The weather outside is frightful -- but the food is so delightful! If that's the tune that runs through your head from November through March, you're not alone. As temperatures fall, experts say, our winter appetites can spin out of control.
"Studies indicate that we do tend to eat more during the winter months, with the average person gaining at least 1 to 2 pounds -- and those who are already overweight likely to gain a lot more," says Rallie McAllister, MD, author of Healthy Lunchbox: The Working Mom's Guide to Keeping You and Your Kids Trim.
And while a heartier appetite for a few months out of the year may not seem like such a big deal, McAllister says it can be when we end up gaining weight year in and year out.
"Many people who are around 50 years old are also around 30 to 35 pounds heavier than they were when they graduated high school -- and those pounds are roughly equal to 30 winters of a heartier appetite -- so it really does add up," says McAllister, a family practice medicine specialist from Lexington, Ky.
But what is it about frostier temperatures that drive us to eat more? If you're thinking it's because holiday goodies are more abundant in the wintertime, you're only partially right. Experts say there are a number of factors at work.
The Comfort of Food
It's cold. Days are shorter, and nights are longer. You're worn out from holiday preparations -- or maybe you have a case of the seasonal blues.
Whatever the reason, experts say, when winter hits, cravings for comfort foods increase. And unfortunately, few of us find comfort in whole wheat pita bread and carrot sticks.
"As soon as temperatures drop, our appetite goes up for high-calorie, high-carbohydrate foods -- stews, mashed potatoes, mac and cheese -- the dishes that make us feel warm and cozy," says Barrie Wolf-Radbille, MS, RD, a nutritionist with the New York University Program for Surgical Weight Loss.
While some suggest those winter cravings are a throwback to the days when folks needed extra layers of body fat to survive the winter, most expert say the answer lies in modern physiology.
"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.
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."
6 Ways to Beat the Seasonal System
Despite all these appetite-boosting factors, experts say you can take control. With a little bit of planning, you can keep your life and your appetite in perfect harmony all year long.
Here are 6 suggestions.
1. Have a Healthy Snack.
Eat a high-protein, high-fiber snack between meals -- like some peanut butter on a whole wheat cracker, or low-fat cheese on a slice of wheat bread. Healthy snacking will fuel your body's heat mechanism, helping keep you warmer. The warmer we remain in cold weather, says Herlocker, the less we crave carbs.
2. Make a Winter Activity Plan.
Even if it's already mid-winter, Wolfe-Radbill says take a pen to paper and list all the things you did in spring and summer, then write a corresponding list of winter activities you could do. Not only does exercise burn calories, it also affects brain chemicals linked to appetite, so it can help control how much you eat, McAllister says.
3. Create Low-Calorie Comforts.
If you know you're going to crave those wintry comfort foods, find lower-cal ways to do it. Mac and cheese made with low-fat cheese, steamy pizza with veggies and a whole wheat crust, a bowl of vegetable soup, cocoa with non-fat milk -- be creative in cutting calories while keeping the comfort.
4. Get a Daily Dose of Light.
If you think your food cravings may be related to shorter days, try to spend at least some time outdoors in sunlight every day. If that's not possible, talk to your doctor about light therapy -- a way of increasing serotonin levels through exposure to artificial light.
5. Keep a Lid on Seasonal Goodies.
That's not just a figure of speech. Keep rich treats left over from the holidays out of direct eye view, McAllister says. If someone has brought you goodies as a gift, say thanks, without sampling.
6. Give Out a Lot of Hugs.
If it's comfort you're seeking, hugging is a great way to fill you up without filling you out, the experts say. Instead of turning to comfort food, hug your kids, your spouse, your dog, or cat -- or visit an orphanage or senior center, where hugging is at a premium!