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Here's the Actual Scientific Reason You Gain Weight in the Winter—And How to Avoid It

Hint: Evolution is betting against your New Year's resolution.

Winter brings an interesting array of challenges each year. Not eating pavement when you walk down any stretch of street or stairs. Leaving the couch to get in your sub-zero run. And, of course, stopping the urge to devour the contents of your pantry and avoid the subsequent weight gain. That last one’s not your fault. Really. We’ve evolved to develop a subconscious impulse to do exactly that in the winter months, according to research from the University of Exeter. 

Evolutionarily speaking, being overweight has never posed a serious threat to our survival. Being underweight has. In the winter, our natural instinct to maintain body fat is stronger than any other season because that’s naturally when food is scarce. So, more often than not, we fail to pass on sweet, fatty, unhealthy foods. 

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In this particular study, researchers used computer modeling to predict just how much fat animals should store in the winter months, assuming natural selection gives animals (including us) an optimal strategy for maintaining the healthiest weight. This model, in turn, predicts how the amount of fat an animal stores should respond to food availability, and the risk of being killed by a predator when foraging for food. 

In short, the computer model shows the animal should have a target body weight that hovers above the level in which it loses weight, and below which it tries to gain weight. But their simulations show there isn’t much of a negative effect on energy stores when a weight surpass this optimal level. What this means is our subconscious controls that fight against becoming overweight are weak and easily overpowered by the immediate reward of tasty food.

"You would expect evolution to have given us the ability to realize when we have eaten enough, but instead we show little control when faced with artificial food,” lead study author Andrew Higginson said in a press release

But don’t go blaming your inability to hold a New Year’s resolution on evolution—even though the researchers say New Year’s Day is the worst time to start a diet since out body instinctively stores fat to prevent starvation. There are ways to fight against the urge to eat (and eat, and eat…).

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Simply being aware of this evolutionary tendency is step one. (Look, you’re halfway there!) “If someone is more conscious that cold weather naturally incites an innate tendency to overindulge it’s less likely to bite them,” says Ann Kulze, M.D., author of Eat Right for Life. “Beyond this first step of awareness, it goes back to the fundamentals of appetite control, like eating healthy, real foods while avoiding foods that drive appetite, exercising regularly, and being mindful during all aspects of eating behavior.  

Here are four other ways to avoid weight gain this season:

1. Avoid white flour products like white rice, white potatoes, sugar, and sweets since high glycemic carbs can skyrocket blood sugar and insulin, increasing your appetite and promoting the storage of fat. 
2. Instead, fill up on fiber-rich foods such as whole fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans. They can keep hunger at bay, stimulate the appetite-controlling hormone leptin, and keep glucose from flooding your blood stream.
3. Limit sugar, especially in beverages, sugary cereals, and processed foods (like salad dressings, flavored yogurts, and packaged dessert snacks), which can trigger insulin resistance and fat storage.
4. Get more protein into your diet. The most natural way to provide longer lasting appetite control is to consume fish, skinless poultry, nut butters, whole soy foods, dairy products, eggs, and beans, Kulze says. This will prevent the loss of muscle and help you maintain weight loss. 

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