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?
Millions of Americans suffer from depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) can improve a wide variety of these conditions and, as a result, are commonly prescribed. SSRIs work by blocking a receptor in the brain that absorbs the chemical serotonin. Serotonin is known to influence mood, but the exact way SSRIs improve depression isn't clear.
Commonly prescribed SSRIs include:
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
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
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,"
Your Carbohydrate Cravings: Normal or Not?
To decide if your carb cravings in winter are normal or not, analyze them,
suggests Wurtman and Edward Abramson, PhD, a psychologist and professor
emeritus at California State University, Chico, who wrote the book Emotional
Eating. Ask yourself these three questions:
Are the cravings seasonal?
The carb cravings associated with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) have ups
and downs by season, says Wurtman. "It has to be present in the fall and
winter and has to disappear in the spring and summer," she says, to be
associated with the most common type of SAD. (Other SAD symptoms: extreme
fatigue, sleeping too much, weight gain, difficulty concentrating.) "It may
take a year before you know that is what it is," Wurtman says.
What happens right before the craving hits?
"Craving is associated with emotional turmoil of some sort," Abramson
says. That turmoil might be depressed mood.
What time of day are the cravings strongest?
Carbohydrate cravers are most likely to experience them in the late afternoon
and evening, Abramson says. That could be because the kinds of emotions that
tend to contribute to cravings get worse as the day goes on, he says,
especially if your depression is mild. You may be caught up in the hustle and
bustle of work and family all day, and then, when things calm down, become
bummed out, for instance, that your spouse is paying more attention to TV than
to you, he says.