Winter Weight Gain Explained: Could It Be More Than Just Cold-Weather Comfort Food?

A new study shows that fat cells just beneath our skin shrink when exposed to sunlight, which could be a factor in winter weight gain.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK- JANUARY 4, 2018: People bundle up against the cold in the Soho section of Manhattan, as a winter storm called a Bomb Cyclone hits the city.Photo: Shutterstock/Joe Tabacca

A group of scientists from the University of Alberta had a happy accident recently. They were studying how to bioengineer fat cells to produce insulin in response to light, hoping to one day help people with Type 1 diabetes. But, along the way they discovered something unexpected in their research: Fat cells just beneath the surface of our skin shrink when exposed to sunlight.

(Another reason to love sunlight? More vitamin D. Boost your levels with vitamin-D rich foods during winter months.)


What scientists found

Not only did lipid droplets get smaller, but they were also released from cells. That means the fat cells right beneath the skin’s surface couldn’t store as much fat when exposed to the blue light used in the study (that’s the light from the sun that we can see with our eyes).

They also learned that these smaller cells secreted lower levels of adipokines, which are hormones involved in the regulation of glucose levels, fatty acid breakdown and energy balance.


What the results mean

When you flip their results, it could indicate that less sunlight exposure during the winter months promotes fat storage in our cells, contributing to winter weight gain. But there could be more downfalls than just not fitting into our jeans when it’s cold outside.

If the fat cells just beneath the surface of the skin aren’t functioning properly, it’s associated with the development of diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease. Oversized fat cells are associated with insulin resistance and inflammation, so reducing their size could potentially have protective health benefits, too.


What should you do

Don’t run out and buy a sun lamp just yet. It’s important to remember that these are just initial observations that will help guide future research, not to mention the health risks from too much sunlight exposure. They are clues that suggest seasonal exposure to sunlight might have a role in regulating changes in fat cells. Sure, we’d all like to find an easy way to stay slimmer during the winter months, but the health implications from these findings have the potential to be even more significant by protecting against obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Try these low-cal comfort foods to help keep the weight off this winter.
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Peggy Woodward, RDN
Peggy is a Senior Food Editor for Taste of Home. In addition to curating recipes, she writes articles, develops recipes and is our in-house nutrition expert. She studied dietetics at the University of Illinois and completed post-graduate studies at the Medical University of South Carolina to become a registered dietitian nutritionist. Peggy has more than 20 years of experience in the industry. She’s a mom, a foodie and enjoys being active in her rural Wisconsin community.