Do We Eat More When It’s Cold?

Because of popular demand, I am going to set out to answer this burning question. 

If you were to ask a bunch of people if they gain weight in winter, I bet you would find that the answer is yes.  After all, we tend to hunker down, stay indoors, and go for various comfort foods.  Suddenly heavier foods like chili, beef stew, or hearty soups are more appealing.  Let’s face it…would you crave this kind of thing when the temperature outside is in the 80’s or 90’s? 

It would seem that the answer is a no brainer. 

So, I looked around to see what the deal is.  Are we predisposed to put on weight to protect us from the cold?  If so, what can we do about it? 

First off, let’s go way back and see what they think was going on back in Paleolithic days.  The time frame for this is somewhat vague, depending on the definition, but the point is that there were humans (hominins) from about 3 million years ago, and there were also a series of what we call Ice Ages.  In other words, these people had warm times, and much colder ones, in addition to seasonal fluctuations. 

Is Weight Gain Inherited from Our Ancestors?

Can we find anything about those early humans that points to an inherited tendency to put on weight when it is cold? 

To put it briefly, not really.  (Ok, that was a spoiler…)

Paleolithic times have been put at around 3.3 million years ago to around 12,000 years ago.  Archeologists have found a lot of small statues carved of the female form dating from around 35,000 – 12,000 years ago.  Interestingly, these statues have been found all over Europe and in some parts of Eastern Europe.  These small statues are overwhelmingly of voluptuous females.  Since the Ice Ages were going on then, many archeologists like to conclude that these statues show that there was weight gain in colder times. This would have been an advantage when it came to surviving and reproducing.

But wait!  Turns out that they also found lean female figures in colder climates in Eastern Europe. So much for the idea that cold brings plumpness.  Besides, can we really compare our lives to theirs?  They lived outdoors all the time, and pretty much ate whatever they could scrounge.  There was no ordering a pizza or cooking up a big vat of goulash.

What’s the Situation Now? 

Bringing us up to the present, let’s switch over and take a look at the holidays (which Paleolithic people didn’t have).  Recent research has shown that people don’t actually gain much weight over the holidays.  Turns out the average holiday weight gain is around 1.1 pounds.  Researchers have also found a small gain of another pound in February and March.  Then things level off until the holidays approach again.  They conclude that this type of weight gain (and no subsequent loss in the warmer months) is what explains the slow increase in body weight we see as people get older.  So, here we have some confirmation of weight gain in the winter, but not much. 

Scientists have discovered a gene that predisposes a person to eat more in winter.  Ah ha!  But wait!  Turns out that this gene really manifests itself in people who are prone to seasonal affective disorder AND to binge eating.  In other words, it is only indirectly related to being cold.  If you study seasonal affective disorder, the main problem is lack of sunshine. 

What are the chances you have seasonal affective disorder (SAD) or binge eating disorder?  Apparently, SAD incidence depends on where you live.  About 1% of people in Florida are affected, but it is up to 9% in places like New Hampshire. 

Although the stats on diagnosed “binge eating disorder” is around 1.6 percent of the population, one wonders if many of us have a mild version of that.  A mild version would not show up as an actual diagnosis.  Actually, the same goes for SAD.

Spelling it Out

It is not a good idea to jump into drawing conclusions about the amount of fat we do or do not carry around based on our distant ancestors.  Our lives are vastly different from theirs. 

Do we use up more calories when it is cold?  Yes.  But, since the 1990’s it has been shown that we humans are spending less and less time on winter activities that would bring us out into the cold.  Not sure if that has anything to do with our aging population, but perhaps it does. In any case, our ability to stay indoors can lead to less exposure to SAD-dispersing sunlight, and keep us from being as active as we are in warmer months. 

It would seem that many of us seek out more carbohydrates, calorie dense foods, and highly palatable foods like classic macaroni and cheese (with or without sausage) in winter.  That sort of behavior shows up in seasonal weight gain, more for some than for others.    

What to do? 

Since we live in times when many of us can stay warm all year, and since we are surrounded by healthy and unhealthy foods, be careful! At the risk of sounding preachy, if you sense that you are heading toward weight gain, cut back on your portions of comfort foods, be careful at restaurants (a significant contributor), and stay active.  Making sure you get enough sunshine can help you do that.

I hesitate to bring up “looking good in a swimsuit” when summer comes because that is the mantra of many diet plans that I wouldn’t recommend.  But, I can say that winter weight creep can be a slippery slope, and one where many weight-inducing habits can start to become entrenched.  Better to not rely on the summer months to slim down, as science has shown that often that doesn’t happen.  Typically, weight does not keep adding on in the warmer months, but the winter gain often does not come off.

Stay well,

All the best

© 2022 Kristen Carter. All rights reserved
Photo Credit: Bbtomas | iStock

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