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Managing your weight in winter

Managing your weight at any time of the year relies on the same simple principle – to maintain a healthy weight. The energy you expend in the form of exercise needs to be roughly equal to the energy you take in through food. But it’s true that losing weight and preventing weight gain during winter can sometimes feel a little more challenging.

In fact, Australian researchers found nearly half of those surveyed expected to gain up to two kilos during winter and that 59 percent of these people acknowledged that this was due to less exercise and a tendency to ‘comfort eat’ during the colder months.

Winter weight gain 

Some people may take the approach that winter weight gain is inevitable. After all, aren’t we pre-disposed to gain weight when it’s cold? In fact, this widely held myth has no scientific bearing. While hibernating animals gain weight during winter due to seasonal changes in their hunger hormones, humans are not biologically programmed to gain weight when it’s cold.

However, changes in mood and behaviour during winter can affect how we manage our weight. Because of this, you might find yourself answering ‘yes’ to these questions:

  • Do you find it difficult to exercise when it’s cold, dark and rainy?
  • Do you find yourself reaching for more filling ‘comfort foods?’
  • Do you plan to hide away excess kilos under bulky jumpers?
  • Do you plan to file weight loss in the ‘too difficult’ folder and deal with it when the weather warms?
  • Do you stop trying to lose weight during winter because you think a few extra kilos are inevitable?

If you’ve worked hard this year to manage your weight, don’t let the colder months sabotage your efforts. Try approaching winter weight management in the same way you would any other time of the year: with consistent exercise and healthy, portion-controlled meals.

Healthy winter goals 

Being overweight at any time of the year can compromise your general health and, over time, lead to issues including heart disease and type 2 diabetes. And those of you who allow weight to creep on during winter, then try to lose it when spring hits may end up in a frustrating pattern of yo-yo dieting or weight cycling.

Consistent behaviour can be key to weight management during winter. Setting some goals may help you stay focused through the colder months. Try these suggestions:

Food goals

  • Source some healthy winter recipes
  • Encourage my family to get involved in choosing and preparing healthy meals
  • Plan meals and shop for ingredients ahead of time each week
  • Take healthy lunches and snacks to work

Exercise goals

  • Prioritise and commit to at least 30-minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity on most days of the week
  • Ask a friend to walk with me in the evenings
  • I will check out group training sessions at my local gym
  • Take my workout gear to work for a lunchtime walk or run

How much food and exercise is enough? 

Weight management is different for everybody but in Australia, we have guidelines that help us better understand what it takes to eat well and exercise for good health.

Food

According to the Australian Dietary Guidelines, you should eat a wide variety of nutritious food from the five major food groups each day:

  • vegetables (including legumes and beans)
  • fruit
  • grain foods (mostly wholegrain and/or high fibre varieties)
  • lean meats and protein (including fish, eggs, tofu, nuts and seeds)
  • dairy and/or their alternatives.

The guidelines also recommend that you limit your intake of foods that contain saturated fat, salt and sugar.

For families with children, eating healthy meals together and allowing children to become involved in planning, buying ingredients and preparing meals can help fussy eaters be a little more adventurous with a variety of healthy food.

Exercise

The Australian Physical Activity Guidelines recommend people aged 18 to 64 engage in some physical activity daily and limit sedentary behaviour. If you haven’t exercised in a long time, start slowly with a short walk most days and build up gradually. Adults should aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity on most, but preferably all, days of the week and some muscle strengthening activities at least twice a week.

Myth busting 

1) As humans, we are predisposed to gain weight during winter 
There is a belief that we need to gain a ‘winter coat’ in order to stay warm during winter or that humans are biologically programmed to store fat during the colder months to ward off periods of food scarcity. While this may have been true for our Paleolithic ancestors, most of us aren’t faced with periods of food scarcity in modern society, so weight gain is not necessary or inevitable.

SOLUTION: Don’t simply accept weight gain. Set small-term goals to help manage your weight during winter.

2) I’m hungrier in winter
You may well feel hungrier in winter but this may have more to do with mood than appetite as people turn to comfort food to feel better when it’s cold, dark and rainy.

SOLUTION: There’s nothing wrong with being hungry but try to fill up on healthier foods such as lean proteins, wholegrains, fruit and vegetables, and watch your portion sizes.

3) Winter meals are fattening 
Healthy food choice is just as possible during winter as summer. Think hearty stews, soups and casseroles or beautiful baked dinners – these all have vegetables and lean protein as a basis.

SOLUTION: Find healthier alternatives to your favourite meals such as using salt-reduced chicken stock instead of milk and butter with mashed potatoes, and add flavour with fresh herbs and spices instead of heaping on the salt.

4) It’s hard to exercise in winter
Finding a time to exercise can be a challenge, particularly if you have young children or are juggling career demands. And winter can certainly throw in some added hurdles with shorter days, colder weather and more chance of rain. But making exercise a priority is part of a healthy weight management plan.

SOLUTION: Take your exercise indoors with a workout DVD or app, or join a gym and make use of indoor group training sessions and cardio equipment. If walking outdoors on your own puts you off, enlist a friend or join a group and walk together. And remember, you may be cold at first but exercise will soon warm you up.

Further information 

The Dietitians Association of Australia
www.daa.asn.au

Sources 

Australian Government Department of Health and the National Health and Medical Research Council. Australian Dietary Guidelines. [online] 2013 [Accessed May 2014] Available from: www.eatforhealth.gov.au

Australian Government Department of Health. Australia’s physical activity and sedentary behaviour guidelines. [online] 2014 [Accessed May 2014]. Available from: www.health.gov.au

NSW Food Authority and NSW Health. Australians expected to gain 15 million kgs this Winter, new study finds. [online] 2012. [Accessed May 2014] Available from: www.foodauthority.nsw.gov.au

Last updated: 14 May 2014

Disclaimer
This information has been developed and reviewed for Bupa by health professionals. To the best of their knowledge it is current and based on reputable sources of medical research. It should be used as a guide only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical or other health professional advice.

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