Although cookies, hot chocolate, oatmeal, breaded dishes, and pasta are not exclusively associated with the winter season, there is something about the sharp, blanketing cold of winter that makes us crave these filling foods more often when it is chilly out. Can this be the reason people see winter as a season for weight gain? Why do we crave these foods; is it pop-culture advertising making these calorie-rich foods more appealing during the wintry season and holidays? Or does it go a little deeper, reaching into our primitive past?
Are You Eating Because You're SAD?
Being stuck indoors on cold nights can quickly lead to boredom. Even with all the distractions of the digital age, eating is still one of our favorite ways to pass the time. It's known that your mood can affect your appetite—and not always in a good way. Long, cold nights of winter bring out low moods—a condition known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD)—so it's easy to understand why this can lead to overeating and weight gain. In an article by The Huffington Post, Susan B. Roberts, PhD, professor of nutrition at Tufts University, explains how our prehistoric ancestors—who had to constantly forage for food for survival—were wired to search for sugars, fats, and proteins.
"In prehistory, calories were in intermittent supply and very essential for survival," Roberts explains. "So it makes sense to have a mechanism to ensure that we really love calories and are willing to work to get them!"
Which Season Do You Eat More In?
With shorter days and colder weather it's natural to assume that less physical activity happens in fall and winter. A recent study published in the journal, Nature, done by Ira Ockene, MD, a cardiologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, confirmed that calorie intake does vary season by season. In the study, winter eating was associated with our conditioned, primitive impulse to stockpile food for winter. Researchers also found that the average calorie intake increased by 86 in the fall compared to the spring. In an interview, Dr. Ockene states that less sunlight and shorter days also prompt us to seek more food and eat faster.
However, scientific backing may not be needed to point out the obvious. Holidays eating traditions also play a major role in our winter dietary habits. From October through January we are hit with Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's, and even Super Bowl parties, which have become occasions for friends and family to come together and indulge in calorie-rich foods and snacks. These calorie-laced holidays—coupled with lack of physical exercise—makes winter a prime time for a little weight gain. So what can you do?
Fortunately, it is possible to enjoy the holidays and indulge in a few guilty food pleasures if you're smart about your eating habits. Make yourself a deal: Enjoy some of the foods you normally wouldn't, but only eat one of them a day. If you know you'll be attending several parties, eat light and go for low-calorie foods such as salads, or fruit and vegetable platters. By staying conscious of your holiday calorie intake, you can help you stave off some both weight gain and some of the regret come the spring.