One of the most undesirable symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (amongst a long list of negative ways that the disorder affects you) is weight gain. Like the disorder, the weight gain can be of a seasonal nature only. And to be honest, people tend to gain more during the winter as it is, due to being inside more, and therefore more sedentary, as well as the holiday season with all of its decadent offerings.
But given the fact that the possibility of weight gain becomes more of a concern for everyone at this time, people with S.A.D. have to be particularly aware. Much of the weight gain in relation to S.A.D. is due to an increased craving for carbohydrates (sugars), which are known to pack on the pounds. Whether you are eating pasta, bread, or candy, carbohydrates may provide you with a temporary energy boost, but they will also boost the numbers on the scale.
In addition to the craving for carbs, those affected with S.A.D. may also have an increased appetite in general. Some other forms of depression can also cause the person to eat more in the attempt to make themselves feel better.
I am not a doctor, but I tend to think that the increased eating during winter stems from a few different reasons. First, it is biological. From a survival point of view, if we lived out in the wild, we would want to bulk up, as it is much easier to stay warm during the winter. What do hibernating bears do prior to their long slumber? Eat as much as possible, and in particular, they engorge on carbohydrate-rich foods found in the wild. They may gain 30 pounds in one week by intentionally eating.
Second, I think we eat for mental reasons. Both directly and indirectly, food has an effect on our minds. The chemicals from foods can often produce a positive effect on our brains, causing us to function better and feel more clear-minded. In particular, carbohydrates can produce a more immediate effect, providing us with quick gratification. That is the direct effect, but the indirect is how we feel. Food makes us feel cared for, makes us feel like times are good, and we are programmed to correlate food with celebration and happiness. That is one reason that food is such a major component at the holidays or any special occasion, making the time very difficult for those on a diet. It causes the person trying to cut down to feel like they are missing out on the celebration, and other well-meaning people who will tell them that in those exact words do not help the matter.
The final reason that I think that those with S.A.D. are more likely to eat during the winter is in an attempt to regain strength and energy. On a normal basis, if we do not eat enough, our brain and body is affected, causing us to feel lethargic, tired, and lacking in energy. Eating can undo all of those effects. Because someone with S.A.D. is infected with a zombie syndrome that makes them walk around in a continual state of fatigue and feeling out of it, they may turn to food to try to pump themselves up with the energy that they lack, particularly carbs that offer a swift pick-me-up.
Unfortunately in this situation, overeating during the winter can end up making a bad scenario worse on an ongoing basis. If you become overweight, it may affect your self-esteem, causing long-term depression, or people may make comments that will feed into a negative body image.
On my other blog, I just made a post about weight, its effect on your psyche, and our cultural standards. Part of my own weight struggle is likely due to my Seasonal Affective Disorder, so that is why I wanted to share the blog post with you.
Here are some ways that I attempt to control my weight during this difficult period of time:
- Keep temptation at bay— If I know that I am going to feel the need to load up on cookies or candy if it is in the house, I may sure that I do not buy it. Likewise, if holiday baking or cooking is going to cause you to eat more during the process than you have left over, avoid it. However, it is okay to have a treat once in a while as long as you do not go on a binge.
- Drink instead of eat— Often our hunger is not from the need for food, but rather that we may be dehydrated. Before running for a snack, try to drink some water to see if that makes you feel more energized.
- Portion control the carbs— You can still eat carbohydrates, but keep them at a minimum. Have a small amount of pasta or bread, or if possible, skip them.
- Get exercise indoors if you can— I am not really into exercise, but we do have an exercise bike that I use from time to time. Particularly for someone with S.A.D., I am not about to tell them to get outdoors in this cold weather to exercise, but if you can do it inside, it can help with both weight management and energy levels.
- Provide yourself quality snacks options— If you need an energizing snack in the afternoon, keep one or two things around that are decent. It could be a granola bar, yogurt, dry cereal, Pepperidge Farm Goldfish crackers, or for me, dry oats. Drink some water with it to make yourself feel fuller. The key is not to start eating things that are bad for you or overdoing it even with the things that are good for you.
- Don’t forget the drinks— Winter makes us want to have a mug full of hot tea, coffee, hot chocolate, or apple cider in our hands at all times. Summer spurs us to drink more cold water, but winter does the opposite. Some of these drinks have a lot of sugar or calories, and we could end up putting on weight from them. So monitor how much that you are drinking, choose lower fat/calorie/sugar options like tea when possible, and instead of having a snack, you may consider just having a hot drink instead. It fills you up, and can offer the boost that you need.
- Re-program your idea of a good time— We are so used to think that only with food or drinks can we have a good time. I used to go out and eat as if every meal was my last one. We have to re-adjust our thinking to know that eating is fine, but it is not an end in and of itself, and we can do fun things without always overeating. This becomes especially pertinent during the holidays or during social gatherings of any sort.
- Determine your motivation— Before you pop something in your mouth, particularly snacks or treats, determine what your motivation is for eating it. In other words, are you really hungry? Sometimes I find myself craving food as a distraction, as a feel-good, because I am actually thirsty and don’t realize it, or to celebrate an occasion, not because I am hungry at all. Determining your motivation will stop mindless eating.
- Set your priorities— If you know that you are going out to eat later or to a party, choose to eat less at your other meals. That way you can enjoy yourself, and still get the same calories as any other day. Likewise, don’t waste calories on items that you really don’t like that much– for me, I often skip bread during dinners at home. Another tactic is to only eat more when I eat out on things I really like, and eat less at home of things I really do not care that much for anyways.
After knowing what my issue is for a few years now, I have learned to control some of my winter-related eating, and a lot of it is just due to controlled actions that eventually become habits. By putting some preventative measures in place, you should be able to avoid seasonal weight gain, and the process will be easier in years to come.