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Winter weighs on us in more ways than one

Frosty weather and an accompanying indoor frame of mind conspire to make us want fat- and carbohydrate-laden comfort foods in the winter months.

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff/File 2011

Frosty weather and an accompanying indoor frame of mind conspire to make us want fat- and carbohydrate-laden comfort foods in the winter months.

Winter weight can be impossible to shake off. A string of storms, snow days with kids’ baking projects, school vacations, icy sidewalks, all give us an appetite for fat- and carbohydrate-laden foods.

The reason, say the experts, is a perfect storm of seasonal cravings. Mix frosty weather with an indoor frame of mind and they conspire to make us want comfort foods. Unfortunately, lean meats, fish, and salads rarely fit into this picture.

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Studies say that during the winter months, we gain on average 1 pound if we’re not already overweight, more if we are. It doesn’t sound like enough to be concerned with — and that may be the problem. As we keep eating comfort foods and skipping regular exercise all winter, extra weight quietly takes up residence, usually permanently.

Managing weight in the face of winter cravings requires working with the circumstances you have, says Sharna Small-Borsellino, Boston area Weight Watchers leader and trainer. Dropping pounds at the end of a winter still fraught with bitter cold and ice-covered sidewalks can be difficult.

Nutrition expert Susan Roberts says seasonal appetite changes are a real concern. “It’s definitely true that people gain weight in the winter and it’s definitely true that people who are overweight to start with are more vulnerable to additional weight gain during the winter months,” says the Tufts University nutrition professor and founder of the iDiet weight loss program. Even a pound or two can add up, she says.

Comfort foods are often rich in carbohydrates, or rather, dense in the simple, quickly digested variety of carbs (white bread, muffins, and cookies), not the complex, healthy type we should be eating (whole grains, legumes, and vegetables). Fatty ingredients like cheese and butter, often in the mix, add to the appeal. Roberts believes that carbohydrate addiction can be a real challenge and cravings for these foods are triggered by the fact that it is difficult to avoid seasonal fare such as mashed potatoes, bread, and lasagna. “Comfort foods are things we’ve grown up with, that we’ve had for years,” she says.

Tempestuous streaks in the weather affect our state of mind at times and people find solace in the kitchen. Some studies suggest changes in hormone and vitamin D levels impact mood and food cravings. Those with seasonal affective disorder, known as SAD, a wintertime depression, may be more susceptible to some of these affects. Small-Borsellino believes that the boredom and frustration that come with being housebound can also trigger hedonic hunger (eating for pleasure). “Our brains are wired to crave more high-fat, high-sugar foods when we are experiencing different types of emotions,” she says.

Activating the brain’s reward centers with chocolate chip cookies or mac and cheese often trumps battling the snow to get to the gym.

Missing opportunities for regular exercise is a key contributor to winter weight gain. At local Weight Watchers meetings, Small-Borsellino cautions members against an all-or-nothing attitude. There are ways to build in exercise, she says, using “the circumstances and the resources you have. If you walk the stairs in your office building once a day, you’re doing something, and something is better than nothing.”

In other words, an inaccessible elliptical machine doesn’t amount to a good enough excuse. “We just have to learn how to roll with the punches,” she says.

Valerie Ryan can be reached at valerie.ryan.j@gmail.com.
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