As the days get shorter and the mercury dips, your body attempts to compensate with food. Nutritionist Kathleen Alleaume reveals the real reason we crave comfort food during the winter months.
Do we really crave more in the cold weather?
While it's hard to argue shivering counts as exercise, your body does expend extra energy in trying to preserve heat loss from the body in the cooler months. This may explain the correlation between colder temps and increased calorie consumption, although the difference is very small and hardly warrants another helping of mashed potatoes.
Our circadian rhythms (aka “your body clock”) are cycles in the body that occur roughly across 24 hours and drives critical functions from hunger to hormone regulation. During the cooler months, when sunlight hours are limited, our glands respond by producing more melatonin, a hormone that influences sleep by sending a signal to your brain that it is time for rest, making you feel more sluggish or tired during the day. The problem is higher melatonin levels can exert its effect on appetite by stimulating the action of several key metabolic hormones such as insulin, ghrelin, and leptin. When paired with cold temps or stress, that feeling of tiredness may call for a quick energy boost and hankering for more energy-dense food.
Another hormone that may take a deep dive as the sun light hours dip is serotonin causing mood alterations. Carb-rich foods encourage serotonin production, which explains why it’s natural to self-medicate with a bag of chips for a quick mood boost. On top of the physiological changes, the colder temps may mean fewer opportunities for exercising outside, so settling in on the couch and choosing Netflix and a mug of hot chocolate may be a far cosier option than hitting the pavement. Inevitably, spending more time indoors puts us around food more than usual, making incidental mindless snacking more likely.
How to keep the cold-weather calorie creep to a minimum?
You can still feed a carb craving and get the same comforting feelings from winter foods containing ingredients that are good for you. Simply make the switch to whole grain, high fibre carbs at breakfast, lunch and dinner.
According to the Australian Grains and Legumes Nutrition Council, most Aussies eat ‘core foods’ every day (like bread, breakfast cereals, pasta and rice), but only around 30% of these are whole grain, so most of us are falling short of their health benefits, which include up to three times the amount of dietary fibre, and 80% more minerals like iron and zinc. Unlike refined grains, which have been stripped of their bran and germ, wholegrain varieties retain many essential nutrients and bioactive substances, such as vitamins, minerals, polyphenols, healthy fats and a good deal of fibre. All adults should be aiming for a daily wholegrain target of 48g.
Easy ways to make up your whole grain target during the colder months include taking a break from refined breakfast cereals, white bread, regular noodles, white rice and salty crackers and switching to a bowl of porridge made with Traditional Rolled oats with stewed fruit and yoghurt, multigrain bread with poached eggs, a warming bowl of soup filled with fibre-rich legumes and buckwheat noodles, or a hearty pumpkin risotto with barley. When the urge to munch takes hold, opt for high-fibre whole grains, such as oat-based muesli bars or crackers made with brown rice topped with added protein like nut butters or hummus. The key is to combine a lean source of protein with quality carbs to help stabilise blood sugar levels and keep cravings at bay.
Where possible, it’s also good to get outside during daylight hours and try to get some sun on your exposed skin to top up your vitamin D and serotonin levels for an added mood boost.