Why You Crave Comfort Foods in Winter

Health Professional, Medical Reviewer

If you are like most people, when the weather turns cool, you start to crave heartier, carbohydrate-rich, comfort foods.   Interestingly enough, there is some science behind this, but there are many possible answers as to why this happens to you.

Decreased Physical Activity

We tend to be much less active in the wintertime. Even if you are hitting the gym every day, when it gets dark at 5 p.m., we spend much less time outdoors. We aren't engaged in lifestyle fitness activities such as gardening, walking, bike riding, and swimming.   This decrease in activity can lead to an increase in anxiety and depression, which can cause us to overeat.   Exercise also helps to suppress our appetite, so it makes sense that we feel hungrier in the winter.   A small percentage of the population (1-3%) suffers from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which increases appetite and carbohydrate cravings.

Decreased Socialization

When it's dark and cold, we spend more time indoors and less time out of the house socializing with our neighbors and friends.   There are fewer outdoor social gatherings, and illnesses often leave us stuck at home when we'd rather be engaging in social activities. This limited social engagement can lead to increased anxiety and depression, which may cause overeating due to feelings of stress and loneliness.

Cravings for Warmth

It's natural to crave warm foods when you are cold this is why warm soup or a hot meal is much more appealing than a cold salad or piece of fruit.   These hot meals tend to be higher in calories, fat, and carbohydrates than the foods that we would enjoy outside on a hot summer day.

Storing Up for Winter

We are watching the squirrels do it now with their nuts as they seek out food to store for winter.   Our bodies are predisposed to seek out food before the weather turns cold because, historically, food was scarce during the winter. Have you noticed that you tend to stock your refrigerator, freezer, and pantry more in the winter months?

How to Survive the Winter

If you are concerned about overeating due to your increased cravings, turn to some of these healthier options:

  • Soups and stews are excellent ways to warm you up in the winter, and can be nutritious if you use the right ingredients.   Stick to soups that are broth- or tomato-based.   Try making your own soup in a slow-cooker, using lots of vegetables and lean protein, such as chicken breast, lean ground beef, or seafood.
  • If you are craving comfort foods such as potatoes and pasta, try using a starch that's packed with more nutrition and fiber. Sweet potatoes contain more nutrients than white potatoes, and brown rice and whole-wheat pasta are great alternatives to white rice and pasta.   Try adding these comfort foods as a compliment to your meal, not as a main course.   For example, toss some brown rice into a chicken and vegetable stir fry.   Slice a sweet potato into cubes and add it to a slow-cooker filled with a pork tenderloin, onion, and vegetables.   You will be able to satisfy your cravings for those comfort foods without filling up on a lot of extra calories.

Bottom Line

It's natural to crave higher-calorie foods in the winter, but these tips should help you to satisfy your cravings without causing you to overeat.   Another tip is to get out in the sun no matter how cold it is for at least 15 minutes a day. Some studies have linked vitamin D deficiency, which is more common in the winter months due to limited sun exposure, to mood changes. So bundle up and get outside if you can. A few minutes a day may really help to curb your comfort food cravings.