Daylight Saving Time has just ended (ugh), and the days are getting much shorter, much darker, and much colder. In the words of some famous show - winter is coming.
Have you ever noticed changes in your food cravings or shifts in your body weight with the seasons? Like, how a bowl of hot tomato soup and grilled cheese sounds way more appealing than watermelon and salad in the winter. Or how clothing might fit differently from summer to winter? Let’s explore why and how cravings and weight can fluctuate in the winter - and the big question, is that normal?
The general answer to that question is - yes, this is normal! We crave different foods, and our bodies may go through subtle (and even not so subtle) changes during the winter months. There are a few reasons for all of this, including (but not limited to) traditional seasonality, thermic response, and psychological shifts during this time of year.
Below, we break down these 3 explanations of how and why winter can impact what we eat and what happens in our body.
Once upon a time, our meals would have been primarily driven by seasonal harvests and availability of food. Back then (which honestly wasn’t so long ago), limited availability of different food sources throughout the year would have exerted a much stronger influence over seasonal consumption and body fluctuations than they do today.
These days, you are more likely to have access to the highly developed and globalized food market, and be able to buy a variety of foods year round (like watermelon in the winter). Even so, seasonal dietary patterns have been sustaining lives for many thousands of years.
Our ancestors endured because they habitually ate the same types of foods from season to season, year after year. Aiming for anything else would have risked their survival. There is a strong biological urge to maintain body fat when food in the natural world may be scarce (because your body is doing its best to take care of you). And, in the colder months, your body has to work harder (requiring more energy, which it can get from fat stores) to maintain your temperature and support your immune system.
All of these years of human experience provide great context as to why your body and cravings may still change in the winter. We may not be in the same situation as our ancestors, but internal and biological wisdom has been passed down through generations and stored in our body.
There are usually several factors taken into consideration when choosing food; one you may not even be consciously aware of is “thermic effect”. For example, in the summer, it probably sounds refreshing to eat foods that are served cold and have high water content (like that watermelon). These foods help your body in regulating your temperature in the heat and providing the extra hydration you need when sweating. On the other hand, in the winter, your body needs help maintaining body temperature in a different way. It takes extra energy to maintain body heat in cold conditions. This is where more calorie dense foods come in handy by providing your body with the additional energy it needs to take care of you. Once again, your deep body wisdom is speaking by maintaining or increasing body weight and driving your tastes towards more calorie dense options in order to prepare for colder months.
Probably the component to this phenomenon that we are most aware of in the winter is the psychological effect the season can exert. It is very common to experience emotional/mental shifts with the seasons. We’ve got a more limited daylight window, colder temps pushing many of us inside, less vitamin D available from the sun, and countless other factors working against us here.
Naturally sourcing vitamin D from the sun may promote mental/emotional stability, but this is not as accessible in the winter. Even when you do make it outside to soak up some warming rays, if you live above the 37th parallel (think San Fran, CA or Richmond, VA), the light is not strong enough to effectively produce vitamin D in the fall/winter. (A vitamin D supplement may be a great option though!)
When we aren’t feeling at our best, a common coping mechanism is to eat for emotions - this is totally okay. In attempting to balance your mental/emotional health, food is an absolutely valid coping skill to add to your tool box. This time of year, some of your favorite comfort foods may be available, like those tied to holiday or family gatherings. Speaking of the holidays, though, holiday season stress or overwhelm from all the events and family time can also impact your mental health and relationship with food.
Any level of psychological challenges may impact your desire to engage in joyful movement, which can contribute to changes in body shape or size.
For many, it can feel as though weather isn’t doing us any favors - it’s cold outside, you might have to layer up, and, once again, it’s dark before and after work, when you would probably be moving. So yeah, winter can definitely impact mental health.
In conclusion - it is VERY normal to experience changes in cravings and shifts in body weight over the winter months! And, a lot of the factors at play here are, to an extent, out of our control. Just know that your body has stored the wisdom it gained from the endurance of our ancestors and it is doing its best to take care of you. Seasonal fluctuations will lead to fluctuations within our bodies (including tastes, cravings, weight, etc.) over the course of days, weeks, or months. The important thing here, is to trust that your body knows what to do, and that these changes are a normal part of being in a body.
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