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Food for Thought Food for Thought

Healthy Eating in Wintertime

January 16, 2013

By Caitlin Hosmer, M.S., R.D., L.D.N. and Heather Hawkes
Brigham and Women's Hospital

Winter ushers in a time of the year when we choose heavier foods and are typically less active. Does this winter shift sound familiar to you? While the temperatures drop outside, it is easy for us to drop good eating and exercise habits.

We are most vulnerable to weight gain in the six-week interval between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day. A study conducted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) suggested that a typical one-pound gain during the holiday season for Americans may be small, but can accumulate through the years and contribute to obesity later in life. Once we put on that extra pound or more, we often don't get back to our baseline weight later in January.

How does it happen? Volunteers in the NIH study were asked about factors that might influence weight change, including stress, hunger, activity level, changes in smoking habits, and number of holiday parties they attended. Two factors stood out: Those who were much less hungry or much more active were the least likely to gain weight over the holidays. Conversely, those who were less active and hungrier had the most holiday weight gain.

There are lots of food choices during the holidays. Pick ones that satisfy without adding to the bulge:

Fresh Foods

The gardens may be done for the year, but there are still many fresh foods available. Fresh produce satisfies us with fiber, and provides additional vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients to boot.

  • Greens and oranges are the colors for winter produce. These are packed with vitamins and minerals to help ward off winter illnesses.
    • Kale and mustard greens are great additions to soups and stews or they can be sautéed.
    • Squash, sweet potatoes and pumpkin make great baked dishes that are high in fiber. Do keep in mind that these root vegetables are dense and filling, so keep portions moderate.
  • An easy way to get your fruit this time of year is to make a winter fruit salad. Cut up in-season and readily available pineapples, citrus and apples; mix together and keep the bowl handy in your fridge for snacking.

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Comfort Foods

As the days get shorter and the temperatures fall, we tend to reach for our favorite comfort foods to lift our moods. Here are some helpful tips for making healthier choices, while keeping comfort foods comforting and hunger at bay with moderate portions:

  • When it's cold outside, it feels good to warm our insides. When eating for warmth, try broth-based soups, such as minestrone, and add some of those winter vegetables! In the morning, start your day off right with a bowl of oatmeal. This high-fiber cereal will stick with you all morning, especially with a small handful of nuts added for protein.
  • There are also many simple substitutions you can make when cooking to decrease fat and calories. For a lower-fat macaroni and cheese, use low-fat dairy products: skim or reduced-fat milk and cheese. Add tomatoes and onions for flavor.
  • Reading labels can give you a lot of information about what you're eating. Look at the serving size. How does your portion compare to the serving on the package? Package servings are often smaller than what we actually consume.

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Maintaining Your Pre-Holiday Weight

If you are trying to maintain or lose weight, the holidays can be a scary time. We surround ourselves with family and friends and an abundance of food.

  • The day of a party, don't skip meals. Maintain a regular eating schedule so you won't be starving and overeat when you arrive at the party.
  • Go for the nut bowl. Having a small handful of nuts will satisfy you more than the chips and dip, and you'll eat less throughout the course of the evening.
  • Help yourself to the fruit and veggie platters. The fiber is filling and balances out heavier, starchy foods.
  • Scan the spread of food and then make your choices. Have small amounts of your favorite foods and desserts. Try leaving space on the plate between food items to limit how much gets piled on. Eat slowly to enjoy holiday foods longer. And remember that holiday gatherings are also about people — talking slows down eating.

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Don't Succumb to the Inactivity Blues

Typically it requires greater effort to be physically active in the winter — the time when we most need this antidote to eating more and feeling more stress. Not only are we more sedentary because of the weather, but indoor behaviors, such as watching TV, lend themselves to snacking when we're not hungry.

  • Build your winter wardrobe for outdoor exercise. You don't have to spend a fortune at a sports store. Discount department stores offer lower-budget gear. Layering is the key. This allows you to stay at the right temperature. As you get moving you can shed layers, and then add them back as you cool down. Make sure you have good footwear for traction, water-resistance and warmth.
  • If venturing outdoors doesn't appeal, try an exercise video that you can do from the comfort of your home, or join a local gym. This may be the perfect time to try an exercise class, such as yoga, step or Pilates. It's important to remember you can't just exercise eight or nine months out of the year. Physical activity needs to be done on a regular basis to maintain the benefits.
  • Activity is stimulating to our body and mind. Our moods are already prone to being "down" in the winter. Physical activity can help to give you that boost in energy and attitude. For those who experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD), one study found that an hour's walk in winter sunlight was as effective as 2½ hours under bright artificial light, an alternate therapy.

No matter what time of year, staying healthy is a balance of good eating and physical activity. With winter come barriers that require us to be more diligent about food choices and exercise. Keep in mind these tips and you'll be looking and feeling better this winter!

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Roberts SB, Mayer J. "Holiday weight gain: fact or fiction?" Nutrition Reviews. 2000; 58(12):378-9.

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Caitlin Hosmer, M.S., R.D., L.D.N., is the manager of the Nutrition Consultation Service at Brigham and Women's Hospital. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from Cornell University. She completed her dietetic internship at Frances Stern Nutrition Center and New England Medical Center, and received a master's degree in nutrition at Tufts University.

Heather Hawkes is a dietetic intern at Brigham and Women's Hospital. She graduated from the University of Vermont in December 2002 and in the spring of 2003 spent nine weeks in Haiti as a public health nutritionist.

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