Fight Winter Weight Gain to be At Your Ideal Weight Before Surgery

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Beth Longware Duff, Medical Editor

Beth Longware Duff is an experienced writer and reporter whose work on a wide variety of topics has been published in numerous newspapers and magazines. Her health and medical writing credits include nationally distributed videos for the March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation, and she is the recipient of numerous awards including an American Cancer Society Media Award and a New England Press Association Award for Health Reporting. She holds a degree in Communications from Ithaca College.


December 22 2008

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Ah, winter! ‘Tis the season of good cheer, holiday parties, and celebrations of the year just past and the year that lies ahead. In many parts of the world winter is also a period of cold and stormy weather, curtailed daylight, and a prevailing sense of ennui. Combine all these factors and the result is primetime for weight gain. If you're preparing for cosmetic surgery (or recovering from a recent procedure), putting on a few pounds is one of the last things you want to do.

Most plastic surgeons want their patients to be as close as possible to their ideal weight prior to surgery to decrease their risk of complications during the procedure and speed the recovery process. Plus, the results of many types of plastic surgery – including liposuction and abdominoplasty – are more readily visible if the patient is at his or her optimal weight. When it comes to cosmetic surgery, the time to lose weight is before, not after, surgery.

Unfortunately, winter is probably the most difficult time of year to maintain or lose weight. There are several reasons for this, some of which are out of our control. For example, our bodies are genetically wired to store more fat during the colder months. This tendency towards self preservation dates back thousands of years to our agrarian ancestors who, in the days before central heating and well-stocked supermarkets, needed extra fat layers to stay warm and as a source of fuel during lean times. The fat storing process began when food was abundant during the fall harvest and extended through the spring as stockpiled food dwindled.

"That genetic code has not changed. We're still the same human body that we were in prehistoric times," explains Lisa Bunce, MSRD, a registered dietician based in Redding, CT. "It's the same genetic code that triggers our bodies to maximize the amount of fat that's stored away for the winter, but we now have issues with obesity because we're not as physically active as we were hundreds of years ago."

Hormones and other chemicals in our bodies also have a significant influence over weight. Their interaction increases our appetite and cravings, and contribute to sleep disorders and feelings of depression. This seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a real concern in northern climates like Scandinavia where there are only a few hours of daylight during the winter. Excess melatonin, a hormone produced by the brain during hours of darkness, causes symptoms like depression, anxiety, loss of energy and interest in life, a craving for foods high in carbohydrates, and weight gain. Fortunately, SAD is treatable with medications and light therapy.

Another contributing factor to winter weight gain is what Bunce calls the "snowball effect of the holidays." "Most people gain about 3 to 5 pounds from Thanksgiving to New Year's. The problem is they don't lose it in January," she notes, adding that the transition from autumn to winter can also create a motivational issue. "I noticed that this fall, right after we adjusted our clocks and the weather got colder, my clients didn't seem to be as focused as they were just a few weeks before," she says.

So what's a person to do? How do we overcome the winter weight gain doldrums so we can reach or maintain a healthy body weight? Bunce advises a return to the basic tools of healthy eating: anticipating and planning what foods to eat, getting plenty of rest so you don't make poor food choices out of fatigue, and slowing down your eating style to maximize the satiety factor.

"That means knowing when you're full and honoring that so you're not just continuing to eat because it feels good," she explains. Bunce also recommends staying active physically even when it's cold outside. "With all the microfiber fabrics and layering available, we can get outside for a walk or some other activity that we enjoy," she notes.

Bunce says it all comes down to mentally overriding the physiological response we're experiencing. "What you focus on becomes a reality, so focus on being healthy and choosing foods or activities that are good for you," she says. Try walking the mall three times before you start shopping, taking up a new outdoor sport or reintroducing one you enjoyed as a child, or dancing at a holiday party.

"If you do the things that actually create a calorie deficit, it helps you to override whatever additional calories you're taking in," Bunce points out. "We all know what we're supposed to be doing. Those who are successful are the ones who can flip that switch, get moving, and keep their eyes on the prize."