CALS Wellness Committee tip: How to manage the wintertime eating blues

The bitter, cold weather and short days of a Wisconsin winter often tempt us to eat a little more and exercise a little less. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic makes it even more difficult to be out and about and interacting with others.

Researchers have found that the average person gains one to two pounds over the winter season. Dr. Rallie McAllister, author of Healthy Lunchbox: The Working Mom’s Guide to Keeping You and Your Kids Trim, notes that people who are 50 years old may be 30 to 35 pounds heavier than they were at 18 years old. If you do the math, that’s equivalent to one to two pounds every winter. According to McAllister, “those pounds are roughly equal to 30 winters of a heartier appetite.”

What is it about winter that leads us down that path of overindulgence? Is it lack of motivation? Exhaustion from the holiday season? An ongoing desire to seek comfort from food?

Many factors play a part in wintertime overeating. Cold weather makes us want to stay inside where it’s warm and comfortable. Many of us counteract this feeling of chilliness by eating foods that warm us up. In the winter, we focus less on fruits and vegetables since they are not quite as readily available as they are in our lush Wisconsin summers. (One shouldn’t discount the leafy greens, frozen veggies, or winter squash, however).  Perhaps subconsciously, we resort to comfort foods from our youth: macaroni and cheese, chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy, fresh baked cookies and a big bag of Cheetos (-or maybe that’s just me?). While these foods are tasty, they tend to be calorie dense and contain little fiber which can help lead to that extra gain.

To compound the chowing down on comfort food, we have a tendency to stow away inside our warm houses all winter long. While this makes sense considering the temperature, doing so isolates us. It decreases our socializing opportunities with others, which we all know are already decreased with the Omicron variant, and increases the winter doldrums. We are also less likely to participate in an outside physical activity.

The dark, winter days decrease the amount of sunlight we are exposed to. Less sunshine affects our body’s levels of the hormone serotonin and vitamin D. Serotonin, a mood-enhancing chemical, helps regulate our hunger and a feeling of well-being. With less serotonin, we tend to get into that winter funk more easily and be less outgoing. Add all this to the annual holiday over-eating, and you can see it leads to a cycle of “blah.”

So what can we do to combat the winter eating blues?

  1. Get up and move! Look for indoor activities if you can’t stand the cold: re-organize the basement, get a head start on spring cleaning, do some jumping jacks, or play Twister with the kids. Check out local indoor ice or roller-skating rinks or the bowling alley. Consider the various classes like yoga or Pilates (many with virtual options). Or, when you’re at work, take a brisk walk down the street (5 or 10 minutes) or tackle the stairs instead of the elevator. Exercising can increase serotonin levels and give us more spring to our step.
  2. Incorporate vitamin D in your diet. Our bodies use sunlight to make vitamin D, but at northern latitudes, our skin produces very little, if any, vitamin D in the winter. Combat deficiency by eating foods that naturally contain vitamin D: eggs, mushrooms, fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, tuna, or fish oils. Look for foods fortified with vitamin D, such as milk, 100 % orange juice, light yogurt, plain soy milk and high-fiber cereals. Another option may be a vitamin D supplement; 600 international units (IU) are suggested for adults up to age 70. However, as with all supplements, run it by your doctor first.
  3. Eat fewer refined starches and sugars. When choosing carbohydrates, try to go for more “complex” carbohydrates, like whole grains. Try new quick-cooking whole grains like quinoa (easy to make and tastes good) and brown rice, or incorporate foods like lentils, split peas or black beans into your meals. While all carbs give us energy, researchers suggest that eating simple carbs gives us a quick increase in our serotonin levels. That makes us feel good, but these levels drops, along with our blood sugar. Quick drops in blood sugar can spur those comfort-food cravings. By eating less-processed foods, we get more fiber and nutrients; that keeps us fuller longer and we avoid spikes and crashes in energy. Stabilizing our blood sugars helps us feel more satisfied, thus avoiding some of those cravings, and beat the winter blues.

So, does this mean you have to give up all your wintertime favorites? No. Our favorite comfort foods may never be “healthy” but they can usually be made healthier. For example, use 1% milk instead of heavy cream. Or if you love the heavy cream in your beer cheese soup, have a smaller bowl, and pair it with something with a bit of crunch, like a vinaigrette-based cabbage slaw, or even a few slices of a green apple. Moderation (and not being hard on yourself) is key! This is a difficult time for everyone-hang in there!

Taiya Bach is a teaching faculty II and a registered dietitian nutritionist with the UW-Department of Nutritional Sciences, and a member of the CALS Wellness Committee.