Craving Carbs in Winter: Is It Depression?

What’s normal, what’s not?

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on October 19, 2008
5 min read

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?

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.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. What happens right before the craving hits?
    "Craving is associated with emotional turmoil of some sort," Abramson says. That turmoil might be depressed mood.
  3. 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.

Consider the carbohydrate craver once counseled by Wurtman, whose cravings were clearly out of control.

In the summer, the woman worked in an office all day and regularly walked for exercise after work. But as soon as the days grew shorter and the temperature dropped, the women told Wurtman she would go home and hole up, too tired to go anywhere.

One evening, feeling more depressed than usual, she got a craving for a brownie from her favorite bakery, four blocks away. She bundled up and walked to the bakery to get some brownies.

"I have to have those brownies," she told Wurtman.

She would buy them many times a week during the winter, Wurtman recalls. "She was driven to go out in the cold, icy wind to get the brownie. That's the nature of the craving."

And that is the type of craving linked with seasonal depression, she says.

If you've decided your carbohydrate cravings are out of control and you may be depressed, experts suggest seeking help from your physician or therapist.

On your own, you can also gain some control over the carbohydrate cravings. Here's how:

  • Time your eating to accommodate your cravings. Experts agree the carb cravings grow stronger as the day goes on. So eat as healthfully as possible at breakfast and lunch, focusing on protein-rich foods, Wurtman says. "In the afternoon, by the time the sun and your mood start sinking, have a carb snack -- popcorn or breakfast cereal -- around 4 p.m." Then for dinner, choose pasta, rice, or waffles.
  • Focus on carbs that are "slow foods." One of Tribole's favorites: hot chocolate. "You get carbs in the milk and the sweetened chocolate," she says. "It's hard to guzzle hot chocolate, so you are going to savor it."
  • Turn to carb-rich stews. Try soups and stews with plenty of carbs, such as potatoes, in the winter, Tribole says. Besides filling you up and satisfying the carb craving, it can help when you don't feel like cooking. "Cook the stews once on the weekend," Tribole says, suggesting a big pot full, "and you've got meals the rest of the week."