Seasonal Eating Patterns

Andrew Siegel, M.D.   Blog # 83


For many of us, myself included, fall and winter are the seasons for weight gain.  Fortunately, this is balanced by spring and summer, which are the seasons for getting back to “fighting” weight, good fitness, and healthier eating patterns.

It all seems to start around Halloween when the kids bring home bags full of tempting sweets, although the weather pattern over the last two years has effectively destroyed trick-or-treating in the Northeast USA.  Shortly thereafter, Thanksgiving arrives—the holiday of feasting—and then we have the December holidays upon us, with abundant opportunities for parties, festivities, celebrations and over-indulging.   In addition to its nutritional role, food seems to serve a major medicinal role as a soothing antidote to the cooler weather, the shorter days, and the winter doldrums.

The French word for winter is hiver, which has the same etymological origin as hibernation.  And truly, many of us go into hibernation mode in the winter—perhaps a vestigial biological imperative to eat more to store up energy for the leaner months ahead.  This is likely on a biochemical basis having to do with our chemical response to decreasing amounts of daylight.

One thing is indisputable—cold and dark seem to foster a foraging behavior for many of us. Unhealthier, “heavier” comfort foods, including stews, macaroni and cheese, creamy soups and starches seem to be the remedy for cold weather and darkness.  During the winter months we tend to be more housebound, with ample opportunities for “boredom” eating and less distractions from eating that are possible in the warmer times of the year.  Seasonal affective disorder (S.A.D.)—an affliction that many of us endure due to the very short winter days—is characterized by variable degrees of melancholy, which can certainly beg for relief by means of comfort foods.

Obviously, there is less opportunity for outdoor exercise and outdoor activities during winter.  There is also less availability of healthier fresh fruit and vegetables that are more readily available in summer.  There is less opportunity for grilling, a healthier form of cooking than many alternatives.  Finally, many seem to care less about their physical appearance during winter when they are less likely to need to get into shorts or a bathing suit, so are less attentive to their more disciplined eating and exercise patterns that are typical of spring and summer.

The solution to the problem of seasonal weight gain is to be mindful of the process by which winter promotes weight gain and to exercise moderation with respect to eating behavior. Increased physical activity and staying busy and productive are useful strategies.  Joining a gym, attending yoga class, playing in an indoor tennis league, taking adult education classes, etc., are all terrific ways of staying active, engaged and out of the kitchen.  And if you do gain a few pounds, spring and summer provide ample opportunities for shedding them.

Have a magnificent Thanksgiving feast, and a wonderful holiday! We are grateful and truly fortunate for the bounty of food and companionship that makes this day so special.

Andrew Siegel, M.D.

Author of Promiscuous Eating: Understanding and Ending Our Self-Destructive Relationship with Food:

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