- Fatty, calorie-dense foods may help improve mood and alleviate anxiety or stress
- We may have a genetic tendency for foods historically available during the winter
- The good news is there are lots of healthy substitutes that can still taste fantastic
Q: Why do we crave comfort foods when the weather turns cold? And are there healthy substitutes?
This is an interesting question and one to which there is no simple answer.
There is considerable research showing seasonal affective disorder (SAD) -- which affects 1% to 3% of the population -- is linked to increased appetite and carbohydrate cravings, which are probably consumed in the form of "comfort foods." This is likely due to changes in brain chemistry brought about by the change in seasons and alterations in circadian rhythm, the body's biological clock.
Those who may not be clinically diagnosed with SAD may experience mild depression or worsening mood during colder, less sun-filled days due to more moderate changes in brain chemistry. Some studies suggest an association between vitamin D deficiency (common in winter months when sun exposure is limited in most of the country) and mood, so this may play a role.
People may also be less active and less social in the winter, which could increase anxiety and depression and lead to stress eating and overconsumption.
Comfort foods are generally sweet, fatty and calorie-dense, which may help temporarily improve mood and alleviate anxiety or stress. In other words, many people may be self-medicating with these dishes.
There are several other likely behavioral and biological components. Lighter, cooler foods like fresh fruits and vegetables were historically less available during the winter, so there may be an inherent preference for foods that are in season like starchier vegetables.
In addition, we have may have a genetic tendency to seek out more calorie-dense food in the winter months because food historically was scarcer.
Finally, a cool refreshing salad simply does not taste nearly as comforting as a hot bowl of soup on a cold winter day. The good news is there are lots of healthy substitutes that can still taste fantastic.