Here's how to curb your carb cravings—and clear the mental fog—when temps drop. 

A few weeks ago I mentioned how I seem to be hungrier and to crave more carb-rich foods in colder months, and I found this is due to both psychological and physiological changes in the body in winter. It was when researching this that I also became aware of another seasonal food connection which I previously knew little about: Increased carb cravings in fall and winter months are a sign of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a type of depression that begins in late fall and fades in early spring.

Cupcake cravings in January aren’t exactly a diagnostic tool for depression, but I think it’s important to be aware of the connection for yourself, as well as others. So how do you distinguish when cravings are an indicator of SAD, and when they’re just cold weather comfort food cravings? The answer isn’t exactly clear, but here’s what I found, along with tips to help manage carb cravings.

The Connection Between Carb Cravings and Seasonal Depression  

As days get shorter with fall, decreased hours of daylight can trigger hormone changes. Research suggests melatonin production increases, while serotonin levels decrease. Higher levels of melatonin—the hormone many associate with sleep—can lead to feeling sluggish or tired during the day, and lower levels of mood-boosting serotonin can have negative effects on your mood and state of mind. Carbohydrates enter the picture because not only do they increase blood sugar to provide a burst of energy (particularly if they contain added sugars), but they also encourage the production of serotonin. The positive effects seen in energy and mood are short-lived, which can create a perpetual cycle of seeking carbs to continue to get that boost.

How Can You Tell If It's Depression?

In the midst of snow and holidays, it can be hard to determine if carb cravings are due to normal changes in hormones and cold weather adaptations or if they're an indicator of something bigger. According to the National Institutes of Mental Health and the American Psychological Association (APA), SAD-associated symptoms and risk factors include the following:

Symptoms:

  • Greatly increased cravings for sweets and starchy foods
  • Decreased energy
  • Sleepiness in daytime
  • A tendency to overeat
  • A desire to “hibernate", or stay in and skip social activities

Risk Factors

  • Being female (females are diagnosed four times more than males)
  • Younger age (tends to be more prevalent in younger adults, as well as teenagers and even kids)
  • Living in the upper half of the United States
  • Already having depression or other mood disorder
  • Having a family history of any form of depression.

There’s a high likelihood that one may be suffering from SAD, and not just the winter blues, if one experiences these symptoms for two or more winter seasons, according to the APA. Symptoms should slowly dissipate in spring as days become longer, but seeking professional help from a psychiatrist, counselor, or family doctor is highly encouraged. Some individuals show improvements using light therapy where you sit under an artificial light to mimic sunlight a few minutes each day, and medication may be suggested if symptoms are severe.

Tips to Manage Winter Carb Cravings

Incorporating certain foods and lifestyle habits can help with winter carb cravings, no matter the underlying cause. While these ideas aren’t intended to a be a remedy for SAD, they may aid in managing overall health while you seek professional help.

Don’t Stop Moving

Cold temps and snow can make it tempting to blow off a workout, but research suggests that exercise increases serotonin production and reduces stress and food cravings. If you can’t maintain your normal activity level, try setting a goal—a minimum number of days or minutes a week—to get activity. And every little bit helps; even brief 15-minute workouts appear to boost serotonin levels.

Eat to Reduce Cravings

Make sure each meal includes some lean protein, healthy fat, and plenty of high-fiber, low-calorie vegetables. Also, choose healthier versions of comfort foods that warm you up. Dishes like chili, veggie-based casseroles, and soups to keep you warm and fill you up.

Skip the Junk

Food and drinks that include added sugars or are made with refined grains should be eaten on special occasions—not every day. These carb-laden foods trigger a sudden rise in blood sugar (giving a quick energy and mood boost), but then can make you feel even more tired when blood sugar drops as a result from too much insulin.

Get Vitamin D

Vitamin D production in the body is initiated by sunlight exposure, so there’s some thought that the vitamin’s levels may play a role in SAD although research findings continue to be mixed. But with Vitamin D being a needed nutrient that many don’t consume enough of anyway, one might as well use this as an opportunity to include more vitamin-D-rich foods such as fatty fish, eggs, cheese, and fortified dairy, juice and cereal products.

Up the Omega-3’s:

There's significant evident to suggest that omega-3 fatty acids play a role in brain health, and some research has found that getting adequate omega-3 fats (though diet and/or supplementation) may help. Make a point to regularly incorporate fatty fish like salmon, as well as foods like walnuts and flaxseeds. Taking 1 to 2 g/day of a fish oil supplement made predominantly of EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) is also an option, but consult with your doctor if you're taking other medications.

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