The Comfort of Food continued...
"Simply put, when outdoor temperatures drop, your body temperature drops, and that's what sets up the longing for foods that will warm you quickly," says Kristin Herlocker MS, RD, a nutrition expert with Diabetes Centers of America in Houston.
In short, she says, feeling cold triggers a self-preservation mode that sends the body a message to heat up fast. And that message is often played out as a craving for carbohydrate-rich foods -- the sugars and starches that provide the instant "heat" boost your body is longing for.
Moreover, McAllister says, when we give in to those cravings for sugary, starchy foods, blood sugar spikes and then falls, setting up a cycle that keeps the appetite in motion.
"We get hungrier quicker, so we reach for more high-carbohydrate 'fillers,' and the vicious cycle is on," says McAllister.
Wolfe-Radbille believes there's also a cultural stigma influencing our winter food choices.
"Technically, any food will boost your metabolism and help your body temperature to rise, but culturally, we're not trained to think of salads or fruits and vegetables as winter eating -- first, because there's less of them around, but also because we associate winter with richer, heavier meals, going back to when we were children," she says.
So, when your body sends the message, "Warm me up," Wolfe-Radbille says, your brain hears, "Bring on the mac and cheese."
Of course, winter also means holiday parties, and wheelbarrows full of the very foods we're craving.
"Not only does the winter season set us up to crave these higher-calorie foods, but the holidays put them in front of us, usually in great abundance," says McAllister.
The Dark Days of Dieting
While for some it's falling temperatures that sets appetites in motion, for others, it's the decrease in sunlight.
"Up to 6% of the population suffers from SAD -- a type of depression caused by a lack of exposure to light," says McAllister. SAD is Seasonal Affective Disorder that occurs the same time each year as the days are shorter, but goes away as the days get longer in spring and summer. Besides shorter days and a decrease of light in the winter, other causes include problems with the body's biological clock or in levels of the brain chemical serotonin.