Plus, why we get hungrier when it’s cold outside.

By Carolyn Williams, PhD, RD
December 10, 2018
Jennifer Causey

Days are noticeably shorter, temps are colder, and my lunch and snack options that usually keep me fueled until dinner just aren’t cutting it lately. I’m hungrier in general and carb-rich foods just seem to taste better.

To be honest, blaming even some of my increase in appetite and carb cravings on seasonal changes felt like a scapegoat excuse—until I ran across studies suggesting that I’m not alone. Several studies have documented that most individual’s food intake increases approximately 90 to 200 calories per day during winter months.

So what is it about cold months that increases our hunger and carb cravings? Sure there’s a comfort aspect, but it turns out the effects can also stem from physiological and environmental changes.

Comfort and Warmth

To put it simply, food and drinks can warm us up. Coming in from frigid outside temps makes anything warm seem more appealing, so it can be easy to find yourself reaching for food to provide comfort and warmth. Some speculate this may urge may also be part of an instinctive reaction for survival left over from when food could be scarce in winter months. Regardless of the underlying reason, these warm foods and drink are often richer and heavier in fat, carbs, and/or added sugars than we’d typically consume.

Hormonal Changes

Released by the adrenal gland when the body senses stress, glucocorticoids are thought be at the root of some individuals’ propensity to eat when under stress. A 2013 journal article found that glucocorticoids levels increase in many individuals during fall and winter months, perhaps suggesting seasonal change may induce a low level of stress. The article also suggests that an increased appetite in colder months may be due to changes in ghrelin and leptin—two hormones that regulate hunger, appetite, and satiety.

Seasonal Pick-Me-Up

Melatonin is a hormone made by the body and associated with sleep, and increased melatonin production is triggered by shorter days with less sunlight. Higher levels of melatonin in winter months may cause you to feel more sluggish or tired during the day. When paired with cold temps or stress, this is something that makes a quick energy boost from a candy bar or an afternoon coffee drink really tempting.

Serotonin Boost

Research also suggests that decreased exposure to sunlight lowers levels of the mood-boosting hormone serotonin causing changes in mood and sense of well-being, as well as playing a role in depression and seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Because carbohydrates encourage the production of serotonin, it’s natural to find yourself reaching for starchy or sugary foods for a quick mood boost. In fact, some have suggested that intense carbohydrates cravings may potentially be a sign of SAD.

Food Accessibility

On top of the physiological changes already mentioned, our lifestyle and food environments tend to look much different in fall and winter than they do in warmer months. Cold temperatures drive us to spend more time inside, so we’re more sedentary. This puts us around food more than usual, which can making mindless snacking more likely. Fall and winter months are also packed full of holidays—the majority of which we tend to associate with once-a-year indulgences and family recipes—meaning we’re around food that’s associated with memories, celebrations, and traditions, making it even more tempting.

 

So how do you stay warm and satisfied without going overboard in winter months? Here are 6 tips to help.

1. Choose “Slow” Carbs

Pick carb-rich foods that are high in fiber and won’t cause a sudden rise in blood glucose, such as beans, peas, vegetables, barley, oats, quinoa, and other whole grains. These foods have a slow, gradual impact on glucose levels, which, when coupled with fiber, keeps you feeling satiated.

2. Ladle up Soups and Stews

A bowl of soup, chili or stew will not only warm you up, but is also super filling. Look for ways to add in extra vegetables, as well as beans, legumes or other proteins for even more staying power.

3. Make Meals Count

Load plates up with high-fiber, low-calorie vegetables and make sure each meal includes some lean protein and healthy fat. Leaving a meal feeling full and content greatly reduces the possibility of food cravings in a few hours.

4. Portion Comfort Foods

Don’t feel like you have to totally avoid holiday treats and gatherings. Instead, choose ahead of time which indulgences you want to splurge on. Then stick to your plan, and watch your portion sizes.

5. Don’t forget water

Drinking enough water is easy to overlook when it’s cold outside, but your body still needs daily hydration. Not staying hydrated can make you feel hungry when you may not really be and can damper energy levels. Side note: water and fluids don’t have to be cold to count. A warm beverage with little to no added sugar (like hot tea) is an easy way to warm up and hydrate.

6. Don’t Skip Workouts

Cold weather can easily deter you from regular workouts, but keep them up or set a minimum number of days or minutes to get activity. Even brief 15-minute bouts of exercise can reduce stress and food cravings and increase serotonin production.

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