This week I’m excited to have another guest post from registered dietitian, Ann Dugan. In her article Why do we crave certain foods this time of year?, Ann uncovers seasonal eating patterns and what this means for our bodies. She also provides some great, healthy alternatives to some of your favorite comfort foods.
As soon as the temperature dips, many people want carbohydrate-rich foods like pasta, potatoes and gravy, macaroni and cheese, anything warm and saucy, and rich desserts. These foods are typically comfort foods or foods that bring back good memories from childhood, special people or “feel good events in our lives”. These foods make you feel full, satisfied and are often what we call “stick to your ribs” foods. This time of year is also when we have the majority of food related holidays: Halloween in October, Thanksgiving in November, Christmas in December, The super Bowl at the end of January (oops that’s not a holiday but many people eat like it is), Valentine’s Day in February and Easter in March or April to end the colder months.
Another reason we crave certain foods in the winter, may be that there is less sunlight. Serotonin, a brain chemical that improves mood, reduces appetite, and promotes sleep, has been found to be lower during the winter than the summer. There seems to be a correlation between sunlight and serotonin levels. How can we increase our serotonin or feel good hormone? Those comfort foods we crave that are high in carbohydrates do stimulate the production of serotonin but they are usually fast carbs meaning they turn into sugar quickly once eaten, raise blood sugar and cause a spike in insulin levels. Also that sudden spike in insulin causes fat storage which can lead to weight gain and ultimately many serious health issues. In addition, the spike in insulin, which is used to store the sugar you just ate, will result in a sudden drop in your blood sugar. This will cause you to be extremely hungry and set you up to crave the fast carbs all over again; a vicious cycle. As you can see, the fast carbs will give a quick fix to increasing serotonin levels but won’t sustain those levels. When you get a sugar craving, it’s usually your body wanting protein. Eating protein at each meal will stabilize your blood sugar and prevent sudden highs or lows, which will keep your hunger and cravings more under control. Tryptophan, an amino acid found in most protein foods, converts to serotonin in the brain. Tryptophan is utilized best when eaten with a small amount of carbohydrates. Therefore, it’s better to focus on whole food options (foods that are minimally processed). These foods tend to contain more slow carbs, which mean they have a low impact on raising blood sugar. Some examples of these would be brown rice, quinoa, nuts, seeds, legumes, vegetables and fruits.
Fats play an essential role in brain health and hormone production, so don’t skimp on these. Good sources would be: fish oil, wild caught fish like salmon, butter from grass fed cows, nuts, seeds (especially chia and flax), avocado, and oils (including olive, coconut, avocado, macadamia nut, almond and walnut).
Exercise naturally stimulates many important “mood” hormones, including serotonin. Stress on the other hand causes cortisol to be elevated which robs us of serotonin. By doing just 15-20 minutes of exercise every day, those feel good hormones will be naturally released. So exercise is a good way to combat stress and keep the cortisol levels down.
How To Battle Seasonal Food Cravings
If you battle cravings this time of year, there are a few strategies to reign in those desires. First you need to learn what’s motivating you to want those foods. Keeping a food journal noting what, when and why you eat would help. Totally avoiding a food that you crave will only make you want it more. Allow yourself to have it once a week to prevent feeling deprived. If you’re craving is more persistent, give in occasionally so your desire won’t intensify. In one study it was found that people reduced their craving for a certain food by having a small amount of it after having a full meal.
Learn to swap out the fast carbs for slow carbs so your blood sugar levels will be more stable. Here are a few examples of this: swap your mashed potatoes for mashed cauliflower, swap your white pasta for quinoa or brown rice pasta and swap your desserts sweetened with sugar for desserts sweetened with stevia, xylitol or honey. For more ideas on how to curb your cravings, food swaps or recipes, contact me.
Ann Dugan, RDN, LD