Guest post by Annie Zimmerman
In the words of Jon Snow – Winter is coming. The temperature seems to have changed over the last few days and I don’t think I’m ready. I write this blog from an radiator-less office, surrounded by eight other students who are too cold to take their coats off and can’t type properly without a cup of tea to warm their hands. There’s something about this turn in the weather that has made me crave a lot more sugar than usual and I can’t put my (almost numb) finger on what it is. Indeed, seasonal weight gain is very common, especially in this country where we spend 6 months of our time sitting inside and waiting for it to stop raining… I’ve just realised how clichéd this post must sounds to non-UK readers – a Brit complaining about weather. My sincerest apologies for fulfilling the stereotype, but the weather will never bore me and I will continue to complain around mid-October every year because it makes me feel that much better about the dreary greyness that is the British Winter.
While I probably should have been reading about my PhD topic instead, I’ve been doing a bit of research about seasonal weight gain. It seems to be really common that people tend to lose weight over the summer and then pile on the pounds during winter. My initial thought was that this is a physical reaction to colder temperatures; perhaps our bodies retain more fat to keep us warm? Apparently this is wrong – the changes in temperature are too small to have such a strong effect on our weight. Instead, the main cause of winter weight gain appears to be less about the weather itself and more about our psychological changes. That is, cold weather causes a general drop in mood causing (a) people to become lazier, so they exercise less and stay indoors more, and (b) huge spikes in comfort eating and overindulgence.
When the weather becomes grey and bleak, a lot of people suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) a form of depression that typically occurs during the winter. Food acts as a way to self-soothe and boost mood so people typically turn to food during the winter months to make themselves feel better. This explains why many of us start to crave high-calorie comfort foods, and consequentially gain weight.
So with the knowledge that our bodies don’t actually need more food during the winter (having a higher body fat actually makes you more sensitive to the cold) and that the food cravings are purely psychological, how can we prevent seasonal weight gain? If I’ve learnt anything about trying to prevent weight gain it’s this – EAT FOOD. This is especially true in the winter. When your blood glucose is low, you tend to feel more fatigued, sad and angry. This, in turn, will increase your cravings for sugar and make eating healthily a hell of a lot harder. I think the key point is to not restrict. If you’re feeling cold and want some nourishment, abstaining entirely from food isn’t going to make you feel better. Plus when you finally do give in, it’ll be a lot harder to control yourself from overeating as your self-control resources will be diminished. Instead, listen to your cravings and have a pick-me-up in the form of fruit, nuts or any healthy snack that takes your fancy. Low GI foods have the benefit of releasing energy throughout the day, so will be a better pick me up in the long run.
Another obvious tip to avoid gaining weight over the winter is to stay active. It’s tempting to just hibernate under your duvet, watching Friends repeats on Netflix until the sun comes out again but it’s important to resist that urge and keep fit. Exercise is a great way to prevent both weight gain and SAD; it’ll raise your body temperature, naturally boost immune function and generally improve your mood. Now I’m not insisting you torture yourself by going for long miserable runs in the rain. There are loads of options for indoor activities that you can do, so you can crawl right back into that duvet when you’re done. Just doing 20 minutes of HIIT a day will dramatically decrease your risk of depression and consequentially help to stifle the sugar cravings.
I also want to stress that healthy foods can provide comfort too. A big bowl of vegetable stew or steaming-hot soup will make you feel warm and happy without negatively influencing mood or weight. This recipe is perfect for a cold winters day when you want comfort food that doesn’t take ages to cook.
Pumpkin Gnocchi with Sage Pesto
For the Pumpkin Gnocchi:
2 cups pumpkin purée
2-3 cups plain flour
2 teaspoons dried sage
1 teaspoon paprika
1 white onion (finely chopped)
2 garlic cloves
1 red chilli (deseeded)
2 tablespoons olive oil
For the sage pesto:
1 cup handful fresh sage
1/2 cup pine nuts
1/2 cup Parmesan
2 garlic cloves
3 tablespoons olive oil.
1. To make pumpkin purée, roast a pumpkin in the oven for 40mins until soft, but not watery.
2. Save the scooped out the seeds and toast in cumin, salt and pepper. Set aside for later.
3. Blend the pumpkin to a pulp and mix in the flour. The dough should not be sticky, it should resemble pasta dough.
4. Add the sage, paprika, salt and pepper
5. Let the gnocchi dough sit while you make the pesto. Blend all ingredients together and season well
6. Rolls the dough into small ovals and indent the tops with a folk.
7. Fry the onion, chilli and garlic in olive oil.
8. Once caramelised and soft, add in the gnocchi and fry for around 5 mins (until the edges brown.
9. Serve with a drizzle of pesto and topped with pumpkin seeds.
Annie, is the founder of The Thinking Kitchen blog. Currently studying a PhD in Nutrition and Behaviour at the University of Bristol, Annie is aware of the consequences that an unhealthy diet can have on both physical and mental health. She hopes to share her passion for cooking and psychological perspective of eating.