How to manage cold weather food cravings

When it's cold outside there's nothing quite like warming up with a plate of comfort food. If you’re living with type 2 diabetes, the inevitable craving for carbohydrates during the colder weather isn’t ideal but the good news is that a) it’s not your fault (it might be quite literally hardwired into our biological makeup) and b) there are things you can to do to keep your health goals on track.
Louise Carleton
3/12/21
9
min read
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Quick summary

  • Craving comfort foods during the colder months could be down to our biological make-up. Our bodies see winter as a time of scarcity and prepare for this potential hardship by consuming calorie-heavy foods. 
  • We also tend to view winter as a time of indulgence (hello, Christmas!) and we tend to reward ourselves for coping with the cold weather with tasty treats. 
  • Winter doesn’t mean jeopardising your health goals—there are plenty of things you can do to stay on track during the colder months if you’re living with type 2 diabetes.

Winter is well and truly here and for many of us, the dark nights and cold weather mean cosy nights spent snug indoors. As you start reaching for more jumpers, lighting the fire, and regularly nurturing a hot drink, you might find yourself craving different foods as well, like jacket potatoes piled high with fillings, platefuls of cheesy pasta, or big bowls of apple crumble.

If all that sounds familiar, rest assured you’re not alone. When it’s chilly outside, many of us want to do nothing more than crank up the heating, settle down in front of the television, and fill our bodies with comfort food. More often than not, this means carbs and sugar, which isn't ideal when you have type 2 diabetes. Resisting the urge to indulge isn’t easy, especially when it feels like your body is hard-wired to consume comfort foods the moment you put the heating on for the first time.

So, why does this happen? And, even more importantly, is there anything we can do to keep our winter cravings, and therefore blood sugar levels, under control? 

Winter comfort food cravings aren’t always under our control

It could be in our biology

There are some who argue that wanting to eat more in the winter isn’t just a lack of willpower or an addiction to carbs and sugars. Instead, it might have something to do with our biological makeup.[1] The colder months of winter have always been a time of hardship because food and nutrients are scarce. As the weather gets colder our bodies might begin to prepare by storing calories. So, craving calorie-dense foods such as carbs, sugar, and fats could be nature’s way of helping us get through the harsher months. Of course, nowadays we’re fortunate enough to have ample food throughout these colder days, and the ease of a full fridge coupled with tempting takeaways makes that biological craving a little bit harder to ignore. 

Craving calorie-dense foods could be nature’s way of helping us through the harsher months.

Cronise et al, Metab Syndr Relat Disord

Our brains are hardwired to want comfort food

While there might be biological reasons why our bodies need more calories during the colder months, there are psychological reasons, too [2]. Subconsciously, we associate winter as a time of indulgence, as opposed to summer’s health and vitality, and we often reward ourselves for coping with the cold with rich and heavy foods—a hearty pub lunch and a roaring log fire feels all the better after a cold winter’s walk. Winter is also associated with Christmas, when we’re encouraged to spoil ourselves and feast on festive treats that are normally unavailable throughout the rest of the year. Most of us make the most of it and eat far more than we ever normally would!

Our mood can dip in the winter

As we leave summer behind and head into colder months, it’s not unusual to feel a bit blue. Winter can be long  and can take a real toll on our mental health with short days, bad weather, and a lack of sunlight affecting our body’s production of serotonin (one of the ‘happy’ hormones). Many people suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (also referred to as SAD), a type of depression onset by the change in seasons. Studies show those suffering from SAD tend to crave more carbohydrates because they help the body use an amino acid called tryptophan, which helps support serotonin production.[3] 

Winter can be boring 

When it’s blowing a gale outside or the rain is lashing down the windows, the last thing many of us want to do is leave the house. Finding the motivation to lace up your trainers and go for a walk or even to pop out and visit a friend can be difficult. For many of us, our hobbies and our social lives shrink in the winter and when we’re cooped up indoors looking for something to do, it’s easy to turn to food. Eating more and not moving as much as we should means the weight can sneakily creep on.

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How to stay on track over winter

We realise that it might sound like the odds are stacked against us but there are plenty of ways you can curb your cravings and get through winter without jeopardising your health goals. 

Switch up your exercise routine

Doing regular exercise is really important if you have type 2 diabetes and moving for just 30 minutes a day can dramatically improve your blood sugar levels. Walking and jogging are great ways to keep fit but we understand that doing this, or any outdoor exercise for that matter, isn’t fun when it’s cold outside. Instead, try and find some indoor exercises such as tennis or badminton, or switch your daily walk outside to one on a treadmill. You don’t even have to leave the house; there are lots of free exercise classes online that you can do from home at a time that suits you.

Make the most of the good days

Cold, rainy days might seem endless during winter but when the weather does brighten, make sure you make the most of it and get outside. While the days are shorter it’s a good idea to head out early before it gets dark. Spending some time in nature and loading up on vitamin D when it's available is a great way to boost your mood, and is the perfect antidote to staying indoors...and snacking. If the bad weather seems like it’s never going to end, then you know the saying: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes!” Granted, some days are just not made for an outdoor excursion but you might find it worthwhile to invest in some good quality waterproofs to get exploring!

Preparation is key

Managing type 2 diabetes isn’t always easy but being prepared is the key to staying on track, and this is particularly important when the weather is cold—bad habits can very easily wiggle their way back into your routine it’s easier to fall into bad habits. Planning your meals ahead of time or meal prepping where you can will stop you from indulging in carb-heavy or sugary foods, especially on those days when it’s cold, you’re tired, and you might be looking for a quick fix.

Cook up some healthy comfort food

There’s no reason why comfort food can’t be healthy! If you’re after something warm and filling then why not try soups, stews, and casseroles loaded with veggies. They’ll still tick all the boxes—keeping you warm, giving you a burst of energy, and boosting your mood—but without affecting your blood sugar levels. There are healthy swaps for even the most calorie-heavy dishes and with the shorter days, it’s the perfect time to get cooking. 

So, there you go—your cravings for winter comfort food aren’t down to a lack of willpower or obsession with food, so go easy on yourself. Try adapting your routine to the winter months, plan new, healthier recipes to share with friends and family (good food and good company is a definite winter win), and, if you still find yourself craving that plate of pasta, be kind to yourself—after all, it's in our biology.

References

[1]  Cronise, R.J., Sinclair, D.A., Bremer, A. A. (2014). The “Metabolic Winter” Hypothesis: A Cause of the Current Epidemics of Obesity and Cardiometabolic Disease. Metab Syndr Relat Disord 12(7):355-361. Accessible here.

[2] Health Check: why do we crave comfort food in winter? The Conversation. Retrieved 2 December 2021. Accessible here.

[3] Wurtman, R.J., Wurtman, J.J. (1995). Brain serotonin, carbohydrate-craving, obesity and depression. Obes Res 3(Suppl 4):477S-480S. Accessible here.

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