Ah, Thanksgiving — it’s open season on starchy side dishes. Pass the mashed potatoes, the mac and cheese, and the dinner rolls. But why do you crave carbs in the winter? Yes, carbohydrate-laden foods are delicious year-round, but what is it about cold weather that makes you head back to the fridge for leftover stuffing so often?
Anita Mirchandani, MS, registered dietician, tells Romper in an interview that craving warm, calorie-dense foods in the winter is your body’s way of making sure you, well, don’t freeze to death. “In order to stay warm and for our bodies to function in colder climates, our bodies go through thermogenesis. Our bodies need energy in the form of carbohydrates and calories to help perform and sustain through the winter months. Colder temperatures do cause us to have warm, heartier cravings in the form of soups, stews, pastas, etc.”
Because of winter’s shorter days and longer periods of darkness, many people can feel a bit down. Eating sugary snacks and carbohydrate-rich foods can be a way to boost serotonin, according to Castlight Health.
“This is true; less sunlight in the winter can contribute to lower levels of serotonin in the body,” Ilyse Schapiro, MS, RDN, in private practice in New York and Connecticut, tells Romper. “Carbohydrates can help increase levels of serotonin in the body, and that’s why we crave them more in the winter: to help lift our mood.”
Mirchandani agrees, but emphasizes that those mood-boosting effects don’t last long. “Sweets and simple carbs do raise the serotonin levels in the body, but this is temporary. The long-term effect of this pattern is weight gain. Other foods that contain tryptophan also could increase serotonin in the body. Examples of these foods include salmon, eggs, spinach, and various seeds. Incorporating protein and brightly colored veggies also will help boost mood, as vegetables do contain carbohydrates and protein at various levels, which would feed into your system slowly versus a quick spike and drop.”
Whether your carb craving comes down to wanting to feel *cozy* or something you can’t control, like a reaction to shorter, darker days, is it OK to cave to these cravings? Should you allow yourself to eat more carb-laden foods, or try to get your serotonin going in other ways?
“It depends on your goals,” Schapiro says. “If you’re looking to lose weight, then I wouldn’t indulge in extra starchy carbs. Plus, there are other foods that increase levels of serotonin in the body, such as salmon, poultry, eggs, spinach, nuts, and seeds.”
But if you just want the carbs, eat the carbs. “Eating carb-rich foods is not a crime," Mirchandani says. "We need carbohydrates at every meal, but complex carbs more nutritious and beneficial for the body in comparison to refined carbs."
If beating the winter blues and preventing winter weight gain is your goal, Mirchandani says just stay active, and tweak your meals so that they still make you feel all warm and fuzzy without affecting any aspirations you might have. “Mapping out your week is a great way to plan ahead and stay healthy. I like to suggest meal prep and fitness plan prep. Think stews, soups, and curries that contain a combination of protein and carbs from vegetables. Try healthier alternatives of the usual, like chickpea pasta or cauliflower spaghetti, as an option to help satisfy the cravings healthfully," she says.
Some other nutrient-dense swaps include sweet potatoes, popcorn, whole grain breads and cereals, whole grain pastas, and roasted or baked potatoes. Castlight Health noted that eating protein, dairy and vegetables early in the day during breakfast and lunch can help you make sure you’re getting your daily recommended servings. Schapiro recommends eating regularly to ensure you are meeting your body’s nutritional needs. If it has everything it needs to function well, it may be less likely to steer you towards the bread basket.
“It’s important to make sure you’re having breakfast within an hour of waking up, and then eating every three to four hours. Eating consistently throughout the day keeps your energy up and your blood sugar stable, and can prevent overeating or overindulging.”
Anita Mirchandani, MS, registered dietician
Ilyse Schapiro, MS, RDN, in private practice in New York and Connecticut