Winter cravings: Why do we crave comfort foods more in winter?

Comfort food in bowl

Image: elvinstar/

Whether it’s warm bowls of pasta or toasting marshmallows by the fire, we all seem to gravitate toward our favourite comfort foods more during the cooler months of winter. But why? And, is there a way to avoid this to prevent the dreaded winter weight gain?

Why winter?

The research points to at least two reasons why winter has us reaching for more.

1. The gut may be leading your brain astray

It’s now well known that there is a direct line of communication from your gut microbiome to your brain—known as the gut-brain axis. This link could just be the cause of your food cravings.

Research in Nutritional Psychiatry confirms that as food passes through your gut, happy hormones and neurotransmitters (dopamine and serotonin) are produced, which sends signals to your brain creating feelings of happiness and pleasure.

These same chemicals are made in other ways too. For example, when you exercise and from vitamin D produced in your skin through sunlight exposure. But in winter, most people have less exposure to sunlight and, when it’s cold or raining, tend to be outside less often so physical activity levels can decline.

So, eating tasty and enjoyable foods can become a primary way to remain happy!

2. Psychology and your mood

Have you ever noticed that when your friend takes a sip, you start reaching for your cuppa too? Social learning theory says we learn behaviours through observing, imitating or role modelling by other people.

Just look back to your own childhood. From whom did you learn to use a knife and fork? Your parents or family, most likely!

Thinking about adult food cravings, we’re therefore also often drawn to winter foods given to us as children by our caregivers. This is because, for most people, it was a time when we felt loved and safe. In the world of food psychology, if we constantly and mindlessly reach for comfort foods, this is known as ‘emotional eating’.

An interesting review about comfort eating published in The International Journal of Gastronomy and Food Science concluded that comfort foods are not always foods high in sugar and fat. They can be any foods which carry some positive sensory characteristics. Therefore, comfort foods may be widely diverse and can vary from person to person.

Some studies have also shown that it’s not just the act of eating comfort foods. Even writing about them can result in reduced feelings of loneliness!

Overcoming the allure of mindless winter eating

* Practice mindful eating

Learning to master the art of mindful eating is a skill you can develop over time. It’s very useful to combat excessive winter food intake. First, stop and slow down your eating pace. Listen to your body’s cue for hunger and fullness. Practise stopping when you feel just satisfied, instead of overdoing it each time. Sometimes, it can also help to assign a number (1-5) to identify your levels of hunger and fullness.

* Focus on healthy comfort foods

Remember, not all winter comfort foods are necessarily unhealthy ones. For example, eating roasted chestnuts after dinner is both healthy and delicious. If you have any comfort foods that remind you of happy childhood experiences or bring up warm and fuzzy memories, choose those foods more often than less healthy ones.

* Make smart swaps

If you find yourself constantly craving the wrong kinds of comfort foods, swap what you buy and bring into your home to healthier choices.

For example:

Instead of white bread, buy wholegrain; instead of creamy pasta, buy tomato-based pasta; instead of apple pie, make home-made apple crumble; instead of hot chocolate, try warm low-fat milk + cacao powder + honey; instead of beef stew, make Veggie chilli.

Dr Sue Radd is an Advanced Accredited Practising Dietitian and one of Australia’s leading nutritionists and health communicators. Her most recent book Food as Medicine: Eating for Your Best Health received the Gourmand World Cookbook Award for Best Health and Nutrition Book in the world for 2016. Go to her website for more information.

Category: Emotional Health, Physical Health
Tags: winter

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