Temperatures drop, nights lengthen and mashed potatoes become a dinner staple — welcome to winter.
As the weather changes, so does your appetite. The winter appetite can be caused by a combination of many things: our survival instinct kicking in to tell us to eat more to survive, psychological changes from the dark skies and isolated night, or even the availability of certain foods over others in the grocery store. No matter the reason, a change in your appetite during the winter can be confusing and sometimes triggering. To fuel yourself properly during this season, it’s helpful to know why this change happens and how you can accept your body’s comfort food cravings.
According to the CDC, our bodies lose heat quicker when exposed to frigid winter weather. To compensate for this heat loss, our body does what it can to stay warm — eat! Eating and digesting food uses energy, which produces heat, similar to why our bodies shiver in the cold; shaking and movement produce energy and heat to keep warm.
Colder temperatures signal holiday stress, nights spent alone in bed to avoid the freeze and feelings of depression that accompany the early, dark nights. These feelings of stress, sadness and solitude are correlated with emotional eating, which is defined by social psychologist Hanna Konttinen as “a tendency to eat in response to negative emotions with the chosen foods being primarily energy-dense and palatable ones.”
Energy-dense foods are your typical comfort foods: mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, and pizza. If consumed in excess, these foods associated with the negative feelings that accompany cold weather will lead to weight gain. Though weight gain isn’t inherently a “bad” thing, it can still be avoided if you’re trying to stay fit during these colder months.
Elizabeth Widen, registered dietitian and assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin, provides insight into how you can enjoy your favorite comfort foods while meeting proper nutrient needs and preventing weight gain.
“All foods can fit as part of a healthy well-balanced diet,” Widen says. “The key is consuming a variety of foods, including lots of fruits and vegetables, and listening to your hunger and fullness cues.”
You don’t necessarily have to scrap comfort food altogether; Widen uses a revised recipe of her favorite comfort food, mac and cheese, to still receive adequate nutrients. She also suggests pairing each meal with dark leafy greens like spinach or kale.
Since the availability of different foods also influences our food choices, Widen suggests getting creative when healthy food like fresh fruits is no longer in season. In this case, she recommends trying seasonally available ingredients like kale, winter squashes, and citrus fruits or pears. Additionally, she says frozen fruits and vegetables are a financially accessible alternative.
“One of my favorite ways to eat fruit in the winter is a tropical smoothie with frozen banana, pineapple, passion fruit and plain yogurt,” Widen says.
As for a more seasonal dish, Widen promotes her favorite budget-friendly bean or lentil soups. Basic ingredients like onions, carrots and celery are the perfect base for a cozy bean soup. Widen suggests mixing garlic and olive oil with the vegetable base and finishing the dish by adding lentils, canned tomatoes and broth. Top it off with dark leafy greens, a bit of lemon juice and olive oil for a low-cost and nutrient-dense meal.
Though weight gain is a common fear, understanding the causes of weight gain and how to manage it can be helpful. Comfort foods don’t need to be restricted. Take tips from Widen to enhance your comfort dishes, listen to your body and respect its needs as the air grows colder. Just because the temperature drops, doesn’t mean your diet has to, too.