by Michelle Sutton-Kerchner
Hold it right there! Put your hands in the air, step away from the carbs, and onto the treadmill …
Even the most health conscious can be caught sneaking a cookie or two this time of year. Exact scientific reasons cannot be found for the comfort-food phenomenon that peeks in winter months. However, in cold weather, cravings for high-fat carbs and sweets are definitely prevalent.
Cold weather also tends to increase appetite, in general. Eating raises body temperature and makes you feel warm. The brain sends messages to encourage eating when temps are chilly. (This includes indoor temperatures. A lower thermometer may be the cause of that extra snack.) Feed the body well and still get that warm-and-fuzzy response. Choose low-calorie, high-density foods that satisfy without caloric excess. Water-based selections provide a full feeling quicker, which is why even broth-based soup does the job.
Hunters and Gatherers
Some attribute winter eating habits to historic scenarios. We may have a biological predisposition to wanting foods traditionally more abundant this time of year, such as starchier vegetables and baked goods. Fresh fruits and vegetables were historically less available in winter. That which was available often was enhanced with flour and gravy, and baked in an open hearth. The cooking process itself also served to heat the home.
Food was more scarce for our ancestors in winter months. Weather and animal hibernation limited hunting excursions. As a result, calorie-dense (“comfort”) foods were consumed when possible to avoid hunger.
The traditional Thanksgiving dinner reflects this. Today, November still is associated with this feast of abundance. Inherently, it’s the time of year for turkey, potatoes, and pies. We evolved in our preparation capabilities and access to food varieties, yet we continue to crave food traditional to that time of year. Can’t resist another slice of pie? Some would blame the pilgrims.
Cheer Me Up, Cookie
Many attempt to literally sweeten up dreary daytime weather and darker nights. Considered a form of self-medicating to ward off winter blues, some find comfort in a plate of warm cookies following a flaky chicken potpie (extra creamy, please).
The warmth of your kitchen after a damp, cold day seems more welcoming with a large pot of bisque on the stove than a chilled dish of salad from the fridge. We tend to reach for food that “sticks to the bones,” which often translates into heavy entrees.
Junk food cravings and binges are common in those suffering depression. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), with its symptoms of depression and anxiety, is linked to increased appetite and carbohydrate cravings. This is attributed to changes in brain chemistry initiated by the change in seasons and alterations in circadian rhythm, the body’s biological clock.
There doesn’t need to be a formal diagnosis of SAD or depression to have appetite affected by seasonal changes. Limited sun exposure and shifts in atmospheric conditions trigger changes in brain chemistry. Winter months also increase solitude, either through tricky travel conditions or extended bouts of the latest viruses. Social interaction (face-to-face, not face-to Facebook) and activity level decreases. People get lonely and find company in the form of Ben & Jerry’s.
Comfort with Immune Boosters
A tuna sandwich may not deliver the comfort boost you seek. However, there are options to make your go-to soothers into something healthier. Then, enjoy the added comfort of knowing your choices are helping ward off colds, along with bad moods. One theory suggests tricking your body into thinking it is summertime. Soups rich with veggies, seafood loaded with omega-3 fatty acids, and plenty of water and tea hint at summer’s goodness. They also enhance your immune system.
Drink up some sunshine. Fat-free milk provides the body with immune-boosting vitamin D, which is often in deficit this time of year. Approximately 200 IUs (international units) of vitamin D are required daily. An eight-ounce glass daily often fulfills this need while delivering bone-strengthening calcium. This is a great way to get the sun’s vitamins without any chance for sunburn. When dealing with sinus conditions, milk and other dairy products often increase mucus production. Avoid during these times.
Try a platter of broiled salmon or other oily fish. Sprinkle with crackers or breadcrumbs for rich texture without a deep-fried diet disaster. Serve with a baked sweet potato to satisfy carb cravings while delivering additional nutrients. Season with cinnamon to simultaneously conquer the sweet-tooth.
Along with many other perks, fish, nuts, and seeds high in omega-3s protect skin cells. Harsh weather and dry indoor heat rob skin of moisture and cause damage from free radicals. Healthy fats replenish skin’s moisture, keeping it soft and smooth. An absence of cracked, chapped skin eliminates openings for bacteria to enter the body. (Warm gloves and fuzzy socks help, too. Plus, they satisfy that sought-after comfort factor.)
Drink up. Although hydration is a topic often discussed in the blazing heat of summer, it has an added concern during winter months. Whether shoveling snow or skiing the slopes, frigid temps often disguise sweat. Cold, dry air whisks it away. Without this telltale sign to act as a hydration indicator, many fail to notice dehydration.
Weight loss that occurs within a few hours of activity is mostly water. Replace each of these lost pounds with two cups of clear fluid. Avoid caffeine, which further dehydrates your system. However, caffeinated tea has proven affective in relieving dehydration and is acceptable.
Drinking plenty of fluids also helps combat fatigue. It’s February. Anyone tired? Keep sipping– It flushes the body of toxins and germs to improve and maintain health.
Bring On the Comfort!
Find mood-boosters beyond the pantry and vending machines. Add variety to your days, if only in that winter-sort-of way.
Movement matters, even when it’s only 15 degrees outside and fat content is buried under bulky sweaters. Get cozy, not lazy! Bundle up and head to the Center. Aside from the serotonin boost, exercise provides opportunities. Beat boredom. Enjoy a healthy sweat, found mostly in fitness this time of year. Meet friends or simply interact with random strangers who ventured beyond their homes in hopes of a cabin-fever remedy. Learn a new training routine or how to ZumbaTM. Perfect your swim stroke, a luxury when temperatures are frigid outside and backyard pools are hibernating.
Take a brisk walk, even if snow boots are required. Contact with nature and fresh air is invigorating and lifts the spirits. (Who needs ice cream!) Try one of this season’s sports, like ice skating or skiing. Consult with a personal trainer about a fitness plan to prepare you for this venture. In the meantime, read about it. Learn something new. Study the stars under a crisp sky, free of humidity and mosquitoes.
Be comforted by what the season allows. When else can you put on pajamas at an earlier hour and still be under cover of darkness! Curl up under a fluffy blanket with a book and a cup of tea (or glass of red wine– you know, for heart health). Enjoy the warmth of a glowing fire or a scented candle. All this without sweating, or as an attempt to escape freezing air pumped from a droning air conditioner.
This is a time of restoration disguised as a bleak season. Cold, gray, wet days aren’t very inspiring in the typical sense, but they do motivate us to turn inward. Do some literal and figurative house-cleaning. Take advantage of this respite and get involved in everything from interior decorating to interior soul searching.
Reorganize your living space, clear away clutter, or try a new fitness or cooking class. These simple changes give comfort during a time when being productive is often a challenge. It won’t be long before the days are longer and overfull. Restore, stay healthy, and be ready.
These comforts may not be in sweet and gooey form, but they are equally indulgent. Be conscious of this season’s unique wonders: falling snowflakes, steamy showers, flannel sheets, and moments that melt your heart.
“Why Do I Crave Comfort Foods Now?” by Melina Jampolis at www.cnn.com.
“Winter Comfort Food: Prevent Sickness,” by Judi Ketteler at www.womenshealthmag.com.
Sneaking cookie: http://www.flickr.com/photos/johnjoh/343221506/sizes/m/in/photostream/
Rosy cheeks: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tooelegunclub/4452789973
Melting heart: http://www.flickr.com/photos/seyyed_mostafa_zamani/4266283238/