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Why do we get fatter in winter?

Once we turn on the heater in our cars and all the beaches run empty, staying in shape is as far back in our minds as our last visit to the swimwear store the previous spring. That weight is gained during winter is a common perception and arguably true – however whether this is due to a reason that is beyond our control is as questionable as someone saying they’ve  jumped off table mountain using an umbrella as a parachute. Perhaps this is an appropriate example because do we really need Mary Poppins to help us get to the gym or will we muster the courage to brave the cold and get there ourselves. As Hers Truly said: “in every job that must be done there is an element of fun”. Perhaps we do need her…except for a spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down. According to Professor Craig Jackson, head of psychology at Birmingham City University, it’s exactly here where the problem lies: “In winter, we tend to develop a lower level of happiness, called ennui. This is basically low-level dissatisfaction, which we get when it’s cold, wet and dark.” He adds that studies show that when we’re suffering from ennui, we use comfort foods as a pick-me-up twice as much as usual.


In this respect, Miss Poppins should take a hike (preferably literally as an alternative to getting down table mountain next time) since as Professor Craig Jackson reminds it is due to our need to find an ailment for our miserable demeanour that we resort to sugary treats and this is why we gain weight. Now I don’t mean to reduce you to tears with this weighty news. Nor does this mean we are liars. It is not unreasonable to claim that we do feel hungrier during winter. “In spring and summer, levels of melatonin decline, but in autumn and winter levels of melatonin increase”, says Dr Perry Barrett at Aberdeen University, whose research specialises in seasonal weight gain in mammals. “This hormone acts on appetite.’ 

In most mammals, this increase in melatonin reduces hunger — a strategy to deal with diminished food resources. But in some species, the same system produces opposite effects, so it’s possible this could account for increased hunger and weight in humans.” Even though Dr Barrett does not say with certainty that humans experience the weight gain due to this, it may very well be true . In addition, Ahmed Ahmed, consultant gastrointestinal and bariatric surgeon at Bupa Cromwell Hospital writes “that while white fat stores energy, brown fat burns calories for heat. So why do we feel like eating more when it turns cold?  In our ancestors’ time, the winter months were associated with famine. One theory is that we’re genetically programmed to increase fat stores in autumn to help us survive — known as the ‘thrifty gene hypothesis”. The problem is that the famine obviously never comes.


It seems that the problem doesn’t lie with the fact that we eat, but rather what we eat. We all know where we tend to go once the beach is no longer an option: we pledge our loyalty to our favourite TV series that occupies our time indoors. But it seems that for many, it is as unlikely that we will continue our gym routine as it is that we will turn to a cooking show once Game of Thrones airs. Fair enough, there are factors that usually drive us to the gym, such as having a beach-ready body or being able to wear short skirts that we usually can’t do in winter. So why sweat like a pig to look like a fox if we have to cover it up in any case? Well, the old reason should suffice: the medicine is harsh but the patient requires it. Bluntly put, gym is a healthy occupation and even though the positive spin-offs are not as relevant as in summer the reasons for going still outweigh not going.


Clinical psychologist Seth Meyers says that “our energy levels are lower during the cold weather, and we tend to be moodier – both factors make maintaining a relationship difficult” Maybe this is another reason to get to the gym? Don’t let your partner shake your soda, rather work up a sweat for a romantic dinner and red wine by the fireplace…who knows you might be glad you look like a fox after all.

author: Zone Fitness