If winter weather triggers carbohydrate cravings, you're not alone. Many people snack more on carbohydrate-containing foods in winter, sometimes in an unconscious effort to boost their mood, says Judith Wurtman, PhD, a former scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-author of The Serotonin PowerDiet.
How can you tell if your seasonal carbohydrate cravings are in the normal range or a possible symptom of winter depression?
Headaches, neck aches, dizziness. These problems have many causes, including stress, tension, and medical conditions. They also can be physical symptoms of depression. If you are prone to headaches, they may get worse when you're depressed. Depression has a way of magnifying pain, because you're more focused on negative things — a hallmark of depression.
NOTE: If your headache is the worst one you've ever experienced or it is associated with vomiting, fever, stiff neck, visual changes...
If you're on a weight loss diet that emphasizes boosting protein and cutting down extremely on carbohydrates, that might explain your craving, whatever the season, says Evelyn Tribole, RD, a dietitian in Newport Beach, Ca., and author of Healthy Homestyle Cooking.
She's seen this kind of carbohydrate craving in dieters she counsels. "It's a survival mechanism," she says. "You don't want to kill for a piece of broccoli, but you'd kill for a piece of bread." It's a clear signal, she says, that your body needs more carbs and not an abnormal craving.
But if you aren't dieting and find yourself eating more carbs once the weather turns chilly, that's a common habit in those with seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, sometimes called the "winter blues," Wurtman tells WebMD.
With her husband, MIT professor Richard J. Wurtman, Judith Wurtman has long researched carbohydrates and their link to depression. The Wurtmans published a landmark article about it in Scientific American in 1989 and numerous others in medical journals since then.
What they have found:
These "carbohydrate cravers" can eat an additional 800 or more calories a day. While many carb cravers are overweight or obese, others may control their weight by exercising more, eating less at meals, or turning to low-fat carbohydrate foods such as popcorn without butter.
Carbohydrate cravers seem to unconsciously turn to the high-carb foods to boost mood. In another study, the Wurtmans found that carbohydrate cravers reported being less depressed after eating high-carb snack foods, while non-carb-cravers said they felt sleepy after eating them.
When carb cravers eat the high-carb food, they feel better in about 20 minutes, Wurtman tells WebMD. That's because when you eat carbohydrates, you make more serotonin, the "feel-good" hormone that is also boosted when you are on an antidepressant."It's our attempt to undo the depression," she says.