Name some foods you look forward to eating during the chilly winter months. How does a big bowl of mac and cheese sound, or maybe a hearty helping of mashed potatoes? What about warm buttery biscuits to go with your morning coffee, or a stack of chocolate chip pancakes?
There are a few theories as to why we crave high-calorie, high-carb (read: unhealthy) foods when the temperature dips. One is basic biology — that winter feeds our earliest, primal impulses to store energy for the cold months ahead.
Starches and sweets spike blood sugar, boost serotonin
More recent scientific studies say that shorter days mean diminished sunlight, which makes the mood-lifting brain chemical serotonin less active. Too little serotonin leaves us tired and hungry.
We crave sweet and starchy foods because eating them spikes our blood sugar, which triggers a number of physiological changes, eventually increasing the amount of tryptophan that gets into our brain. The tryptophan is then converted to serotonin, which provides an instant pick-me-up and helps to banish our winter blues.
Also, when it gets dark out early, people stay in more, so they feel more isolated and often more hungry. Seasons affect moods and moods affect our eating patterns, so when it’s dark and gloomy, people just tend to eat more.
Your breakfast-to-dinner better-mood meal plan
Here’s how to eat your way to a better mood — and not pack on the pounds — during the season’s dark days.
First, choose low-fat, healthy carbs, such as sweet potatoes, oatmeal with a sprinkle of brown sugar, and whole grain toast. Because carb cravings tend to increase as the day goes on, save them for later.
- Eat protein, dairy products, and vegetables early in the day, for breakfast and lunch. Think omelets, vegetable soups, and turkey or chicken salad sandwiches.
- In mid- to late afternoon, when cravings kick in, choose low-fat snacks like popcorn, soy crackers, or whole-grain cereal and toast.
- Good dinner choices include roasted or baked potatoes, whole-grain pasta, black bean soup, or vegetable stew with barley. All are warm and filling, but also nutritious.
Another strategy to help put the brakes on unhealthy carb cravings is to try and spend at least 20 minutes a day outside or near a bright window to amp up your serotonin.