Cooler temps, fewer daylight hours, and more time spent inside can all have a significant effect on when, how much, and even what we’re hungry for. It may be part of our biology, explains Laura Cipullo, RD, author of The Body Clock Diet, thanks to the winter months triggering biological changes that make us more inclined to eat more, and more energy-dense (read: higher-calorie) food.
And there are also other factors, such as food-focused holidays and potentially spending more hours at home, that can contribute to different eating patterns, too.
But just because we’re more likely to get cravings to hunker down with mugs of hot chocolate and bottomless bowls of chili or cheesy pasta from late fall to spring doesn’t mean we necessarily need all those extra calories.
Here’s what Cipullo and others say everyone should know about how winter affects the food we want to eat — and how to satisfy those cravings with the winter foods we actually should eat, so you can feel your best all winter long.
Winter May Actually Make You Hungrier
Are winter’s colder temps (in many parts of the country) and fewer daylight hours changes that affect eating and food cravings? Some researchers suspect cool weather may trigger an evolutionary relic inside us to fatten up to survive tough environmental conditions, the way many other animals do. One study published the journal Nature found that participants did consume an average of 86 more calories per day in fall, compared with spring, and ate more fat and saturated fat in the winter months. (1) But the researchers that conducted that study also noted that over the course of a year that magnitude of “extra” calories was fairly small.
Another theory is that the change of season may change the balance of some of the hormones that control hunger and appetite. A review published in 2013 in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience, which looked at data both in people and in animals, found that seasonal changes did affect many hormones related to hunger and appetite, including glucocorticoids, ghrelin, and leptin. (2)
Fewer daylight hours may affect food cravings, too. Sunlight is one of the factors that triggers the release of the hormone serotonin, a neurotransmitter that has been shown to boost your mood significantly. Carbohydrate intake (thanks to the insulin that gets released as a result) also increases serotonin levels — and research suggests that people thus may crave carbohydrates as a way to improve mood, particularly in people with seasonal depression, who may have lower serotonin levels and mood because of reduced exposure to sunlight. (3)
You Also Might Be More Likely to Crave Comfort Food During the Winter
Of course, just because we might be more likely to crave chocolate cake, croissants, and cheese in the winter months, doesn’t necessarily mean we should indulge those cravings with reckless abandon. Those cravings are “hedonic hunger,” says Cipullo. And while you can indulge in moderation every once in a while, she adds, “we can certainly choose to satisfy our appetites in healthier ways, too.”
It’s important to note that a lot of wintertime overeating may be a result of opportunity and mindset more than pure physiology, too. Cool weather ushers in food-centric occasions, from Halloween to Thanksgiving to the Super Bowl, each packed with opportunities to overindulge. And on the days and nights in between, many of us are more likely to spend more time at home when outdoor activities are limited and we tend to want to just come home and stay in once the sun goes down. “When it gets dark earlier, you tend to stay home more. And early evening is a vulnerable time for a lot of people,” says Ellie Krieger, RD, a cookbook author and host of Ellie’s Real Good Food, who is based in New York City. “People tend to mindlessly snack then. That window is bigger in the winter.”
You’re also less likely to hit the farmer’s market for fresh veggies to nosh on, simply because there are fewer open in colder months. And what is available tends to be heavier fare, like starchy root veggies.
We tend to be less active in winter, and to stay less hydrated. When the mercury dips, a tall cold beverage may be the last thing on your mind, but skimping on your daily quota of liquids can often be mistaken for hunger, leading to cravings, says Lisa R. Young, PhD, RD, author of The Portion Teller. She recommends hot beverages, like tea or even just water with lemon, which will warm you up and keep you feeling full. Plus, researchers at Yale University found that things that are physically warm, such as a hot shower or a warm drink, may help people feel happier and less lonely. (4)
Winter Foods You Should Be Eating
“To satisfy both your body and mind, seek out comfort foods that fill your belly, warm you up, and make you feel good — but are also good for you,” says Krieger. There are actually a lot of them:
- Soup It’s a great way to get more fiber-filled vegetables into your winter diet, since you can toss just about anything into a soup pot — greens, beans, lentils, whole grains, and veggies that might otherwise rot away in your crisper drawer. Add a lean protein, like chicken or shrimp, and you’re set. “It’s dinner in a pinch, or it can even be a snack,” she says. Just to be sure to choose a broth-based soup over a cream-based one, to save on unhealthy fats and calories.
- Citrus Fruits While most fresh fruit is in short supply, winter is the time for citrus to shine. Krieger always has a stash of mandarin oranges to snack on, and you can make a great salad with some citrus and winter greens, like Swiss chard, chicory, or kale.
- Broccoli, Cauliflower, and Brussels Sprouts Another fresh find when the air is nippy: Cruciferous vegetables, like broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts. “They are incredibly good for you, and great for roasting,” says Krieger. “Just toss them with a little olive oil and a little salt and pepper and stick them in the oven until they start to get brown.”
- Salmon One nutrient experts agree is vital in winter is vitamin D. The limited daylight hours, the change in the wavelength of the sun’s rays, and less time spent outdoors means most of us aren’t absorbing as much from the sun as we do in warmer weather, and vitamin D has been shown to play a crucial role in maintaining mood. Your top dietary sources are fatty fish, like salmon — which also happen to be rich in omega-3 fatty acids, another mood booster — and fortified dairy products.
If you’re going to give in to a craving — and most experts agree you occasionally should give in — watch your portions and, whenever you can, make healthful swaps. If you’re dying for a bowl of pasta and cheese, for instance, switch out regular enriched pasta for a whole-grain option and add lean protein to the mix, along with a few vegetables for vitamins and fiber.
If it’s dessert you want, go for a steaming mug of hot dark chocolate, which has been shown to help reduce risk of heart disease, raise levels of healthy cholesterol, and be a mood booster. As Krieger puts it, “Now that’s feel-good food.”
Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking
- Ma Y, Olendzki BC, Hafner AR, Chiraboga D, et al. Seasonal Variation in Food Intake, Physical Activity, and Body Weight in a Predominantly Overweight Population. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. December 2005.
- Cahill S, Tuplin E, Holahan, MR. Circannual Changes in Stress and Feeding Hormones and Their Effect on Food-Seeking Behaviors. Frontiers in Neuroscience. August 2013.
- Wurtman RJ, Wurtman JJ. Brain Serotonin, Carbohydrate-Craving, Obesity, and Depression. Obesity. November 1995.
- Williams LE, Bargh JA. Experiencing Physical Warmth Promotes Interpersonal Warmth. Science. October 24, 2008.