A registered dietitian breaks down the science behind why our bodies crave comfort food in the wintertime.

In the summer, we are all about salads and smoothies, but when the temperatures fall, we are more likely to crave rich, hearty meals—high in fat, sugar and calories. While cooler temperatures, fewer daylight hours, food-focused holidays and less time outside may influence your desire for higher-calorie meals, this doesn’t mean that you can’t stay on track with your healthy eating goals. Here are a few reasons why wintertime makes you so hungry, plus some tips to keep your eating on track.

Evolution

From an evolutionary standpoint, being underweight poses a serious threat to survival. Back in the day, when food was scarce, it was an instinct to fatten up to survive the tough environmental conditions. Thus, our biology may drive us to eat more calories in the cold winter months.

Most comfort foods are very energy-dense, meaning they pack a lot of calories per bite. When a winter meal is fried or contains high-fat meats, cheese, sugar or cream, there’s a good chance that your satisfying meal will leave you feeling uncomfortably full. Instead, make a lighter version by using bold spices and herbs (like rosemary and cinnamon), nutrient-dense whole grains (wheat berries), lean proteins and seasonal produce (squash and cabbage). Use Greek yogurt in place of sour cream, cut back on sugar and substitute a portion of oil with applesauce. If you can’t resist your coworker’s famous mac-and-cheese casserole, slice yourself a small portion and combine with roasted winter vegetables.

Hormones

When it’s hot outside, your body naturally craves cooling foods like fruit, raw veggies and popsicles. You are also likely to spend more time outside being active and socializing. As winter approaches, the opposite occurs. With fewer daylight hours and more sedentary time indoors, this can affect metabolism and mood. Comfort foods rich in carbs and sugar may temporarily improve mood and reduce anxiety and stress, but this could lead to mindless eating and overindulging. And since foods high in fat, protein and carbohydrates will heat up the body during digestion, you are more likely to crave foods that make you feel warm.

Although a fresh raw salad is not as comforting as a warm bowl of chili, there are many seasonal foods that are healthy and tasty. Oatmeal, soup, dark chocolate, Brussels sprouts, pumpkin, apples, potatoes and squash can help regulate your internal body temperature to make you feel warmer from the inside out and are packed with nutrients and antioxidants in order to boost your immune system, mood and energy levels.

Holidays

Over the winter months, there are several food-centric holidays and events. Sadly, most of the calories that you take in on these special occasions will be mindlessly consumed without being enjoyed or savored. While the need for heavy meals, comfort foods and sweets may be driven by past family memories and traditions, it’s important to enjoy your eating experience without overeating. There’s no need to feel guilty or anxious about the occasional indulgence, so long as you eat with a plan.

Never go into a meal hungry, as it will lead to overeating. When you are at a family gathering or event, scope out all the food options before you start filling your plate. First choose nutrient-dense foods like veggies and fruit, quality protein and fiber-rich carbs. Then, choose your favorite indulgence food (or two) in a reasonable portion so that you feel satisfied but not stuffed. To avoid unwanted winter weight gain, aim to eat healthy most of the time so there’s still room in your diet for those special treats.


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