Why people crave more carbs in winter
Along with short days and colder temperatures, winter can bring cravings for carb-rich foods.
It’s not just your imagination: Studies have documented that many people’s food intake increases by approximately 90 to 200 calories per day during winter months.
So, what is it about cold months that increases our hunger and carb cravings? The appeal of comfort foods explains some of it, but it turns out the effects can also stem from physiological and environmental changes.
Need for comfort and warmth
To put it simply, food and drinks can warm us up. Coming in from frigid outside temperatures makes anything warm seem more appealing, so it can be easy to find yourself reaching for food.
Some speculate this urge may also be part of an instinctive reaction for survival left over from when food could be scarce in winter months.
Regardless of the underlying reason, these warm foods and drinks are often richer and heavier in fat, carbs and/or added sugars than those we’d typically consume.
Body’s hormonal changes
Released by the adrenal gland when the body senses stress, glucocorticoids are thought be at the root of some individuals’ propensity to eat when under stress.
Research has found that glucocorticoid levels increase in many individuals during fall and winter months, perhaps suggesting seasonal change may induce a low level of stress.
Studies also suggests that an increased appetite in colder months may be due to changes in ghrelin and leptin — two hormones that regulate hunger, appetite and satiety.
More melatonin, less serotonin
During shorter days with less sunlight, the body produces more melatonin, a hormone associated with sleep. Higher levels of melatonin in winter months may cause you to feel more sluggish or tired during the day.
When paired with cold weather or stress, this is something that makes a quick energy boost from a candy bar or an afternoon coffee drink really tempting.
Research also suggests that decreased exposure to sunlight lowers levels of the mood-boosting hormone serotonin, causing changes in mood and sense of well-being, as well as playing a role in depression and seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
Because carbohydrates encourage the production of serotonin, it’s natural to find yourself reaching for starchy or sugary foods for a quick mood boost. In fact, some have suggested that intense carbohydrate cravings may potentially be a sign of SAD.
Favorite foods more available
On top of the physiological changes already mentioned, our lifestyle and food environments tend to look much different in fall and winter than they do in warmer months.
Cold temperatures drive us to spend more time inside, so we’re more sedentary. This puts us around food more than usual, which can make mindless snacking more likely.
Finally, the fall and winter months are also packed full of holidays — the majority of which we tend to associate with once-a-year indulgences and family recipes — meaning we’re around food that’s associated with memories, celebrations and traditions, making rich foods even more tempting.
[For the latest advice on healthy eating year round, see “What to eat to reduce risk of Alzheimer’s.”]
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