Sunday, February 28, 2010

Winter weight could be mental

A student feasts on a footlong in his bedroom during a cold winter day.

In these last few weeks of winter, many are packing themselves into gyms to shape up for swimsuit season. As they run off the extra winter weight, they say so long to those creamy soups and warm fried meals that remind them of home. However, in this unseasonably long cold spell, many find it hard to replace their bowls of warm chili with a salad. “It’s hard when it’s snowing outside to motivate yourself to get to the gym, when you’d rather stay home, bake cookies, and watch a movie,” said Jeff Craighead, a senior at OU.

A lack of motivation may not be to blame for a person's unwillingness to move in the winter. Donna Tall Bear, an educator in the Department of Health and Exercise Science at OU, thinks craving comfort food is a human's most basic instinct. “This time of year we are very good at storing energy, as we needed to be when food was more scarce,” she said.

In essence, a human’s primal brain experiences something similar to hibernation, a survival instinct that shields them from harsh winters. Christen Roy, an employee at Huston Huffman Athletic facility, noticed how the weather effects the crowds at the gym. “It’s usually the most crowded before spring break till around September,” she said, “and on really cold days or rainy days it’s a ghost town.”

Tall Bear said that changes in weather can trigger a form of depression called Seasonal Effective Disorder. She says this disorder is temporary, but can have an effect on a person’s life and eating habits. “The sun provides us with certain vitamins that regulate our serotonin, a chemical that controls pleasure centers,” she said, “and we tend to eat to get the same pleasure response that we did from sunlight.”

Tall Bear argues that much of a human’s connection to food is tied with emotional needs and cultural nurturing. Kait Kishbaugh, a student at Oklahoma City University and native Pennsylvanian, never craved southern foods in high school. “I would always want steak or fish or grilled veggies. Now, having been in Oklahoma for a few years, I want fast food and chicken fried steak all the time,” she said. Tall Bear had similar experiences growing up in the northeast, and noted that Oklahoma's culture around food is quite different from her upbringing.

“The social implications surrounding food and alcohol here are much different. It’s just an accepted part of any social gathering to feast,” she said. She adds that this, in turn, creates an emotional connection with food.

With Oklahoma being the sixth fattest state in the nation, the sight of dishes piled with creamy, high-caloric meals is just a part of every-day scenery. Therefore, during ice storms and snow days, grocery stores notice that they stock certain items more than others. A Wal-Mart stockman remembers most often needing to refill the frozen pizza, cookie dough, and macaroni and cheese aisles.

So is there a way to override biology? Tall Bear said absolutely not. “You cannot override your primal brain. You cannot change your evolution. You cannot change your physiology,” she said. But, she does advise that men and women take a step back and examine their relationship with food.

“Ask yourself, why am I eating this? Am I bored? Am I stressed? What is my connection to this food?” she said.

A survey of 100 people at Huston Huffman shows that most had gained only five pounds, if any weight at all. “If you think about it, losing five pounds will take a college kid maybe a month to lose,” says Roy.

Tall Bear said that the key is always moderation. As long as you enjoy the things you love in small portions, you can maintain a healthy weight and maybe even not need to go to the gym 10 hours a week before spring break.

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