It’s hard to believe that this week marks the beginning of another holiday season. With all the excitement, cold weather and festivities, studies show people tend to gain five to seven pounds over these months.
It’s common to feel hungrier at this time of year because colder weather leads to a drop in our body temperature, which then stimulates our appetites. When it’s cold, the body has to work harder and spends more energy trying to keep warm. Eating helps to generate the much needed internal heat, by causing a rise in body temperature. So the desire to eat is due, in part, to our body’s increased energy use.
Research has shown that even with our heating, lighting, and warm clothes, seasonal eating still has a major influence on satiety mechanisms in the body, just as it did for our ancestors. Cool weather may trigger an evolutionary relic inside us to fatten up in order to survive tough environmental conditions, the way many other animals do. One study published in the journal Nature found that participants consumed an average of 86 more calories per day in fall, compared with spring, and ate more fat and saturated fat in the winter months.
Another theory is that the change of season may impact the balance of some of the hormones that control hunger and appetite. A review published in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience found that seasonal changes did affect many hormones related to hunger and appetite, including glucocorticoids, ghrelin, and leptin.
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 mood significantly. Carbohydrate intake also increases serotonin levels -suggesting people may crave carbohydrates as a way to improve mood. This is particularly true in cases of seasonal depression, where reduced exposure to sunlight may cause lower serotonin levels and mood.
As a result, we crave carbohydrates the most, especially from sources like white bread and cakes, which offer a quick fix of energy. But this can lead to a viscous cycle by increasing blood sugar levels too high, which then results in a crash and a craving for another fix from yet more refined carbohydrates or sugary snacks. As well as leading to weight gain, these food choices are devoid of nutrients that are needed to maintain health throughout the winter months. A time when we often have to deal with the onslaught of colds, viruses and other winter ailments.
So how do we deal with these cravings? By eating more nutritional foods, vegetables (carrots, squash, onions) and warming herbs (ginger, cinnamon, cloves, mustard, nutmeg, pepper, and oregano). Eating hearty winter meals that are both warming and filling can make all the difference. Hot foods also serve an important function- they help to increase blood circulation which raises our body temperature faster and more effectively. Warm cereals served with apples and cinnamon can be a delicious, nutritious and satisfying breakfast. Lunch could be a warm bowl of soup with seasonal vegetables and beans, lentils or chicken for protein, and dinner a hearty stew.
In between meals, snacks that contain protein and high fiber are imperative. These leave us feeling satisfied and ensures our blood sugar levels stay stable so we have less desire for unhealthy refined carbs. A good example of a snack could be a few unsalted nuts, some fruit, or oatcakes with humus. They should keep you satisfied until your next meal.
Dehydration also plays a significant role. Believe it or not, we actually sweat as much in winter as we do during other seasons. Due to heating units, over dressing, and layers of clothing, our bodies easily become dehydrated. This can then lead to overeating as the body’s response to dehydration is often confused with feelings of hunger.
While the best way to avoid dehydration is to drink a minimum of 8 cups of water a day, warm teas and soups can count towards the daily fluid intake and help regulate body temperature. Watch out for signs and symptoms of dehydration, including thirst, headaches, muscle cramping, and urine that’s darker in color and lower in volume.
Those winter pounds can be avoided by eating healthy, staying warm and keeping hydrated. Next week I’ll discuss other ways to keep the weight off this holiday season.