According to studies, people do eat more during the winter months, and there are a few potential factors that may contribute to this increased hunger. Most people would agree that winter is the season for rich, hearty foods. Heavy, carb-laden dishes, sugary treats and creamy sauces are all staples of the cold weather diet. Many people also report being hungrier in winter, with stronger cravings and an increased urge to snack. Is this winter appetite all in our heads, or is there a reason why we may want to eat more in cold weather and what can we do to avoid overdoing it?
Cold weather stimulates our survival impulse
In ages past – long before humans lived in climate-controlled, well-insulated dwellings, and were able to purchase a dazzling array of food in their local grocery store anytime they wanted – winter was a hazardous time. Autumn’s harvest would dictate how much food was available throughout the colder months, and once those supplies were used up, additional resources were hard to come by unless you were very rich.
For this reason, the urge to binge on food at the first hint of chilly weather may be deeply ingrained in our biological makeup. It’s a survival impulse from an earlier time, when our bodies would have tried to store up all the calories they could to help us survive in times of scarcity – much in the same way that wild animals put on body fat in preparation for hibernation. It also explains why we crave foods that are rich in carbs, sugar and fat – our bodies are hoping to set aside enough stores to ensure self-preservation.
Eating makes us warmer
Another factor to consider is consuming calories also serves to warm the body up, as essentially you are adding energy to your system. Because cold weather makes your body temperature drop, you could feel an urge to eat more. The catch is, that if you respond to this urge by indulging in high-sugar, high-fat foods, you’re going to cause a spike in your blood sugar levels followed by a dip which will leave you feeling colder and hungrier than before – causing the entire cycle to start again, and you at risk of putting on weight due to excess calorie consumption.
Winter gives us the blues
Shorter days and more time spent indoors means that many of us are exposed to very little sunlight in winter, and as a result can suffer from vitamin D deficiency, as our bodies require sunlight to produce this important nutrient. This is a particular problem in the UK and other northern countries that see relatively little sun in winter. You may also experience lower levels of serotonin – a neurotransmitter linked to feelings of pleasure and wellbeing – which is also generated by exposure to sunlight.
Both these deficiencies have been linked to the onset of Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD: a form of depression associated with the shorter days of winter which affects many people in countries where winter brings increased darkness. Studies have shown that people suffering from SAD tend to crave carbohydrates, as these help the body use tryptophan, an amino acid which can be converted into serotonin to boost flagging levels in the blood.
However, in order for this process to work, it is important also to eat plenty of foods rich in tryptophan, such as leafy greens, poultry, seafood and broccoli – and not to consume so many refined carbs that you have no room left for these healthier choices.
Our culture associates rich food with winter
Even though there are biological reasons why we may crave more food in winter, part of this tendency is psychological, too, and deeply rooted in our culture. From childhood, we are taught to associate winter with heavy, rich dishes – the so-called “comfort foods” – rather than with salads and other lighter dishes. Similarly, Christmas and other winter holidays are traditionally linked to feasting and self-indulgence, which, when combined with the prevalence of special treats that may not be available at any other time of year, leads us to consume far more than we would on a normal basis. Hence cultural expectations and traditions, as well as deep-seated mental associations, all contribute to our urge to eat more during the winter months.
We stay in when the weather is bad
A final point to consider is the fact that we tend to stay indoors more in the winter when the weather is bad, often skipping workouts and other active pastime in favour of lounging in front of the television or computer. This can make us more inclined to snack endlessly out of boredom, or because we’re conditioned to eat while doing certain things, such as watching a film. Because this extra eating is coupled with a decrease in physical activity, it can lead to the much-dreaded winter weight gain, which many experts estimate is only about one or two pounds. However, the problem is that many of us never quite manage to lose that extra pound or two – meaning the weight can really start to stack up after a decade or so.
Tips to avoid winter weight gain
If you’re concerned that you’re gaining weight in winter because of all the extra eating, here are a few quick pointers on how you can counteract the effects:
- When the urge to munch takes hold, fill up on healthy soups, stews and other low-calorie dishes that contain plenty of fibre-rich vegetables and other healthy ingredients, along with protein to keep you feeling satisfied.
- Find healthier versions of your favourite comfort foods so you can indulge without blowing your calorie budget.
- Snack regularly throughout the day on healthy options to keep your metabolism burning and help avoid cravings for high-fat, sugary treats.
- Get outside during daylight hours and try to get some sun on your exposed skin to top up your vitamin D and serotonin levels.
- If you think you’re suffering from SAD, take preventative measures and seek professional help if necessary.
- Continue to exercise regularly – it will boost your mood, take your mind off eating and burn up some of those extra calories.
- Find other sources of comfort for when you’re stressed that don’t involve food – think catching up with a friend, playing with a pet, or savouring a hot cup of tea.
- To prevent festive weight gain, check out our tips on avoiding festive overindulgence.