According to experts, the lack of sunlight during winter causes a dip in serotonin levels, a brain chemical that regulates appetite.
Couple this with freezing temperatures, seasonal celebrations and less time spent in the saddle, and it’s no surprise most of us enter spring with more padding than intended.
To help you avoid spending next spring fighting a seasonal half-stone weight-gain, here’s our foolproof guide to staying slim during winter.
When it comes to junk food, resistance is futile. The cakes are staring you in the face. So, to give yourself the best chance of success, you need to detox your kitchen cupboards.
Start by removing biscuits, sweets, sugary cereals and refined carbohydrates. If you can’t bear to bin them, donate to colleagues or at the very least, move them into covered containers and out of eyesight.
Although it seems obvious, research shows that the visibility and proximity of food influences our consumption.
In one study, office workers consumed four times as many chocolates when they were placed in a clear bowl close to their desk compared to when they were in an opaque container two metres away.
Once you’ve removed the junk, it’s time to fill your shelves with healthy staples. Stock up on tinned pulses (such as black beans, kidney beans, chickpeas, and lentils), tinned tomatoes, canned oily fish, nuts, seeds, dried fruit, coconut milk, cocoa powder and plenty of antioxidant-rich warming spices such as ginger, cinnamon, vanilla, nutmeg, chilli, garlic and turmeric.
There’s strong evidence to suggest that low levels of serotonin increase our desire for carbohydrate-rich foods, as these stimulate serotonin production.
To satisfy your cravings, opt for slow-release carbohydrates such as steel-cut oats, brown, basmati and wild rice, oatcakes, polenta, quinoa, rice noodles, rye and wholegrain breads and buckwheat pasta.
Comfort minus calories
Eating well during winter doesn’t mean abandoning comfort food; you just need to choose wisely. Hot food delivers instant comfort and is a great way to warm up after a session on the bike.
Swap your usual breakfast cereal for a bowl of hot porridge oats with baked fruit – oats are a good source of slow-release energy and contain a type of fibre known as beta glucan, shown to stimulate immune function.
If you can’t stand oats, go for scrambled, boiled or poached eggs – numerous studies have demonstrated that egg-based breakfasts support weight loss, thanks to their high protein content.
Food swaps to help keep you fit
Winter fruits such as apples, pears and cranberries are easy to stew and make a naturally sweet topping for oats and yoghurt, which you can use to replace empty calories from sugar.
Save time by cooking in bulk and store in the fridge, then simply reheat over the stove or in the microwave. Simply core, peel and slice your fruit, add to a pan with a few spoons of water, a teaspoon of vanilla essence or allspice and cook until softened.
When it comes to evening meals, opt for starchy root vegetables such as sweet potatoes, pumpkin, butternut squash, carrots, beetroot, parsnips and swede – these provide all the comfort of stodgy foods but with fewer calories.
They’re also rich in soluble fibre, which aids weight loss by slowing the rate of digestion, staving off hunger.
Root vegetables lend themselves well to mash – add a splash of olive oil and black pepper and serve beside a hearty winter casserole. Celeriac, butternut squash and cauliflower are brilliant as alternatives to regular mash, and can be used instead of pastry to top meat and fish pies.
Alternatively, try roasting root vegetables in coconut oil with chilli, garlic and pepper. As well as boasting anti-microbial properties, the fats in coconut oil are readily absorbed and used as energy, with emerging evidence suggesting that they may support weight loss.
In a 2009 study, a daily 30ml intake of coconut oil was shown to significantly reduce abdominal fat in overweight women.
One-pot stews are another hearty but healthy staple.
Team up a protein source of your choice with root vegetables, tomato puree, onions, garlic and stock, then bulk out with a tin of kidney beans, chickpeas or lentils and cook over a slow heat for two-three hours. Serve with a vegetable mash and steamed greens or for added fuel, wild rice or polenta.
Pudding fans are advised to leave the treacle sponge on the shelf and opt for stewed fruit with greek yoghurt or baked apples filled with dried fruit and hot custard.
Rice pudding is another classic comfort food. Recent studies suggest that full-fat dairy is not the villain we once thought, so don’t be scared to use whole milk, but switch sugar for vanilla, cinnamon and dried fruit.
Slim down with soup
Soups are a great winter warmer, and with the right ingredients they help you stay slim. In a 2007 study from Penn State University, participants who consumed a low-calorie soup before lunch went on to eat 20 per cent fewer calories at that meal.
It’s thought that soups empty from the stomach slowly, creating a feeling of fullness. Soups rich in fibrous vegetables and pulses are particularly beneficial, as they increase food volume without excess calories, and thanks to their slow digestion rate, keep blood glucose levels on an even keel.
Make vegetable-based soups a staple part of your diet by cooking in bulk at the beginning of the week and transporting to work for an instant hot meal. Add cooked chicken, salmon or chickpeas to boost the protein content and serve with rye bread or oatcakes.
Slurp skinny drinks
Tempting as they are, many seasonal coffee shop beverages are packed with sugar-laden syrups. A large Starbucks spiced pumpkin latte will set you back 410 calories and 36g of sugar, while a medium signature hot chocolate weighs in at 505 calories and 47g of sugar (and that’s the so called ‘skinny’ version).
To prevent fast-tracking into your energy overdraft stick with low calorie hot drinks such as regular tea and coffee, spiced ginger, rooibos or chai. Hot chocolate aficionado? A tablespoon of unsweetened cocoa powder with a calorie-free sweetener stirred into hot milk will do the trick.
Stay active in the great outdoors
It’s a no-brainer, but staying active through the winter is essential for staving off unwanted winter weight. As well as the obvious calorie burn, exercise is a powerful mediator of mood, which affects our inclination to overeat.
Where possible, maintain as many outdoor sessions on the bike as you can, as exposure to bright light is essential in activating hormones that control sleep, mental wellbeing and even appetite.
In a study conducted by the University of Toronto, overweight adults who underwent bright light treatment in conjunction with a moderate exercise programme lost more body fat than those following an exercise-only programme.
It’s believed that bright light improves blood serotonin levels, which controls bodyweight by curbing appetite and improving mood, increasing motivation to stay active.
Consider switching your routine so that you can get out on your bike during your lunch hour. If this isn’t possible, move away from your desk for a 30-minute jog or power walk.
Protect your vitamin D
Low levels of vitamin D are usually accounted for by the lack of daylight during winter, as the majority of our stores are synthesised via the action of sunlight on our skin.
In recent years, vitamin D deficiency has been linked with an increased susceptibility to weight gain, believed to be down to its role in body fat regulation. In research reported in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, women who were vitamin D deficient were on average 8kg heavier than those with adequate stores.
Dietary sources of vitamin D are few and far between but oily fish such as mackerel, salmon and sardines are one of the best; egg yolks and butter also contain small amounts. I
f you want to supplement, opt for one containing vitamin D3, the active form. Up to 1,000 international units (or 25mcg) per day is considered safe.
Sleep yourself lean
Ensuring sufficient shut-eye should not be overlooked if you want to maintain a healthy weight. A lack of sleep has been shown to stimulate production of hunger hormones, which increases desire for high-carbohydrate, high-calorie foods.
Lack of sleep also influences our ability to lose weight. In one study, dieters sleeping for seven hours or more lost significantly more body fat than those sleeping for five hours.
Aim to get to bed at the same time each evening to regulate your sleep-wake cycle and avoid using mobile phones, iPads or TV in bed as these disrupt the production of melatonin, the sleep hormone
A version of this article by Laura Tilt was first published in the Winter 2012 issue of Cycling Fitness