Back in our grandmothers’ time, diets naturally shifted in the winter months: Meals were shaped around the potatoes, carrots, onions, and apples stored in the root cellar, hearty beans and grains, and any local farm produce that was canned during the autumn harvest. Nowadays, though, grocery stores have tomatoes, spinach, and berries shipped in year-round from countries with warm climates, so we no longer have to wait for spring’s fresh bounty to fill up on lighter offerings such as green salads and fresh-fruit smoothies — but new research suggests that maybe we should.
A breakthrough study from Stanford University reveals that our bodies actually need more carbs in the winter to optimize weight loss and wellness. The 2017 study, published in the journal Science, showed that the makeup of bacteria in the gut changes with the seasons. As the days grow darker and colder, a genus of bacteria called Prevotella flourishes. These beneficial bacteria are uniquely suited to break down the high-carbohydrate fare that has traditionally been eaten throughout the winter months (such as beans, sweet potatoes, parsnips, and whole grains) and to help the body process the nutrients that boost well-being, including the immunity-boosting zinc in winter’s bounty.
Forgoing carbs in favor of salads and smoothies in an effort to slim sets up a cycle of creeping winter weight gain. “We’ve taken seasonality out of our eating, and that is one of the contributors to our current obesity epidemic,” asserts Vincent Pedre, M.D., medical director of Pedre Integrative Health in New York City.
The reason: When we don’t eat the wintertime foods that Prevotella are designed to digest, those beneficial bacteria begin to die out. As a result, digestion becomes sluggish and food waste begins to build up in the colon. Fat-promoting bacteria feed on these undigested food particles and produce harmful metabolic waste that, over time, creates a toxic load in the body. And because these toxins have to be filtered through the liver, the organ can become too overworked to optimally perform its other important duties, including fat burning.
In effect, “We’re building a microbiome that favors weight gain and inflammation,” Dr. Pedre says. Eat more of the winter comfort carbs the body is designed to digest, though, and weight loss is effortless. Winter carbs help Prevotella bacteria thrive and multiply, enhancing the body’s ability to break down and absorb slimming, energizing vitamins and minerals. “When you feed your microbiome, it positively impacts all sorts of body functions — including your metabolism,” Pedre says.
The payoff: In a study published in the International Journal of Obesity, adults with a higher ratio of Prevotella lost 63 percent more weight while enjoying a high-fiber diet than those who had lower levels of the beneficial gut bug.
And women whom First for Women spoke to report that this translates to dropping as much as 10 pounds per week. Weight loss is just the beginning. “Enjoying more winter-friendly carbs has also been shown to strengthen immunity, decrease heart disease risk and boost mood,” says John Douillard, D.C., director of LifeSpa, a holistic health center in Boulder, Colorado, and author of Eat Wheat: A Scientific and Clinically-Proven Approach to Safely Bringing Wheat and Dairy Back Into Your Diet ($14.92, Amazon). And since most beneficial bacteria (not just Prevotella) thrive on high-carb fare, eating more fiber-rich beans and grains also helps foster the growth of other immunity and digestion-enhancing bugs that will help you sidestep the irritated sinuses and aching joints that can be caused by dry winter air.
Healthy carbs make winter weight loss easier than ever.
Eating more healthy carbs in the winter increases the growth of beneficial gut bugs to optimize digestion and kickstart weight loss — plus strengthen immunity, improve mood, and increase energy. The key, says Douillard, is to emphasize carbohydrates that are rich in soluble fiber, which feeds the good gut bacteria that help fire up fat burn.
“Your grains, your root vegetables, your legumes — they are what most people are craving now anyway,” Douillard says. “So give yourself permission to eat them.” For best results, Douillard suggests enjoying 1 1/2 cups of soluble fiber-rich grains per day. His top picks include amaranth, wheat, buckwheat, millet, oats, quinoa, and brown rice. Round out your meals with plenty of steamed or roasted vegetables, as well as at least 4 ounces of fish, beef, or poultry, or 2 eggs.
In the winter, dairy products should be avoided when possible, Douillard suggests, as they tend to cause congestion that can increase the production of mucus and exacerbate cold symptoms. He also advises eliminating processed foods, added sugars, and seed oils (including canola, soybean and corn oil).
For your fastest winter weight loss, try these strategies:
Enjoy healthy carbs in the morning.
Metabolism tends to be faster earlier in the day, so Douillard suggests having 3/4 cup of whole-grain carbs at both breakfast and lunch. You’ll get the wellness-enhancing benefits of the winter carbs and burn off those carb calories throughout the day. Oatmeal or quinoa porridge make a wonderful warming morning meal. Women whom First for Women spoke with reported that they easily made the transition to a carb-based lunch by trading lunchtime salads for hearty, comforting grain bowls topped with vegetables and beans.
Up the root veggies at dinner.
