Every fall, a number of animals—bears, ground squirrels, prairie dogs, some humans—prepare to go into hibernation. They hoard food; they burrow into their dens, trees, holes or bulky sweaters, and move as little as possible; metabolism slows, and pounds are carefully guarded. 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 do we gain weight in the winter? Like hibernation, it’s only natural. As temperatures drop, so does our activity level. A little extra padding keeps us warm. Blustery weather makes us crave hearty, filling foods (pot roast and buttered rolls are more appetizing—and seasonal—than melon and leafy greens).
And as days shorten and sunlight decreases, our levels of serotonin—a neurotransmitter in the brain—naturally decrease. As serotonin levels drop, food consumption increases. Low serotonin levels also impact mood, which can further encourage unhealthy munching.
Lucky for us, certain foods and nutrients warm the body, increase feelings of fullness, improve serotonin levels in the brain, and satisfy cravings. Try these foods; they’ll bring you out of hibernation, and have you eager 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 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. How to eat them: 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, dates. How to eat them: 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. How to eat it: 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 flax seed. How to eat them: 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 like anxiety and insomnia (5). Additionally, spinach is rich in folate, a B-vitamin that’s also necessary for the production of serotonin (6). On your plate: Saute 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, like black and white pepper, garlic, mustard and ginger, increase body temperature and speed up calorie burning, even without exercise. How to eat it: 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 had higher energy levels throughout the day, with no change in cholesterol levels (9). How to eat them: Scramble eggs in a small amount of olive oil; boil half a 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 (10). How to eat it: 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. They’re also low in calories and loaded with fiber; one artichoke contains 10 grams, or more than a third of the recommended daily amount. How to eat them: 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.