier, we feel tired earlier. As melatonin increases, serotonin decreases, which can sometimes lead to anxiety and depression. When we get out of sync with our circadian rhythms, tiredness intensifies, and motivation declines.
We eat more, move less.
The survival impulse to store extra calories going into winter kicks in, similar to how bears prepare to hibernate. Although we can head to the grocery store instead of hunt and forage for food, the biological need to feel warm makes us want to eat more. Unfortunately, if you are eating more and moving less, the additional calories lead to extra pounds, especially when we reach for heavier, richer, more carb-centric foods.
Bye-bye garden, hello comfort food.
We associate this time of year with comfort foods: baked goods, rich pastas, thick soups, and creamy casseroles…body-warming dishes that raise our temperature and make us feel full. As fresh garden produce becomes less available, we turn to heartier dishes and seasonal vegetables that stimulate the happy place in our brain, making us feel warm, cozy, and content. Even though food, central air, and warm clothing are readily available, evolutionary behaviors instinctively urge us to prepare for the winter.
More clothes, less inhibitions.
As the weather cools, we put away shorts, tank tops, and bathing suits, causing us to lose (and conveniently forget) visual cues that keep us motivated to be active during the spring and summer. Psychologically, covering and bundling up gives us freedom to indulge…it’s not like anyone sees that plate of sugar cookies pasted to our ass during the winter, right?
And speaking of sugar…
September to December is like running a sugar gauntlet. We make our way between endless aisles of pumpkin delicacies, Halloween treats, holiday baking, specialty coffees and cocktails, Christmas and Hanukkah exquisiteness, and New Year’s champagne. We are literally pelted with bags of white sugar in disguise, and because it’s all here for a “limited time,” we are sucked into buying it. Marketers dress it up in holiday colors. They fun size it and put bows and bright colors on its wrapper. And even though we know better, we want to believe that it is different than the same treat it was six months ago, so we buy it, gift it, and eat it. FOMO at its finest.
But it’s only a pound or two.
That is so true. It’s not a lot of weight over four months. But if you were overweight heading into the season, and you didn’t lose the pound or two from the previous season…or the seven before that…it adds up. Not-so-fun fact: an overweight person gains five pounds over the holiday season, while a person of average weight gains one.
It feels like the odds are against us.
Sleep hormones, shorter days, evolution, marketing hype, minefields of workplace treats, holiday parties, cold weather, family gatherings, sugar…there’s a whole lot going on. If you have a health goal, how can you possibly navigate this season without adding to your waistline?
Be aware, be very aware.
We all know what’s coming. Every year there is a fall and a winter. Every year there is a Halloween, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Year’s. Prepare for them. Here are 12 strategies to help you bypass the tinsel town of seasonal weight gain:
Have appropriate outdoor clothing and footwear to continue walks and runs.
Find a partner or group for exercise accountability.
Make the best of the daylight hours available to you: exercise during your lunch break instead of at night or early morning.
Stick to your sleep schedule; resist the urge to hit snooze, take long naps, or go to bed late.
Continue eating fruits and vegetables; buy frozen when fresh isn’t so fresh, instead of diving into comfort food.
Ignore the pop-ups for $6 pumpkin spice whatevers. You know what pumpkin tastes like, and it’s not that sicky sweet syrup pumped into a cup.
Don’t buy Halloween candy. If you feel you have to, buy the crap you don’t like, and wait until the 31st to do it. Dump excess into the bag of your last trick or treater, or donate the leftovers the very next day.
Keep healthy snacks on hand at the office (in your purse, pocket, or desk) so you don’t fall face first into the bowl of dip, box of chocolates, or plate of holiday cookies that inevitably appear in the break room.
Don’t starve yourself the day of the office holiday parties and family celebrations. Showing up hungry means you will eat more when you get there, not less. Eat before you go to really set yourself up for success.
Choose your treats wisely. Of all the seasonal sweets, drinks and specialty dishes, is there one that says it all to you? Have that, and say “no” to the rest. Enjoy it in moderation, release it emotionally, and move on.
Keep a “barometer” piece of clothing on hand. Choose something that fits the way you like in September, and try it on occasionally to see how it fits in the following months. If it’s getting snug, dial back on portions, treats, and drinks.
Say “no” to sugar. Remember that any burst of energy you get from sugar is short-lived, and you will keep going back for more to recreate that high. It might be dressed up for the holidays, but it’s still sugar, and it still leads to weight gain, headaches, inflammation, insulin resistance and diabetes.
Plan and strategize your way through fall and winter. The bottom line: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound not gained.
You might think the decision not to indulge in seasonal and holiday trappings is hard, but you know what is infinitely harder? Undoing the consequences of several years of falling into the seasonal weight gain trap.
Make this winter the one when you choose the “hard” that keeps you feeling good and healthy.
Coach Laurie Hall is a certified health and wellness coach at KK Wellness Consulting. She is a 56-year-old mother of four, fitness enthusiast, and midlife lifestyle editor. If weight gain is affecting your enjoyment of life, contact Laurie for a conversation about how to get comfortable in your own skin again.