For many of us in the fitness game, winter is that time of year that seems to sabotage our fitness goals. The cold, dreary days make us stay indoors more than we’d like, and the layers of clothes means that many of us think it’s “okay” to let ourselves go. On top of that many of us seem to have a curiously increased hankering for all the foods we know we shouldn’t be having: chocolate, lollies, cake, pastry, pasta, chips, etc. If you’re someone who has increased winter carb cravings, don’t fret, you’re not alone. Many of our clients come to us during the winter period with complaints of irresistible carb cravings, resulting in growing waistlines. So what is it that drives us to crave carb-laden meals and sugary snacks during the winter period?
The Winter Blues
Well-documented research has shown that the winter months can bring about a type of depression called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), or more colloquially known as the winter blues. One of the reasons affecting SAD is the lack of vitamin D3 in our bodies due to reduced sun exposure. Optimal Vitamin D3 levels is crucial in regulating mood, with low levels of vitamin D having been shown in studies to be correlated with poor mood and even depressive symptoms.
In order to feel better, many people rely on high carb, sugary junk foods to elevate their mood. This is because the carbohydrates in these foods promote the release of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, which enhances mood. In addition to this, the stress from being in a low state further depletes our body’s serotonin levels resulting in physical cravings for carbs in order to replenish the low serotonin levels, and the cycle continues.
So what can be done to keep vitamin D3 levels up during the cold winter months? Aside from going out and trying to get some sunshine in the grey weather, a simple solution is to take a good vitamin D3 supplement. Keep in mind, however, that because vitamin D3 is a fat-soluble vitamin, the absorption of this supplement will be far more effective when taken with sources of good, healthy saturated fats.
Increased Energy Needs for Homeostasis
Another reason for increased food consumption over winter may come down to homeostasis, the body’s process of maintaining a stable internal environment (e.g. stable body temperature). During the cold winter months, our bodies tend to burn more calories in order to stay warm. One method of doing this is by generating heat through brown adipose tissue, otherwise known as brown fat. Interestingly, brown fat utilises a substantial amount of blood glucose when active, bringing blood sugar levels down and potentially eliciting carbohydrate cravings. In addition to this, thermogenesis (the creation of heat) from brown fat can be induced by eating food, which may mean that our bodies are naturally stimulating our appetites in order to bring about diet-induced thermogenesis.
One common mistake that many people make when they experience elevated hunger is to try and “manage” their hunger by ignoring it or taking the route of calorie restriction, which has been proven to be ineffective for long term fat loss. Others may choose to have “light snacks” that often include chocolate, biscuits or a sugar-loaded granola bar rather than real, wholesome food.
Hunger is often your body’s way of signalling that it needs more food, or simply more of particular vitamins and nutrients. Ignoring these signals or going down the path of calorie restriction often results in binge eat, over-snacking (often on junk food) and poor food choices in general. The research on calorie restrictive diets have time and time again shown that those who practice this will tend to put on more body fat in the long term than when they started.
If you find yourself hungrier over the winter period, aim to increase your consumption of protein from healthy, clean sources and as always, eat plenty of vegetables with your meals. If you’re eating carbs then opt for unprocessed carbs such as brown rice, sweet potato, yam, quinoa or pumpkin. As a final note on this point remember to stay well hydrated during winter. Hunger can often be mistaken for thirst and winter is one of those periods where people don’t drink enough water.
One possible explanation why some people experience winter carb cravings may be due to an evolutionary adaptation based on lifestyle practice. Studies on earlier nomadic and farming groups show that populations experiencing cold winters relied significantly on grains and tubers harvested during the warmer months as well as on a small proportion of cured meats. This is because many of the fresh fruit and vegetable food sources would not have survived the cold, and hunting animals became significantly more difficult.
As such, the increased cravings for carbs during the winter months could have resulted from an innate evolutionary reliance on carb sources over winter.
Of course, this adaptation may have aided our survival up until 100 to 200 years ago, but the world we live in now is vastly different and we no longer have the winter famines that our ancestors had. Vegetables, meat or other protein-dense foods are readily available. If you find yourself with carb cravings then increasing protein consumption from healthy sources can help decrease these cravings by keeping you satiated. Don’t worry if you find yourself eating more food during your meals provided that what you’re eating is the right kind of food. If you keep yourself satisfied with the right kinds of food then you’ll be less likely to eat the foods that add to your waistline.
The reasons why people experience winter carb cravings can differ from individual to individual ranging from low vitamin D levels, to increased energy needs and potentially even evolutionary adaptations. At the end of the day, however, whatever the causes are for your carb cravings it doesn’t mean you need to make poor food choices. Being smart about what you eat by consuming nutritious, unprocessed food with plenty of meat and veg can greatly curb carb cravings. If you find yourself indoors and lacking sunlight then it may be worth trying a good quality vitamin D supplement to boost depleted levels which may assist in improving your mood and curbing your cravings.