Winter weight gain – why it happens and tips to manage it

5th January, 2023 • 5 min read

Do the cold, dark days of winter leave you feeling hungrier and eating more? Does your exercise regime wind down, too? You may be wondering if there are reasons why putting on weight in winter is something you can’t escape. Read on to find out and get winter weight loss tips.

Video: 5 ways to beat winter weight gain by getting active

Why do people put on weight in winter?

Holiday weight gain is the most obvious reason for putting on a few pounds in winter. “Most people tend to eat and drink more during winter time, especially around festivals such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Las Posadas and Kwanzaa,” says Dr Ann Nainan, family doctor and Healthily expert.

The colder weather can make exercising outdoors harder, too, so you’re burning fewer calories. But it also seems that human bodies are set up to make weight gain in winter easier, and weight loss in winter more difficult.

So here are the facts you need if you’ve ever wondered: is it normal to gain weight in the winter?

1. Body fat maintenance

“It seems that eating hearty, calorific foods may be what your body is supposed to do at this time of year,” says Dr Ann.

Think of it this way: for your ancestors, being overweight could have been less of a threat to survival than being underweight – and the latter was much more likely to happen in winter, when there was less food to go around.

And it might be that our bodies haven’t evolved to work differently, even now that food is readily available year-round. This may mean that as you go into winter, your body is programmed to maintain a certain level of body fat. Which may be where the familiar urge to eat more energy-dense foods and store more calories comes from.

2. Lack of sunlight

Ever wondered why it’s often easier to keep weight off during summer? While more research is needed, 1 study found that some of your body’s fat cells – which lie just beneath your skin – shrink when they’re exposed to blue light from the sun.

This means your cells don’t store as much fat in the summer. So when we don’t get enough sun during the darker, shorter days, fat cells don’t shrink, and may cause weight gain, as they can store more.

However, the researchers stressed that this was a very early observation, and don’t recommend trying to lose weight by sitting in the sun, which has its own health risks (read more about sun safety.)

3. Programmed for winter weight gain

Do you blame your lack of willpower for overindulging in the winter? One study might help you let that pressure go.

The results may help explain why it can feel so difficult to resist the urge to overeat, especially during the winter holidays:

  • scientists used computer modeling to predict how much fat animals (including humans) should store in their bodies
  • they found that having a higher weight than the ideal level only had a small negative effect on an animal’s energy levels
  • because of this, it’s thought an animal has no – or very weak – controls to stop itself gaining weight, especially when tempted with a plate of delicious food

Watch this video for more winter fitness tips.

How to reduce your calorie intake in the winter

Not only may we eat more in the winter, but we may also choose higher-calorie foods – which often aren’t the healthiest for our waistline.

But it’s possible to eat delicious and comforting meals, without going overboard. Here’s how.

1. Keep your kitchen cupboards stocked with healthy staples

This will make it easier to prepare a healthy meal when you’re already hungry or in a rush, helping you avoid the temptation to order a high-calorie takeaway (which should also save you money). What’s not to like?

Healthy store-cupboard staples include:

  • cans of chopped tomatoes
  • spices and dried herbs
  • canned beans and pulses (preferably in unsalted water)
  • dried whole wheat pasta, rice, noodles and couscous
  • whole wheat cereals without added sugar

Filling your freezer with frozen fruit and vegetables is another great way to save money and make sure you’re getting your 5-a-day. Buy packs of frozen berries to eat with yogurt, and frozen spinach, peas and broccoli to add to soups and stir-fries.

2. Fill up on vegetables

Veggies are healthy and satisfying. Try:

  • filling half your plate at every meal with vegetables – this will help keep you fuller for longer and stop you piling your plate with higher-calorie foods, such as fats and carbohydrates
  • choosing your vegetables for color and variety – you want your plate to look like a rainbow, with reds from bell peppers and tomatoes, greens from kale, spinach and peas, yellows from sweetcorn, and oranges from carrots, squash and pumpkin

3. Try healthier comfort foods

Swapping out certain foods for healthier alternatives is another great way to manage your diet in the winter:

  • choose lower-fat dips – such as tomato-based salsa, chopped herbs in low-fat plain yogurt, or reduced-fat hummus. Try to avoid dips made with cream or cheese, which are often higher in calories
  • ditch the chips and salted nuts – try plain popcorn, plain rice cakes, or whole grain oatcakes with drinks instead
  • try baked potatoes instead of roast potatoes – both are a good source of carbohydrates, but baked potatoes are almost fat-free. If you eat the skin, you'll be getting fiber to help you feel fuller, too
  • serve low-fat natural or Greek yogurt with dessert – instead of cream or ice cream, which are high in calories

Get more tips for healthy food swaps, and try these heart-healthy comfort recipes.

Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.