Why Do We Eat More In The Winter, And How To Avoid It

Words: Vanessa Salvia

Words: Vanessa Salvia 
Photo: jupiter55

When the temperature on the thermometer starts to dip, it can be easy to want to eat as if every day is Super Bowl Sunday and we're all guests at a never-ending buffet party. We tend to want cheesy, rich foods, lots of carbs, sugary treats, and creamy sauces. That's not even to mention the cravings for boozy cocktails like eggnog or hot buttered rum. 

So, what should be done? Research shows that people do eat more and do crave more alcohol when it's cold. There are a few simple reasons for this, and some more complex cultural ones. 

Eating Makes Us Warmer

The act of eating makes us warmer. Eating adds energy to our system, which warms us up. When the temperature drops, you could feel an urge to eat more.

Cold weather triggers an ancient survival impulse. 

In human history, no food during cold weather likely meant death. Our body's urge for more calories when it's cold is an ancient protective mechanism designed to ensure that our body fat is sufficient to see us through the winter—our DNA doesn't know that we have heaters in our comfortable homes and cars now.

Less Sunlight Equals More Sadness

Less sunlight can lead to a vitamin D deficiency (which many people are already deficient in) and lowered mood. Serotonin, a mood-improving neurotransmitter, is generated by exposure to sunlight. The Mayo Clinic explains that less sunlight can lead to Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD. SAD may make you crave high-carbohydrate foods. SAD can lead to weight gain and tiredness or low energy, which, you guessed it, can also make you crave high-carb foods. Exercise also increases serotonin production, so keep moving.

We're Just Supposed to Eat

The aforementioned Super Bowl party is just one of the events that we have to contend with. Anytime after October, basically, we're constantly bombarded with treats, from Halloween candy to Thanksgiving pumpkin pies to Christmas cakes and cookies and New Year's champagne. If we don't participate, we're party poopers. Summertime brings an abundance of fresh veggies and fruits, so it makes eating lighter salads easier and more fun. Wintertime foods are more self-indulgent, even if we're trying to stay on a healthy eating schedule, just because there are so many foods that seem like special treats—and, let's face it, nobody wants to make Aunt Rosa mad by saying no to her glazed ham and sweet potatoes with marshmallows. 

What Can We Do?

Find A Balance

A healthy approach to wintertime eating needs to bring all of the above things into a balance that is maintainable for you. If you have a hard time saying no to cookies, eat the cookies but say no to the second round of eggnog. If you love the pie, go ahead and have another sliver, but take less of something else. 

The worst thing to do is deny yourself the things that give you pleasure and bring a sense of belonging and appreciation to your community or family. But when the decisions you make impact your health, it's also important to be able to know when to say no when you need to or make a healthy choice that balances out something else that you indulged in. 

Learn Some Defensive Phrases

Teach yourself how to politely say no when the temptation to indulge more than you should is at hand. If your Aunt Rosa looks dejected and asks "You don't want anymore?" arm yourself with a phrase you feel comfortable saying. You could be funny and say that you are starting to feel like a stuffed turkey yourself, or you could be truthful and say that eating more doesn't fit into your meal plan for the day. Or, just that you're committed to not gaining weight this year and you're feeling good about how much you've already eaten.

Get Outdoors

That lack of sunlight is a key issue for a lot of winter issues. It's harder to get outside when we're at work all day and it's dark when we get home, but try to get outside when you can. When the sun is out, even if it isn't "shining," go for a 10-minute walk. Do some outdoor chores (snow that needs to be moved?). Or Just go sit on your back porch with a book and a blanket.

Add These Foods To The Menu

Your best-laid plans will fall flat if you load up on high-sugar, high-fat foods. Even if it tastes good at the time, your blood sugar will spike and fall precipitously, which will leave you feeling hungrier and more food crave-y than before, which, of course, makes the cycle start all over again. Attack this vicious cycle by eating healthy options that are still fan-favorites.

Make sure each meal includes some lean protein, healthy fat, and vegetables. Rather than eating nothing but a bowl of macaroni and cheese, eat a smaller bowl of macaroni and cheese, mix in some cooked broccoli, and add in a small cooked chicken breast, diced up. 

Here are some more options:

  • Grab a handful of nuts, like walnuts or almonds, before you eat anything else from the table.
  • Eat winter squash. Acorn or butternut squash is abundant in winter and also is abundant in fiber, magnesium, beta carotene, and vitamins C and B6. Bake it in the oven until soft and add the pulp to pasta, soups, chili (you'll barely know it's there), or experiment with making hummus out of it. 
  • Add shredded raw kale to your salads.
  • Drink juices from freshly squeezed citrus, which is in season in the wintertime.
  • Eat an apple a day—seriously! One apple provides roughly 10% of your daily recommended allowance for vitamin C. It's full of fiber and makes a delicious snack with a little almond butter spread on a slice.
  • Roast brussels sprouts in the oven for a healthy and delicious side dish.
  • Skip the sweet potato loaded with butter and marshmallow and instead roast a sweet potato just like you would a baked potato. They're so sweet already, they need a little seasoning. Add diced sweet potatoes to soups and chili. Try a schmear of sweet potato on a bagel.
  • Dig into some root vegetables. They're in season with loads to choose from: parsnips, turnips, rutabagas, beets, fennel, carrots, yes, even potatoes, onions, garlic, and ginger count as root vegetables. Mix them up and roast them, bake them, or blend them into soups.
  • Try some winter fruits like persimmon and pomegranate. Mix them into your morning cereal or yogurt.
  • Avocados have a long list of vitamins and shouldn't be relegated to Cinco De Mayo. Eat them on toast, in smoothies, on salads, on sandwiches; the list is endless.
  • Cabbage can be a healthy, filling, and comforting meal. Saute it with ground meat and potatoes or shred it into vegetable soup.
  • If getting vitamin D is a challenge, add some salmon to your diet. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Composition Database, one 3.5-ounce (100-gram) serving of farmed Atlantic salmon contains 441 IU of vitamin D, or 73% of the daily recommended amount for adults under 50.

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