Is SAD Causing Your Winter Weight Gain?

Man looking at snow into the window
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Do you have or think you might have seasonal affective disorder (SAD) or its lower-intensity version, the “Winter Blues”? If so, you might be gaining weight in the winter due to this medical disorder—and treatment can help.

What Is SAD?

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a medical condition affecting primarily mood and behavior with the change of the seasons. In most people, it occurs during the winter months as a result of shorter days with less light and sunshine.

Those with SAD can suffer winter depressions, low energy, difficulty with daily tasks, and a general feeling of wanting to “hibernate” during the winter.

A milder version of SAD has been called the “Winter Blues.” Many of the same symptoms apply but to a milder degree. For an excellent resource on SAD and the Winter Blues—and how to tell the difference—we highly recommend Dr. Norman E. Rosenthal’s book, Winter Blues, Fourth Edition: Everything You Need to Know to Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Carb Cravings in SAD Patients

Several researchers have documented the increase in carb cravings among sufferers of SAD as well as of the winter blues. These cravings more often than not lead to weight gain during the winter months. Sometimes this weight is lost during the summer months, but all of it may not be lost, resulting in an accumulation of several pounds that repeats itself year after year. And that, in turn, can lead to obesity.

We’re referring here specifically to “bad carbs,” the highly refined and processed carbohydrates that often make up comfort foods. Think of white bread, white rice, white pasta, and sweets such as cupcakes and donuts. Ring a bell? Exactly.

Not only do these bad carbs lead to weight gain, but they are also a source of added sugars. According to the American Heart Association, major sources of added sugars in our diets are soft drinks, candy, cakes, cookies, pies, fruit drinks, dairy desserts and milk products (such as ice cream and sweetened yogurt), and cereals.

Add to the carb cravings the low energy that plagues SAD sufferers during the winter months—the same people who, during the summer months, may have the energy to fix a healthy meal full of whole vegetables, unsaturated fats, and fiber—and you can see how the battle against weight gain can be all uphill during the winter.

Light Therapy

Light therapy is one of many treatments for SAD and the Winter Blues. The improvement in SAD symptoms with proper use of light therapy can be quite dramatic, returning energy and restoring good mood within a matter of days in many individuals.

Other treatments for SAD can include antidepressants, meditation, and daily outdoor exercise, among others, and often combining therapies can help a great deal.

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Article Sources

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  • Rosenthal NE. Winter Blues: Everything You Need to Know to Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder. Fourth edition. Guilford Press 2012.
  • Wurtman JJ. Carbohydrate Cravings: A Disorder of Food Intake and Mood. Clin Neuropharmacol 1988;11:S139-45.