Why we crave comfort foods during the winter

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This is the time of year when it’s most difficult to get your head around exercise and eating well.

So many of my clients are telling me it’s not really worth starting anything because they have too many social commitments coming up, or the weather puts them off getting outside to exercise and the thought of a gym turns them right off.

Add to that the fact that the body seems to naturally crave more comfort food at this time of year as the weather gets colder and the days shorter.

The body is a very clever thing, though, as it will be craving more fat and starchy food for a reason.

It’s cold, days are shorter, and nights are longer.

You’re worn out from holiday preparations or maybe you have a case of the seasonal blues.

Whatever the reason, experts say, when winter hits, cravings for comfort foods increase.

And unfortunately, few of us find comfort in whole- wheat pitta bread and carrot sticks or salad, although technically any food will boost your metabolism and help your body temperature to rise.

But culturally, we’re not trained to think of salads or fruits and vegetables as winter eating.

Firstly that’s because there’s less of them around, but also because we associate winter with richer, heavier meals, going back to when we were children.

As soon as temperatures drop, our appetite goes up for high-calorie, high-carbohydrate foods, stews, pasta, mashed potato – the dishes that make us feel warm and cosy.

While some suggest those winter cravings are a throwback to the days when folk needed extra layers of body fat to survive the winter, most experts say the answer lies in modern physiology.

Simply put, when outdoor temperatures drop, your body temperature drops, and that’s what sets up the longing for foods that will warm you quickly.

In short, feeling cold triggers a self-preservation mode that sends the body a message to heat up fast.

And that message is often played out as a craving for carbohydrate-rich foods, the sugars and starches that provide the instant ‘heat’ boost your body is longing for.

When we give in to those cravings for sugary, starchy foods, blood sugar spikes and then falls, setting up a cycle that keeps the appetite in motion.

While for some it’s falling temperatures that sets appetites in motion, for others, it’s the decrease in sunlight.

Up to six per cent of the population suffers from SAD – a type of depression caused by a lack of exposure to light.

SAD is Seasonal Affective Disorder that occurs the same time each year as the days are shorter, but goes away as the days get longer in spring and summer.

Besides shorter days and a decrease of light in the winter, other causes include problems with the body’s biological clock or in levels of the brain chemical serotonin.

But it’s not just light that those with SAD crave, it’s also carbohydrates.

The reason? People who are affected with SAD have lower blood levels of serotonin.

Not surprisingly, those carbohydrate-rich foods give us a serotonin rush, so for many people, winter food cravings are a way of self-medicating.

When it gets dark out early, people stay in more, so they feel more isolated and usually more hungry.

Seasons affect moods and moods affect our eating patterns, so when it’s dark and gloomy, people just tend to eat more.

At the same time, winter can cut into physical activity.

Since exercise helps increase serotonin levels,the lack of activity is a double whammy. If we’re not exercising, our appetite increases.

Nikki Caputa is a health and fitness coach who works one-to-one with clients and runs her own fitness camps where she trains groups.

Known as FAB Body Bootcamps, two are based in Fareham and one is in Portsmouth. Nikki is also an ambassador for Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution.

Visit fabbodybootcamp.co.uk and challenge-fitness.co.uk. Follow Nikki on Twitter @nikkifitmum1.