Avoiding winter weight gain

During the winter months, it can be more challenging to dedicate time to exercise as we begin to hibernate and seek warmth. We might also find we are craving comfort foods that are rich, hearty and heavy in carbohydrates, to keep our body warm and fight the winter blues.

Food can release a calming hormone called dopamine in the brain that makes us feel better and takes the edge off a bad mood. The trouble comes when we begin to rely on food to make us feel better and to soothe our emotions; it can become a hardwired habit that is hard to break. However, with the right mindset and steps towards regular physical activity combined with healthy eating, the winter blues can be lifted with comforts other than foods. The short, cold winter days don’t have to lead to larger waistlines.

Recognise your triggers by keeping a food diary

Emotional eating can become an automatic behaviour, and breaking such a pattern will require awareness. While it can be challenging, keep a food diary and include what you eat, how much, when and how you are feeling when you eat, as well as your hunger scale. This will help raise your awareness of habits, identify triggers and patterns of connection between food and mood. Common causes of emotional eating include stress, boredom, feelings of emptiness and social influences.

Support new habits

Habits develop as a default option. They don’t require too many decisions and can be difficult to stop. But you can find ways to improve such habits by tweaking them to provide a benefit. For example, if you are a snacker remove unhealthy snacks from the cupboard and restock with healthy ones.

When it comes to eating

Don’t deprive yourself – eating the same foods repeatedly and banishing treats can increase cravings. Enjoy occasional treats but also eat a variety of healthy foods to help curb cravings.

Savour your food – when you eat to feed your emotions, you tend to eat quickly and mindlessly. It helps by slowing down and enjoying the texture, taste and smell of your food. You will not only enjoy your food more but are also less likely to overeat. So, practicing mindful eating by focussing on your food and not eating while you are doing other things, such as watching TV, working or on the phone

Rethink your hunger-fullness scale (see below) – many of us have lost touch with what hunger feels like. If you are unsure whether the hunger is real or due to emotional triggers, try rating your hunger and fullness on a scale. This will make you more aware of what physical hunger means to you.

Hunger-Fullness Scale

1 = absolutely starving, feeling faint

2 = very hungry, need to eat

3 = feeling hungry, growling stomach

4 = could eat, slightly empty

5 = neutral

6 = satisfied

7 = slightly full

8 = feeling too full

9 = bloated with food

10 = so full you feel ill

If you need dietary advice, ask your GP for a referral to an Accredited Practising Dietitian.

 

Cope in healthy ways

While we need food for survival, there are healthier ways to cope with emotions:

  • Connect with others – social support can go a long way towards helping you process your emotions
  • Make time for relaxation – give yourself permission to take at least 30 minutes every day to relax and unwind. Learning to breathe slowly and deeply can be an excellent start to calm the mind
  • See a psychologist – a psychologist can assist you to learn to manage stress without the involvement of food.

Move your body

Some people find relief from the winter blues or stress by getting regular exercise. Exercise causes the release of feel good chemicals, called endorphins.

Walking and cycling are great exercise options during winter, provided you dress warmly and incorporate an extended warm up (10-15 minutes). This allows you to prepare your muscles and joints for your activity of choice and reduces any risk of injury. Or consider doing some muscle building exercises. Have a think about things you can do with your own body weight or with objects around the house that can be used as resistance for example, cans of food, water bottles, chair, elastic bands etc.

Ideally, you want to aim for 30 minutes of exercise per day, which can be broken down into smaller bouts, as appropriate.

For more specific advice and an individualised program, ask your GP for a referral to your local Accredited Exercise Physiologist.

 

By Michelle Tong, Dietitian CDE & Hayley Nicholson Exercise Physiologist CDE

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