Every winter, a number of animals-bears, ground squirrels, prairie dogs, and even some humans-go into hibernation. They burrow into their dens, trees, holes, or bulky sweaters and move as little as possible; metabolism slows, and pounds are safeguarded. As temperatures warm, some of these species-bears, ground squirrels, and prairie dogs-emerge to joyfully celebrate spring. Other species-certain humans-remain in bulky sweaters for as long as possible.
Why is it that losing weight is so hard in the winter? Like hibernation, conserving calories is only natural. As temperatures drop, so do our activity levels. Blustery weather makes us crave hearty, filling foods; pot roast and heavily buttered rolls are more appetizing than melon and leafy greens. And with shorter days and decreased sunlight, our levels of serotonin-a neurotransmitter in the brain-naturally decrease. When serotonin levels drop, food consumption increases. Low serotonin levels also impact mood, which can further encourage unhealthful munching.
Lucky for us, certain foods and nutrients have been shown to help prevent weight gain and encourage slimming, mainly by increasing feelings of fullness, warming the body, improving serotonin levels in the brain, and satisfying cravings. Try these foods; they'll bring you out of hibernation and have you ready to shed your sweaters come spring.
- Beans are loaded with protein, which can boost weight loss. In one study, women who exercised regularly and ate a reduced-calorie diet high in protein lost more fat and less muscle than those who ate a similar diet high in carbohydrates. Additionally, beans are rich in fiber, which increases satiety and prolongs emptying of the stomach, making us feel fuller, longer. On your plate: Add baby spinach leaves, chopped tomatoes, and minced onions and cilantro to a pot of black beans, and serve with warm corn tortillas. Add tomato sauce, garlic, and Indian spices to chickpeas, and serve over brown rice.
- Sweet potatoes are rich in fiber, which helps promote weight loss by increasing fullness and postponing hunger after meals. Studies have shown that eating an additional 14 grams of fiber a day can help decrease consumption of foods by 10 percent and increase weight loss; study results are similar to those noted in a low-fat diet. Other great sources of fiber include beans, oat bran, artichokes, and dates. On your plate: Combine cubed sweet potatoes with onions, garlic, turnips, and Brussels sprouts; toss with olive oil and minced rosemary and roast until tender. Mash baked sweet potatoes with grated orange peel and a bit of maple syrup for a sweet and simple side.
- Grapefruit, long a fad diet for shedding pounds, really does help weight loss. In one study, researchers found that people who ate half a grapefruit before a meal lost an average of 3.6 pounds, and many lost more than 10 pounds. It's thought that the chemical properties of grapefruit reduce insulin levels and encourage weight loss. As an added benefit, it's high in fiber and water, which further enhance slimming, and its sweet taste can satisfy cravings. On your plate: halve a ripe grapefruit, sprinkle lightly with maple sugar crystals or brown sugar, and broil until bubbly. Combine red grapefruit sections with salad greens, pomegranate seeds, and chopped walnuts, and dress with a light vinaigrette.
- Sardines are loaded with omega-3 fatty acids, which help improve transmission of serotonin and other neurotransmitters that regulate mood. Omega-3 fats also increase oxygenation of the blood, which further enhances neurotransmitter function. Other good sources include wild Alaskan salmon, tuna, walnuts, and flaxseed. Many fish oil supplements and liquids contain sardine oil and may promote weight loss by helping stabilize blood sugar and boosting mood (depression can lead to overeating). On your plate: Combine chopped boneless, skinless sardines with minced scallions, chopped black olives, capers, and fresh basil, and stir in a small amount of canola mayonnaise. Brush sardines with olive oil and minced garlic, broil for 3 minutes, and serve on toasted whole-grain bread.
- Spinach is rich in magnesium, a mineral that's crucial for the synthesis of serotonin; studies have also shown that adequate dietary magnesium helps relieve depression and related disorders such as anxiety and insomnia. Additionally, spinach is rich in folate, a B vitamin that's also necessary for the production of serotonin. On your plate: Sauté minced garlic, diced tomatoes, and baby spinach in olive oil. Serve blanched spinach leaves with a dressing of miso, sesame oil, tamari, and black sesame seeds.
- Cayenne pepper and other spicy foods help boost metabolism to increase fat burning. Cayenne pepper contains capsaicin, a compound that stimulates the body to generate heat and promote burning of calories and excess body fat. Studies suggest that other hot spices, such as black and white pepper, garlic, mustard, and ginger, increase body temperature and speed up calorie burning, even without exercise. On your plate: Combine cayenne pepper with ground black and white pepper in a shaker and add a dash to food during cooking. Add garlic, grated ginger, and cayenne pepper to cooked beans for a spicy lift.
- Eggs. Eating eggs instead of bagels for breakfast can help you lose more weight. A recent study found that people who ate two eggs for breakfast lost 65 percent more weight, even though they ate the same number of calories for breakfast. In addition, the egg eaters lost more body fat and had higher energy levels throughout the day, with no change in cholesterol levels. On your plate: Scramble eggs in a small amount of olive oil, a half-dozen eggs at a time, and keep on hand for on-the-go breakfasts.
- Yogurt is rich in calcium, which can enhance your body's fat-burning mechanisms. In one study, people who ate three servings of fat-free yogurt lost 22 percent more weight and 61 percent more body fat than people who just cut calories without increasing calcium intake. Yogurt eaters also lost more weight in the hard-to-slim abdominal area, while maintaining lean muscle mass. On your plate: Top yogurt with chopped almonds, unsweetened coconut, and fresh or frozen berries for a creamy, anytime treat. Make a simple breakfast smoothie with yogurt, bananas, green foods powder, and ground flax.
- Artichokes contain a compound called cynarin that is thought to improve liver function and enhance weight loss. Consuming an artichoke also slows eating, giving your stomach ample time to send "I'm full" messages to your brain. Artichokes are also low in calories and loaded with fiber; one artichoke contains 10 g-more than a third of the recommended daily amount. On your plate: Steam artichokes in water that's laced with lemon and garlic, and serve with garlic-laced olive oil for dipping. Trim and quarter baby artichokes, boil, and toss with chopped black olives, capers, roasted red peppers, and olive oil for a simple appetizer.
- Fresh ginger is a great way to boost the flavor of your meals without adding calories. But what you might not know is that it can also turn up the heat a little: studies have shown that ginger naturally boost metabolism. Fresh gingerroot also acts as an anti-inflammatory by inhibiting COX-2 enzymes, part of the chemical pathway that produces inflammatory chemicals. On your plate: Brew ginger tea by boiling then steeping slices of gingerroot. Toss steamed kale with finely grated ginger, minced garlic, sesame seeds, and tamari. Garnish carrot soup with freshly grated ginger and a bit of lemon zest.
Burn It Up
Try these winter ways to burn off extra calories before they accumulate:
Kickbox. Give it all you've got, and expect to burn 500 calories or more per hour. Check local gyms, or visit ifafitness.com for more info.
Hit the mall. Hustle along the length of the mall, and you'll burn 384 calories an hour. Add in stairs, and you'll bump that number higher.
Make a racquet. A casual game of racquetball burns around 400 calories; if you're a hard-core player, you'll sweat off almost 600 calories.
Roll on in. Roller skating burns about 400 calories an hour and helps tone and stretch legs.
Head for the hills. For a more nature-rich experience, an hour of cross-country skiing on fairly rough terrain burns up to 900 calories.
Go ride a bike. An hour on a stationary bike at a steady clip burns 400 calories. Give it all you've got, and you'll rack up 620 calories.
Dance your heart out. Ballet and modern dance burn 354 calories an hour, in addition to toning muscles.