Winter weight gain is a common occurrence that’s usually caused by factors including lower activity levels and overconsumption of calories during the holidays.
Although small fluctuations in weight aren’t anything to be concerned about, gaining a significant amount of weight over the winter months can negatively affect certain aspects of health and impact quality of life (
Fortunately, there are ways to maintain a healthy body all year without having to significantly reduce calories or resort to unhealthy practices like fad dieting.
This article explains why winter weight gain is so common and shares practical and healthy ways to avoid it. It also provides guidance for those looking to lose excess pounds they gained over the winter.
Gaining weight in the winter is actually pretty common.
In fact, research shows that weight generally tends to increase more during the fall and winter months than during summer (
What’s more, body weight usually peaks during the winter months and is maintained during the rest of the year (
Increased calorie intake
In the U.S. and many other parts of the world, wintertime is filled with holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, and New Year’s.
Holidays are celebrated with social gatherings like hors d’oeuvres-heavy cocktail parties and family dinners.
Plus, those who work often partake in a number of work-related celebrations during the holidays, at which high calorie foods and beverages are served.
Researchers postulate that the main reason for winter weight gain is increased calorie intake during the holiday season. This may be due to larger portion sizes and greater consumption of high-calorie foods and beverages like sweets and high fat foods.
For example, most holiday-related social gatherings involve calorie-rich meals, sugary desserts like pies, cakes, and cookies, and high calorie beverages like hot chocolate, eggnog, and spiked cider.
Because of this increase in calorie intake, U.S. adults gain between .88–2 pounds (0.4–0.9 kg) between the months of November and January (
Weight gain during the holiday season is common in other areas of the world as well.
Additionally, a study in Europeans found that participants who were monitored for holiday weight gain experienced a 1.35% increase in body weight over the Christmas period (
A small amount of weight gain isn’t something to worry about, and it’s OK to enjoy your winter gatherings and the foods served there as part of a healthy diet.
Changes in physical activity
In addition to increased calorie intake during the holidays, many people are less active during the winter months.
Lower levels of activity means fewer calories are being burned on a daily basis, which can contribute to weight gain (
This could be due to the change in weather, shorter days, and more social obligations during the holidays, leaving less time for activity.
A review of 26 studies involving 9,300 participants from 18 different countries found that, in most places, physical activity levels were highest in the summer and lowest in the winter. People were generally more sedentary in the winter (
This makes sense, especially for those who live in areas that experience cold winters.
However, even though a decrease in physical activity can contribute to winter weight gain, studies show that the main reason for increased body weight during the winter months is usually related to increased calorie intake (
Other reasons for winter weight gain
SAD is a type of depression that occurs during a specific time of year, usually during the winter months. SAD can range from mild to severe and can significantly affect quality of life.
A main cause of SAD is thought to be related to changes in hormones and neurotransmitters (chemical messengers in your body) in response to loss of daylight, as well as changes in sleep patterns that occur during the winter months (
Symptoms of SAD include (
- abnormal lack of energy
- excessive sleepiness
- increased appetite
- increased cravings for sugary and carb-rich foods
Some people living with SAD may gain weight during the winter as a result of these symptoms (
The main reason for winter weight gain is due to increased calorie intake, particularly during the holidays. Lower levels of physical activity, increased sedentary behavior, and changes in mental health can contribute to weight gain as well.
Even though it’s common to gain weight during the winter, the amount of weight gained is usually relatively small.
For example, US adults gain between .88 to 2 pounds (0.4 – 0.9 kg) on average between the months of November and January (
However, studies show that most of this weight usually sticks around for the rest of the year (
This means that if you usually gain 2 pounds a year during the winter, and that weight is not lost during the rest of the year, winter weight gain can add up and result in significant weight gain over time.
If you find that you usually gain weight during the winter and have experienced an increase in body weight over the last few years, you may want to dig into the reasons behind your weight gain.
Even though gaining a few pounds is unlikely to impact your overall health and is nothing to be concerned over, consistent weight gain over time — even a few pounds a year — can increase your risk of health issues like type 2 diabetes and heart disease (
Cycles of weight gain and weight loss — such as gaining a significant amount of weight during the winter and losing it in the summer — can also increase disease risk, including the risk of type 2 diabetes (
That’s why maintaining a healthy or moderate body weight year-round is important for overall health.
Fortunately, winter weight gain can be managed in healthy ways like following a nutritious diet and engaging in regular physical activity.
Winter weight gain is common, but it can be managed in healthy ways like following a nutritious diet and engaging in regular physical activity.
Winter weight gain is mainly related to the overconsumption of calories, specifically during the holidays when celebrations surrounding food are at a peak.
Fortunately, you can still enjoy the holiday season, including eating your favorite foods and celebrating with friends and family, while maintaining a moderate weight.
Here are a few ways to stay healthy during the winter.
Follow a healthy eating pattern year-round
The main cause of winter weight gain is related to increased calorie consumption. It can be difficult for people to manage their calorie intake, especially when desirable foods like sugary desserts are being served at holiday gatherings.
Overindulging at one or two holiday dinners won’t significantly affect your weight, and you don’t have to avoid celebrations or forgo your favorite foods during the holidays.
