How wintertime affects our eating habits

  30 September 2021    Read: 2655
  How wintertime affects our eating habits

We’re more likely to be hungry — and for a not-so-healthy fare — when the temperature drops. Here’s why that is and how to make healthier choices this season.

Cooler temps, fewer daylight hours, and more time spent inside while COVID-19 is still a major concern can all have a significant effect on when, how much, and even what we’re hungry for. It may be part of our biology, explains New York City–based Laura Cipullo, RD, author of The Women’s Health Body Clock Diet, thanks to the winter months triggering biological changes that stimulate hunger and increase cravings for more energy-dense (read: higher-calorie) food.

And there are also other factors, such as feeling stressed from COVID-19-related changes to work, school, and home life, that can contribute to different eating patterns.

But just because we’re more likely to lean toward hunkering down with mugs of hot chocolate and bottomless bowls of chili or cheesy pasta from late fall to spring doesn’t mean we should. After all, diet choices can affect not only our weight but our mood as well.

Here’s what experts such as Cipullo want you to know about how winter affects cravings and the foods you should be noshing on, so you can feel your best all winter long.

Winter May Actually Make You Hungrier

Many parts of the United States are chillier and darker this time of year. Could those factors affect the foods you’re hankering for? Some researchers suspect cool weather may trigger an evolutionary relic inside us to fatten up to survive tough environmental conditions, the way many other animals do.

A previous study found that participants consumed an average of 86 more calories per day in fall compared with spring and ate more fat and saturated fat in the winter months. But the researchers who conducted that study also noted that over the course of a year that magnitude of “extra” calories was fairly small.

Another theory is that the change of season may influence the balance of some of the hormones that control hunger and appetite. A prior review that looked at data in people and in animals found that seasonal changes did affect many hormones related to hunger and appetite, including glucocorticoids, ghrelin, and leptin.

Fewer daylight hours may play a role in food cravings, too. Sunlight is one of the factors that trigger the release of the hormone serotonin, a neurotransmitter that has been shown to boost mood significantly. Carbohydrate intake (thanks to the insulin that gets released as a result) increases serotonin levels — which is why previous research suggests people may crave carbohydrates as a way to improve mood. That’s particularly seen in people with seasonal depression, who may have lower serotonin levels and mood because of reduced exposure to sunlight.

The COVID-19 pandemic is also wreaking havoc on mental health, which may be affecting our diet habits. A study published in November 2020 in Frontiers in Psychology that looked at how undergraduate students were handling the pandemic found high levels of fear, anxiety, stress, and depression. Other research suggests the issue is widespread — for example, an Israeli study in the October 2020 issue of International Health found these types of psychological difficulties to be common, with stress and frustration as the new normal.

One way to cope might be turning to comfort foods, which tend to be high in calories, and eating more of them than you would if you weren’t stressed. A study published in May 2017 in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews suggests there’s a strong link between stress and binge eating, for example.

You Also Might Be More Likely to Crave Comfort Food During the Winter

Of course, just because we might be more likely to crave chocolate cake, croissants, and cheese in the winter months and especially during a stressful global pandemic doesn’t mean overindulgence is wise. Those cravings are “hedonic hunger,” says Cipullo. And while you can indulge in moderation every once in a while, she adds, we can certainly choose to satisfy our appetites in healthier ways, too.

It’s important to note that a lot of wintertime overeating may be a result of opportunity and mind-set more than pure physiology, too. If you’re newly working or studying from home during the pandemic, that puts you awfully close to the fridge and pantry — setting up an all day, every day buffet.

If the weather is too cold, wet, or icy for you to spend much time outside, that could limit your activities even more, and the earlier darkness could become a cue for you to start snacking.

“Early evening is a vulnerable time for a lot of people,” says New York City–based  Ellie Krieger, RD, a cookbook author and host of Ellie’s Real Good Food. “People tend to mindlessly snack then. That window is bigger in the winter.”

You’re also less likely to hit the farmers market for fresh veggies to nosh on simply because there are fewer open in colder months. COVID-19 restrictions could also mean your local market is closed. Anyway, what is available at farmers markets this time of year tends to be heavier fare, like starchy root veggies.

We tend to be less active in winter and to stay less hydrated. When the mercury dips, a tall cold beverage may be the last thing on your mind, but skimping on your daily quota of liquids can often be mistaken for hunger, leading to cravings, says Lisa R. Young, PhD, RD, New York City–based author of The Portion Teller Plan. 

She recommends hot beverages, like tea or even just hot water with lemon, which will warm you up and keep you feeling full. Plus, in a previous study, researchers found that things that are physically warm, such as a hot shower or a warm drink, may help people feel happier and less lonely.

Winter Foods You Should Be Eating

"To satisfy both your body and mind, seek out comfort foods that fill your belly, warm you up, and make you feel good — but are also good for you,” says Krieger. There are actually a lot of them:

Soup:  It’s a great way to get more fiber-filled vegetables into your winter diet, since you can toss just about anything into a soup pot — greens, beans, lentils, whole grains, and veggies that might otherwise rot away in your crisper drawer. Add a lean protein, like chicken or shrimp, and you’re set. “It’s dinner in a pinch, or it can even be a snack,” Krieger says. Just be sure to choose a broth-based soup over a cream-based one, to save on unhealthy fats and calories.

Citrus Fruits:  While most fresh fruit is in short supply, winter is the time for citrus to shine. Krieger always has a stash of mandarin oranges to snack on, and you can make a great salad with some citrus and winter greens, like Swiss chard, chicory, or kale.

Broccoli, Cauliflower, and Brussels Sprouts:  Another fresh find when the air is nippy: cruciferous vegetables, like broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts. “They are incredibly good for you and great for roasting,” says Krieger. “Just toss them with a little olive oil and a little salt and pepper, and stick them in the oven until they start to get brown.”
Salmon One nutrient experts agree is vital in winter is vitamin D. The limited daylight hours, the change in the wavelength of the sun’s rays, and less time spent outdoors mean most of us aren’t absorbing as much from the sun as we do in warmer weather, and vitamin D has been shown to play a crucial role in maintaining mood. Staying indoors for social distancing amid the pandemic can make your vitamin D levels drop even more. While you may benefit from a vitamin D supplement, the top dietary sources for vitamin D are fatty fish, like salmon — which also happen to be rich in omega-3 fatty acids, another mood booster, according to a study published in August 2018 in Frontiers in Physiology — and fortified dairy products.
If you’re going to give in to a craving — and most experts agree you occasionally should give in — watch your portions and, whenever you can, make healthful swaps. If you’re dying for a bowl of pasta and cheese, for instance, switch out regular enriched pasta for a whole-grain option and add lean protein to the mix, along with a few vegetables for vitamins and fiber.

If it’s dessert you want, enjoy a square of dark chocolate, which has been shown to help reduce risk of heart disease, according to a study published in December 2017 in the Journal of the American Heart Association. As Krieger puts it, “Now that’s feel-good food.”

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