Why at this time of year do we find ourselves craving bowls of creamy pasta, warming soups and desserts and hot chocolate with marshmallows?
These and other comfort foods can make us feel good inside. But why? And why do we crave them in winter and not in summer?
The gut ‘speaks’ to the brain
Our stomachs produce the “happiness chemicals” dopamine and serotonin. When we eat, a complex process involving the brain means these neurochemicals trigger feelings generate feelings of happiness and well-being.
These happiness chemicals are also produced when we exercise and are exposed to sunlight. During winter, our exposure to sunlight declines.
This results in a change between the good and bad bacteria that live in our stomachs, and therefore, the connection between the gut and the brain.
So, in winter when we eat our favourite comfort foods, we get a rush of happiness chemicals sent from the gut to our brain and this make us feel happy and satisfied.
Evolution may have a hand
Another reason we crave more comfort foods during winter might be evolutionary. Before we enjoyed housing, heating, supermarkets and clothing, humans who increased their body weight during winter to keep warm were more likely to survive their environmental settings. Craving carbohydrate and sugar rich foods was therefore a protective mechanism.
Although we are not still living in shelters or foraging for food today, food cravings in winter may still be set into our biology
Attitude and mood
Our mood also plays a part in what we eat during winter. Eating comfort food may play a role in alleviating loneliness and boosting positive thoughts. We may also naturally experience a lower mood in winter and a low mood can be linked to emotional eating.
In winter, we stay indoors longer due to it being darker and colder and we tend to self medicate with food that are carbohydrate and sugar rick. These types of foods release glucose straight to our brain which gives us an instant feeling of happiness when we are feeling cold, sad, tired or bored.
Can comfort food be healthy?
Comfort foods generally receive a bad rap because they are usually energy and calorie dense and they can be high in sugar, fat and refined carbohydrates. These types of foods can be linked to weight gain during winter.
However, you can get the same comforting feelings from winter foods containing ingredients that are good for you. There are lots of healthy recipes for soups, casseroles and curries and don’t forgot winter seasonal fruit! If you crave something that is carbohydrate rich, try swapping white varieties of pasta and rice for wholegrain versions.
So embrace the cooler weather. Making some healthy swaps to classic comfort foods will remove the food guilt and listen to what your body is telling you it needs during these cold winter months.