Winter is in the air: the trees are almost bare, the days shorter, your rain boots and sweaters are out of storage, and perhaps your cravings for sweet and starchy foods have kicked into high gear. Why is it that we crave the sweeter and starchier foods (aka “comfort foods”) during the winter months?
The answer to this question is not simple, as there could be several factors contributing to these cravings. For many of us, the lack of daylight could be a trigger. Very simply, as the amount of sunlight we’re exposed to decreases, our internal or biological clock shifts. But unfortunately our daily schedules stay the same, so during the wintertime most of us wake up when it’s dark and come home when it’s dark. This increased exposure to darkness causes our brain to produce more of the hormone melatonin, which helps us to sleep, but which also may cause symptoms of depression to varying degrees. Melatonin has been linked to seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a mood disorder associated with depression particularly during the winter months.
One symptom of SAD is craving sugary or starchy foods because these foods give us a short-term mood boost. Even if you don’t have SAD, you may still reach for these foods because they actually have a drug-like effect on the brain! Yes, it isn’t your imagination that you feel like a carb junkie come the Christmas cookies. When we eat something sweet or high-carb with little or no protein, our blood sugar spikes and so does our blood insulin level. Insulin has the effect of helping more of the amino acid tryptophan get to the brain, and tryptophan is the precursor to serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps us relax and feel good. But what goes up must come down, and this spike in insulin will cause your blood sugar to crash. That’s when the hungry wolf in you comes out, and you scavenge for whatever food will bring it back up quickly (i.e. something sweet), and the cycle continues. High levels of blood insulin over a prolonged period can lead to development of obesity, insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.
The arrival of the holiday season can intensify these cravings. Say hello to the ultimate comfort foods – traditional foods that are not only delicious, but associated with fond memories and childhood. People also tend to experience higher levels of stress during the holidays, which can lead to stress eating and overindulging in comfort foods.
Our genes may also be playing a role, as historically calorie-dense food was preferred in the wintertime because food was scarcer.
So how do curb your carb cravings during the dark winter days? Here are 5 ideas:
- Eat a balanced breakfast. This advice is applicable throughout the year, but can be especially helpful during the winter months and holidays, when we are bombarded with opportunities to overindulge in sugary treats. It makes sense that including high-fiber carbohydrate, protein and fat in our breakfast meal helps us to feel full longer and keeps our blood sugar steady so we have sustained energy. In addition, studies have shown that what we eat for breakfast can actually affect our blood sugar and insulin response to lunch – it’s been called second meal tolerance. So the benefits of eating breakfast extend beyond avoiding the potential mid-morning slump, and actually carry over to the way our body responds to the next meal. Instead of just a bagel for breakfast, eat a bowl of beans and brown rice topped with salsa and avocado, or a hard-boiled egg with an apple or some berries and handful of raw nuts. Or, on the go, how about a Zing bar and an apple?
- Focus on eating whole foods. Eating less sugar, refined flours, and processed foods means you’ll be eating more nutrient-dense foods, nourishing your body rather than depleting it. Your body will be better equipped to handle reasonable holiday indulgences. Also, a whole foods diet is high in fiber, which helps to keep your blood sugars steady and therefore reduce cravings.
- Manage your stress. We all feel the added stress this time of year can bring, and often to curb that stress we reach for the comfort foods as discussed above. Think about ways you can manage your stress without food. Exercise, sitting quietly listening to music, yoga, shopping (you’re in luck this time of year!), reading – whatever your method, try to carve out some mood-boosting time for yourself each day.
- Revamp your homemade baked goodies. As soon as the cold weather hits, I’m in my kitchen baking. If you’re also into baking your own treats, find ways to add fiber to your recipes, as the added fiber can help lessen the blood sugar response. Ground flax seeds, whole grains, grated apple, pureed squash and pumpkin all add fiber and nutrients to baked goods.
- Address the possibility of SAD. If you’re experiencing symptoms of depression (which can include increased cravings for comfort foods) that coincide with the onset of fall or winter, talk to you doctor about SAD. Light therapy is a common treatment. And although more conclusive research is needed, there are studies to suggest an association between low vitamin D and certain mood disorders, including SAD. Your doctor can run a simple blood test to check your vitamin D level.
What are your “comfort foods”? How do you curb your cravings?
Erin Hugus, MS, CN has a Master’s degree in Nutrition from Bastyr University. Erin is an expert in Diabetes care and is passionate about empowering people with realistic strategies for optimal health. She takes great pleasure in her time spent in the kitchen and loves cooking nourishing meals for her family.