Fill your plate with 1/2 cup of soluble fiber-rich root vegetables, such as sweet potatoes, potatoes, carrots, parsnips, beets, turnips, and winter squash to feed your good winter gut bugs. These plant-based carbs are easier to break down than whole grains, which is beneficial as digestion slows at the end of the day. In general, Douillard says, you should aim to eat a small supper — like a bowl of stew — instead of a large dinner. In a study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, this strategy helped dieters lose 25 percent more weight than those who favored a large evening meal.
Pile on healthy fats.
“Above and beyond what you use to cook, drizzle coconut oil, olive oil, or ghee on your meals to add flavor and healthy fats,” Douillard says. Avocados and ghee, especially, provide vitamins and antioxidants that the body needs to maintain healthy mucous membranes throughout the cold, dry months and provide fuel for beneficial gut bacteria. This strategy also helps dial back mood swings and hunger by slowing down the absorption of winter carbs, which results in steadier energy to help you feel your winter best.
Indulge in a treat.
Trade desserts high in sugar for an apple baked with cinnamon at 375 degrees Farenheit for 30 minutes. Japanese researchers report that apples contain unique sugars that nourish fat-burning bacteria and help starve harmful bacteria. The fiber-rich fruit also helps remove toxins and bad bacteria from the gastric intestinal tract.
Continue to eat seasonally to get to your goal weight.
The body is primed to optimally digest starchy carbs in the winter, but what happens as the weather starts to warm up? “Winter microbes that are geared for digesting heavier foods transition to microbes that are best suited for spring’s bounty of fresh vegetables,” Douillard explains. That’s why, when you flip the calendar to March and April, it’s best to scale back your grain intake to 1/4 cup at breakfast or lunch and skip carb-rich foods at supper. Instead, enjoy more of the leafy greens that the body is primed to digest in the spring.
Healthy Winter Carbs Sample Meal Plan
Avocado Toast for Breakfast
Top a slice of whole-grain toast with half of a mashed avocado and an over-easy egg. Season to taste with salt and fresh ground pepper.
Grain Bowl for Lunch
Top 3/4 cup of white rice with 2 ounces of pulled pork, 2 ounces of black beans, half of an avocado and 1/4 cup each of corn and tomatoes. Season to taste with lime juice.
Nuts, Fruit, Popcorn, or Veggies for Snacks
Enjoy up to two snacks each day, such raw veggies with 2 tablespoons of bean dip, 1/4 cup of nuts, a piece of fruit, or 1 cup of popcorn. If you’re not hungry between meals, you can skip snacks.
Hearty Stew for Dinner
In a pot, brown 4 ounces of cubed beef and 1 sliced onion. Add 3 cups of beef broth, 1 diced tomato and 1/2 cup of diced carrots and potatoes; let simmer until veggies are soft.
3 Ways to Add Flavor and Health Benefits to Your Winter Diet
(Photo Credit: Getty)
Eating the healthy carbs our gut bacteria crave in the winter makes fat loss automatic. For even more benefits, enjoy these flavor boosters — they lend a helping hand to good bugs and ease common health sappers.
Try turmeric for aches and pains.
Curcumin, the active compound in turmeric, has been shown to help eliminate bad gut bacteria so the good can thrive, and to reduce midsection fat by 30 percent. The spice also eases inflammation to reduce muscle stiffness by 73 percent.
Try honey for heartburn.
Raw honey’s antimicrobial properties help the body eliminate bad microbes to speed weight loss. The sweet also boasts compounds that tamp down stomach acidity to reduce episodes of heartburn by 50 percent.
Try cinnamon for more energy.
Phyotochemicals in cinnamon fight fat-promoting bacteria to help women reduce belly flab by 37 percent. Plus, the spicy aroma of cinnamon increases the brain’s output of energizing beta waves in as little as 45 seconds.
It Worked for Me: Margaret's Weight-Loss Success Story
Margaret Davis rushed to the hospital to see her best friend before he went into surgery for a brain tumor. From his bed, Mike said, “If I don’t make it, promise me you’ll try to get healthy.” Those would be the last words she’d ever hear him say. Honoring Mike’s dying wish wouldn’t be easy. “I internalized everyone’s worries and covered up my feelings with food,” says the nurse and mom of three. “Everything felt out of control.” Still, Margaret began making small changes, eating soothing winter carbs such as root veggies and quinoa. For exercise, she took strolls with her daughter, which gave her time to work out her emotions away from the fridge.
When Margaret stepped on her scale and saw that she’d dropped 28 pounds the first month, she was stunned. “I drove to the doctor’s office to use his scale. I had to double-check,” she recalls. “That’s when I knew: I have control of this.” Indeed, Margaret improved her blood pressure and cut her cholesterol by nearly 100 points. Losing 103 pounds was also good for her wallet: “A nice plus-size outfit used to cost $150,” she says. “Now with a good sale, I can get one for $10!” More than anything, Margaret is proud to have honored her friend. “I believe he’s grinning from ear-to-ear and thinking, I knew she had it in her!”
This story originally appeared in the February 26, 2018 issue of First for Women magazine.