Dietitians say that the reason so many people decided to jump off the diet wagon this time of year is because the end of swimsuit and shorts season makes it easier to hide a few extra pounds. In fact, some of us look forward to the cold weather to allow us to wear more clothing to “cover” up what we do to our bodies.
Most of us are afflicted with weight gain during the winter months. It seems inevitable, merely the primal need to hibernate in cold weather and the blues that come along with shorter days and less sun. However, most research now shows that winter weight gain has little to nothing to do with the ‘hibernation theory’ and that only a small percentage of people are truly affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Instead, weight gain is primarily due to a change in eating and exercise habits. In the winter we eat more and exercise less.
Typical ‘crash diets’ fight your body’s natural reaction to starvation. An enzyme, Lipoprotein lipase, is in the body that promotes fat storage and it increases tremendously when someone is not taking in enough food. The lowest energy level that a female who is 90 years old, bedridden, and under 5 feet tall needs, is still approximately 1167 calories per day! The horrors of Concentration camp during WWII have showed that humans need a minimum of 800-900 calories/daily for sheer survival for any extended period of time.
An average meal is around 500-600 calories so if someone skips breakfast, has a diet pop and salad for lunch, and a small dinner you can see how they could run dangerously close to these levels. A person’s metabolism is the complex of chemical and physical processes involved in the maintenance of life, and the rate at which your body uses substances (i.e. burns calories).
When a human drastically reduces their food intake, their metabolism lowers, making it harder and harder to lose weight. This makes sense from a survival point of view, because if it continued at the same rate you would literally burn up! This is how people can end up ‘yo-yo’ dieting, because the body just gets better and better at storing energy. Cut calories, metabolism lowers; eat again (even if equal amount eaten before the dieting), and weight goes up. Usually higher than where they started.
Let’s look at starvation in the human body a little closer. When fuel is scarce, the body first uses up stored sugar in the liver and muscles. This stored sugar is called glycogen. Each glycogen is stored with a molecule of water, and this makes it relatively heavy. When they are metabolized, this is where one might see initial weight loss. During the first five to seven days of inadequate calorie intake, skeletal muscle protein is also broken down for energy; lost at approximately 0.8 lb lean tissue per day. The body then shifts back and forth using muscle and fat tissue alternately. The last tissue to go would be the intercostal muscles (the muscle between the ribs) necessary for respiration. The body also adapts to starvation by reducing activity, increasing one’s need for sleep, and lowering body temperature.
As one can see from this information, the weight loss that is seen with typical diets is mostly muscle and water.
Okay, enough science. Hopefully you’re convinced this is a dangerous way to lose weight. If someone really needs to lose weight to reduce their risk of heart disease or diabetes, for example, then how should they do it? Well, the answer is not magic, but it works with the body not against it and involves commitment and education.
First, let’s look at what raises a person’s metabolic rate: eating regularly.
I like to say every 4 hours or so – a meal or a snack – depending on the types of foods eaten. For example, a breakfast that includes whole wheat toast with peanut butter, a glass of milk, and a piece of fruit will last a lot longer than a bowl of cereal with a glass of juice, because it has fiber and more protein. The second thing that raises one’s metabolic rate is the increase in muscle tissue. Good old exercise. Initially, someone may even gain a few pounds or stay at the same weight while from exercising. Walking can help make your heart and lungs function more efficiently, help you lose weight, sleep better, and reduce stress. You should try to walk four times a week for at least thirty minutes each time.
Granted we can’t eat fries and burgers, and drink lots of beer everyday to lose weight, but we can eat the amount of energy our bodies need in the day. The best way to do this is to decrease the fat intake in our diet (butter, oils, margarine, deep fried foods, pastries, chips, nuts, bologna, etc.). Notice, I said decrease, not eliminate. It is still okay to enjoy these foods once in awhile as long as one is eating a well-balanced, low-fat diet most of the time. The other improvement to make in one’s diet would be an increase in fiber. Fiber is a non-digestible plant component found in foods such as brown rice, whole grain breads, bran and oat cereals, fruits, and vegetables. Fiber helps with digestion and elimination and also helps to fill a person up without adding too many calories.
It is advisable that you to drink six to eight glasses of water daily (given that you have no other medical conditions). Water is important in body heat regulation; maintenance of blood volume; helps eliminate wastes and acts as an appetite suppressant.
Illnesses increase during winter. Symptoms include fatigue, lethargy and headaches. The flu, colds and bronchitis occur more frequently. As it gets colder, our need for energy increases. However, we need to obtain energy from the correct foods. Having a strong immune system is very important during the winter. What protects us from infections and getting sick is our immune system. Since the body’s resistance to disease decreases during wintertime, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends increasing one’s intake of vitamins A, C, and E, which are antioxidants, and minerals, including selenium, zinc and magnesium, as well as omega 3 and omega 9, which are fatty acids.
Here are five suggestions for keeping fit during the cooler months …
1. Stay hydrated
Spending time inside during winter means more exposure to climate-controlled environments. Dehydration can cause fatigue and it’s easy to confuse thirst for hunger and start snacking. Keep a bottle of water with you and aim to drink eight large glasses a day.
2. Embrace exercise
Sure, it’s gets darker and colder outside, but regular exercise will improve your mood and help keep your weight stable. If you don’t have a gym membership, simply go for a brisk walk three times a week. Worse case scenario: walk in place during commercials while watching television.
3. Drink Hot Stuff
There is nothing like a creamy coffee or hot chocolate on a cold winter morning. According to the USDA an 8-ounce cup of black coffee has just 2 (yes two) calories. When we talk about a coffee high in calories – we are really talking about the stuff we put in it. Caffeine is a bitter chemical, and products containing caffeine are bitter – so we tend to sweeten them up – with milk, sugar, or syrups.
An option is black or green tea. Tea has antioxidants and is low in calories.
4. Don’t overeat
It’s common to overeat when the weather is cool; combined with a more sedentary lifestyle, this can be a “recipe” (no pun intended). In fact, this is when it gets real easy to put on weight. One important thing to do is to avoid overeating later in the day. Instead, begin with a high-fiber, balanced breakfast such as oatmeal with fresh fruit.
5. Beat fatigue
Winter can leave you feeling lethargic. Eat plenty of fresh fruit and veggies; at least two and five servings respectively per day. Fruit and veggies are low in calories, and full of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals to keep you slim and healthy.
So, there you have it – No magic, no money to be made, just good sound information. Good luck, goodbye to unhealthy diets, and here’s to healthy living!
Remember, I’m not a doctor. I just sound like one.
Take good care of yourself and live the best life possible!
The information included in this column is for educational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. The reader should always consult his or her healthcare provider to determine the appropriateness of the information for their own situation or if they have any questions regarding a medical condition or treatment plan.
Glenn Ellis, is a Health Advocacy Communications Specialist. He is the author of Which Doctor?, and is a health columnist and radio commentator who lectures, and is an active media contributor nationally and internationally on health related topics. His second book, “Information is the Best Medicine”, is due out in Fall, 2011.
For more good health information, visit: www.glennellis.com