Instead, try being more aware of your food choices year-round. Focus on prioritizing healthy foods and consuming healthy, balanced meals whenever possible.
Studies show that prioritizing healthy food choices is associated with less winter weight gain (
For example, make a point to fill your plate with nutritious and satisfying foods like turkey, salads, and roasted vegetables at holiday dinners. Consider enjoying your favorite higher-calorie dishes like mac & cheese, casseroles, and desserts in smaller portions.
Even though it’s always a good idea to fuel your body with nutritious foods, keep in mind that holidays are meant to be enjoyed with friends and family, and there’s no reason to avoid your favorite foods or worry about how many calories a dish contains.
If you feel that you may have overeaten at a holiday celebration, that’s OK. It’s one meal, and one meal will not affect your body weight or your overall health.
Instead of worrying about a few holiday meals, it’s better to focus on maintaining a healthy eating pattern year-round that provides the appropriate amount of calories for you to maintain a moderate body weight.
That can — and should! — involve enjoying holiday meals with loved ones.
Trying to “do it right” when it comes to nutrition may feel tempting, but it can backfire.
If you are preoccupied with food or your weight, feel guilt surrounding your food choices, or routinely engage in restrictive diets, consider reaching out for support. These behaviors may indicate a disordered relationship with food or an eating disorder.
Disordered eating and eating disorders can affect anyone, regardless of gender identity, race, age, body size, socioeconomic status, or other identities.
They can be caused by any combination of biological, social, cultural, and environmental factors — not just by exposure to diet culture.
Feel empowered to talk with a qualified healthcare professional, such as a registered dietitian, if you’re struggling.
You can also chat, call, or text anonymously with trained volunteers at the National Eating Disorders Association helpline for free or explore the organization’s free and low cost resources.
Many people are less active during the winter than they are during other parts of the year.
This can be due to the shorter days, colder weather, SAD, or having less time to work out because of social obligations.
Staying active year-round benefits your overall health and may also help you maintain a moderate body weight by increasing your energy expenditure (or how many calories you “burn”).
A small study in 38 middle-aged men undergoing exercise training found that the men who continued training during the three weeks surrounding Christmas prevented weight gain and increases in insulin resistance, blood lipid levels, and blood pressure (
On the other hand, the men who stopped training during this period gained weight and experienced increases in blood lipid levels, blood pressure, and insulin resistance (
What’s more, for those with SAD, exercise may help reduce depressive symptoms and improve mood and energy levels (
If you’re not currently exercising or are leading a sedentary lifestyle, it’s likely a good idea to start engaging in regular physical activity. Consider activities that can be continued all year, such as walking, going to the gym, or swimming at an indoor pool.
Following a healthy, well-rounded diet that provides an appropriate number of calories for your body and staying active year-round are simple ways to avoid winter weight gain.
If you’ve gained weight during the winter and want to lose it, there are healthy ways to do so that don’t involve following restrictive diets or intense workout regimens.
The following tips aren’t quick fixes. Instead, they are diet and lifestyle modifications that can lead to gradual weight loss over time and are meant to be followed for life.
- Eat mostly whole, nutrient-dense foods: If your current diet is high in ultra-processed foods like fast food, try shifting your diet to include more nutritious foods like vegetables, beans, fruits, nuts, seeds, eggs, and fish (
- Cut back on added sugar: Limiting your intake of added sugar, especially from sugar-sweetened beverages like soda, is a simple way to cut excess calories and promote weight loss. Too much added sugar can also harm overall health (
- Don’t be too restrictive: Restricting your food intake by skipping meals or following overly strict diets can backfire and lead to overconsumption of calories. It can also harm your physical and mental health. Instead, fuel your body regularly with nourishing foods (
- Focus on improving health, not just losing weight: Although there’s nothing wrong with wanting to lose weight, research shows that people who are motivated by health reasons rather than physical appearance tend to be more successful at keeping weight off long-term (
- Stay active: Staying active year-round can help keep you healthy and maintain your body weight. Try to make physical activity a regular part of your day by going for walks, joining a gym, or participating in other activities that you enjoy.
Maintaining a moderate body weight, including during the winter months, doesn’t have to involve complicated diets or intensive workouts.
If you do have excess weight that you want to lose, avoid turning to extreme measures that focus on short-term weight loss and instead focus on implementing diet and lifestyle changes that can help you reach and maintain a moderate body weight long-term.
Focusing on fueling your body with nutritious foods, cutting back on ultra-processed foods and added sugar, staying active, avoiding overly restrictive diets, and finding motivations other than physical appearance are evidence-based ways to help you reach and maintain a moderate body weight.
Winter weight gain is a common occurrence around the world.
The main cause of winter weight gain is excessive calorie consumption during the holidays, though a reduction in physical activity and the development of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) can contribute as well.
In order to reduce the chances of winter weight gain and maintain a moderate body weight year-round, focus on following a healthy diet rich in whole, nutritious foods and increasing levels of physical activity, especially during the holidays.
Just one thing
Try this today: Are you trying to improve your diet but don’t know where to start? Check out my article on Healthy Eating in Real Life.