Why do we crave comfort food in winter?

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Qualified Nutritionist (BSc, MSc, RNutr)
Ask Emma

10 October 2018

Do you feel hungrier in winter?

Mince pies, turkey dinners and hot chocolate – there’s no denying that winter is definitely a season that pushes food to forefront with holidays such as Halloween and New Years’ revolving around heavy meals and sweet treats. However, with this in mind, have you noticed that you seem to crave more food at this time of year?

Of course, this could simply be down to advertising executives promoting their products at every cut and turn, but are things really this simple? Well, as it turns out there could be many reasons why you start to crave more calories during winter, from stress to hormones to primordial instincts. That’s why today I’m going to be taking a more in depth look at some of these factors and what you can do to keep your cravings in check.

Food is everywhere…

Okay, so I touched on this a little bit above but it is impossible to deny that food really is everywhere at this time of year from the deals in your local supermarkets to adverts on the television promoting all sorts of tasty treats. Understandably, this can have an impact on your eating habits. 

Studies have shown that there is a relationship between food commercials and the type and amount of food eaten. In one study looking at the behaviour of children, it was found that the  part of the brain involved with decision making was considerably more active after watching food commercials and it influenced faster decision making times when it came to deciding what to eat.

It is simply instinct

One of the main arguments in favour of our winter eating habits is that it’s simply instinct. Winter was traditionally a time of scarcity back in our primordial hunter-gatherer days so arguably, to an extent, we are programmed to latch on to food in order to build fat stores to provide us with heat and energy during the colder seasons. 

This isn’t just speculation either – studies have examined the idea that seasonal changes could affect hormones such as leptin and ghrelin which influence our appetite.2 Although no firm conclusion has been reached it’s definitely not out-with the realms of possibility!

Our moods are changing

Winter can be a trying time for our mood, whether you suffer from SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) or festive stress is starting to drag you down. It should come as no surprise that, when our mood is down, our appetite can sometimes increase. This is because eating certain foods can encourage the release of feel good neurotransmitters such as dopamine, temporarily giving our mood at boost. 

We become more sedentary

Despite all the parties and get-togethers at this time of year, we can become more sedentary during the winter months as our desire to get out is tempered by an onslaught of rain or snow. This means that we’re now spending more time than ever indoors which can influence our eating habits. 

If you’re spending time alone indoors, you’re less likely to be stimulated which can lead to you craving food, even when you don’t necessarily need it. Again this is due to the satiating effect of eating and the release of that all-important neurotransmitter dopamine, which can, at least temporarily, relieve feelings of boredom and dissatisfaction. 

Low levels of vitamin D

Vitamin D is an extremely important nutrient but it comes with one major catch – exposure to sunlight is our main way of the synthesising the nutrient. Understandably, this is in short supply during the shorter, bleaker winter months which can mean that many of us are at risk of becoming deficient.

Aside from needing vitamin D for a strong immune system and possibly healthy sleep patterns, this nutrient has also been linked with our mood with low levels of vitamin D often being associated with low mood symptoms. This is possibly because vitamin D is thought to encourage the production of serotonin, another neurotransmitter which plays an important role in regulating your mood and sleep patterns.3  

How do I tackle these winter cravings?

Okay, so I’ve identified a few factors that could be fuelling your festive hunger cravings but how does this information help you to overcome them? Well below I’ve offered my thoughts and tips based off what we’ve learned so far to help you avoid succumbing to too many unhealthy eating habits over the festive period!

1 – Manage your stress levels: The festive period can be a great chance to spend time with your family and to enjoy yourself but, for many, the stress of buying gifts and hosting lavish meals can take its toll, which is completely understandable. That’s why it’s important to set aside some time for yourself to breathe and to know your limits. Our Stress Advisor Marianna talks a little bit more about this in her blog, ‘7 simple steps to help you beat seasonal stress’ which I highly recommend you read if this is a problem for you!

2 – Don’t surrender to the couch: Everyone loves curling up on the couch with a hot drink and a classic winter film (Hello Love Actually or Diehard if that’s your thing!) but consigning ourselves to the couch for the rest of the season can present a number of problems. There’s nothing wrong with indulging in this type of behaviour but, as always, in moderation. Not only can getting out and about improve your mood, it can also get your blood pumping and increase your exposure to sunlight, helping you to synthesise vitamin D! 

3 – Make simple swaps: Food is everywhere at this time of year and I’m not about to say that you shouldn’t enjoy yourself – make the most of that turkey dinner, have that last slice of cheesecake and indulge in a half glass of Baileys. However, where you can, try to make some healthier swaps; pile your plate high with winter veg, make a deliciously warming soup or experiment with spices like cinnamon or turmeric. Not everything at this time of year is inherently unhealthy – just check out my blog, ‘A healthier festive plate’, if you need any inspiration!

4 – Consider supplements: Did you know that Public Health England have recommended that we all look at taking a 10mcg vitamin D supplement during the winter months? With this in mind, if you feel you could be deficient then a supplement may be your best option as vitamin D is only available in a few food products. 

What do I do if I end up overindulging?

We’ve all been there and allowed our eyes to rule our stomach but what can you do when all those festive meals and treats come back to haunt you in the form of bloating, gas, acid reflux or even diarrhoea? Over the festive period, I would definitely consider keeping a bottle of Digestisan nearby just in case. 

This remedy combines an array of bitter herbs to support your gastric secretions, enabling you to break down your food more efficiently. If I know I’m going to be tucking into a big meal, I sometimes take a few drops beforehand to help prepare my stomach but you can also take it afterwards if symptoms do start to emerge. 

It’s also worth considering that many symptoms at this time of year could be being influenced by your levels of unfriendly gut bacteria, which feed off sugary foods. That’s why it might be beneficial to consider supporting your friendly gut bacteria by eating more fermented foods, such as kombucha, sauerkraut or kefir, or by taking a pre and probiotic supplement. Prebiotic supplements such as our Molkosan help to create a more ideal gut environment for your friendly bacteria to flourish in while a good, high-quality probiotic like Optibacs, introduce the right strains of bacteria into your gut. 

If you want to learn more about how to support your digestive system, I’d highly recommend checking out our Digestive Advisor Ali’s blogs over at A.Vogel Talks Digestion.

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