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Wednesdays With Whitney

"Why does my body seem to crave carbs in the winter?"

What a great question to answer on this particularly snowy start to our week. It sure is winter! As we hunker down to shorter days, darkness, less time outdoors and the ever-present offerings of “winter foods” (i.e. casseroles, breads, noodle soups, holiday treats and savory root vegetables) you may feel your body craving carbs (carbohydrates).

First things first, let’s clarify what carbohydrates are. Diet trends and lingo often leave many of us scratching our heads as to what carbohydrates are and how to incorporate them into our diets. Carbohydrate containing foods are foods such as, fruit, starchy vegetables (think corn, potatoes and peas), breads, sweets, rice, pastas, cereals, beans, and milk--to name a few. These foods are broken down into glucose in our bodies and acts as our cell’s main energy source. Our bodies need carbohydrates to function.

In the winter months we are often more apt to spend time indoors--think early, dark evenings. This simply may lead to more opportunities to eat. Those foods may include cold weather staples such as curling up to a mug of hot chocolate or steaming bowl of corn chowder.

We are also faced with food-focused holidays which tend to have more energy-dense, carbohydrate food offerings. In addition, it is a common theory that we must “bulk-up” for the cold winter months. This feeling of carb craving could undoubtedly be a mindset. Many of us have limited access to fresh, local produce in the winter months while our farmer’s markets are on hold. Our activity level can be limited in the winter compared to the summer months.

Another consideration is that we often drink less water in the winter as hot, humid days are not encouraging us to maintain hydration. Sometimes our hunger and thirst mechanisms can get confused, leaving us feeling hungry when really what we need is a glass of water.

Our circadian rhythms are thrown off each late fall to early spring. For many this includes a decrease in our body’s production of serotonin, our “feel-good” brain chemical. Carbohydrates promote the production of serotonin. People with seasonal depression often crave carbohydrates as a method to boost their mood. Additionally, our exposure to sunlight is reduced. Sunlight provides us with vitamin D. Vitamin D helps boost serotonin levels.

There is no one-size-fits-all answer here. There are many factors that contribute to those winter carb cravings.

With health in mind:

  • Carbs to eat more often: fruits, whole grains, beans/legumes, and nutrient-rich vegetables such as sweet potatoes and squash.

  • Carbs to eat less often/in moderation: cookies, refined breads, potato chips and low-fiber crackers.

  • Pair protein with carbohydrates at meals and snacks.

  • Include vitamin D-rich foods frequently: salmon, sardines, tuna, fortified milk products (including non-dairy options), egg yolks.

  • Re-think your portion sizes. Often our bellies need much less than our eyes believe to satisfy our cravings.

  • Stay hydrated!

  • Bundle up and keep active!

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