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Control Your Winter Appetite

It's not just your imagination -- winter really can whet your appetite. Here's how to keep it under control.

The Comfort of Food continued...

"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.

But it's not just light that those with SAD crave. McAllister says it's also carbohydrates -- and lots of them. The reason?

"People who are affected with SAD have lower blood levels of serotonin," she says. "Not surprisingly, those carbohydrate-rich foods give us a serotonin rush, so for many people, winter food cravings are a way of self-medicating."

But even if you don't have full-blown SAD, Wolfe-Radbille says, your eating habits can be affected by shorter days and longer nights.

"When it gets dark out early, people stay in more, so they feel more isolated and usually more hungry," Wolfe-Radbille says. "Seasons affect moods and moods affect our eating patterns, so when it's dark and gloomy, people just tend to eat more."

At the same time, winter can cut into physical activity. Not only do shorter days and colder weather reduce our outdoor time, but in many locations, snow and ice make our normal fitness activities impossible.

Since exercise helps increase serotonin levels, McAllister says the lack of activity is a double whammy: "If we're not exercising, our appetite increases, and ultimately that means we're eating more and moving less -- and that's a disaster plan for weight gain."

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