Professional Opinion

Professional Opinion: Help -- it's cold outside, and I want to eat everything in sight

Debbie Petitpain
Debbie Petitpain Submitted photo

This week, Debbie Petitpain, a registered dietitian with Sodexo working in MUSC's Office of Health Promotion, discusses the phenomenon of wanting to eat more during the colder, winter months.

Question: I seem to eat a lot more over the winter than the rest of the year and want to eat constantly throughout the day. Is there a physiological explanation for this and what can be done to curb the wintertime munchies?

Answer: Yes, eating more in the winter has a physiological drive but it has behavioral ones as well.

Most people notice changes in their body as the days get shorter and cooler, such as sleeping more, feeling more emotional or overeating.

The theory is that our genetic makeup causes us to be sensitive to the decrease in daylight hours. In one study, researchers found participants started eating faster and consuming more -- about 200 calories per day more -- once the days started to get shorter.

With today's fast paced and fully illuminated lifestyle, however, the problem is more likely behavioral and a crime of opportunity.

It is often in this season that we have more feasting, better leftovers, and situations that promote grazing.

The holidays also invoke our sentimental attachments to food when, for example, you try to replicate grandma's famous apple pie.

Likewise, gifts of fruit cake or other food become calories we feel obligated to devour.

For those who consume alcohol, extra calories quickly add up with even just a couple additional drinks per week.

Finally, time off or traveling can get us out of a routine, change our sleeping habits, and increase stress -- all triggers for overeating. That's not to say we should just acquiesce to seasonal overindulgence as there are many tricks that keep us on track.

First, stick to regular meal times as much as possible but consider increasing protein foods since they take longer to digest and can promote fullness.

An egg for breakfast instead of toast, cottage cheese for a snack instead of pretzels and a side of beans instead of rice at dinner are examples of ways to increase protein intake without increasing how much you eat.

Also, be sure you are drinking enough water since dehydration is often mistaken for hunger.

It can be difficult to drink cold water in the winter -- hot water with a lemon or herbal tea can be a soothing switch.

Next, stick to a regular sleep schedule, which means going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, even on the weekends.

It's been clearly demonstrated that sleep deprivation drives hunger and weight gain so sleep longer each night if you need to but be consistent.

Finally, move your body. The colder weather makes being outside less desirable or even unsafe if you exercise when it's dark out but regular movement can actually curb your appetite and alleviate stress. If you can't stand the idea of an outdoor run in the winter, consider trying doing something at home, like yoga or dancing around with the kids.

If you need the external stimulus to get you going, sign up for a group fitness class like Zumba or kickboxing which provide lots of energy from the other people, lights and music.

Just don't fool yourself into thinking exercise negates poor food choices -- you can't outrun an unhealthy diet and bathing suit season will be here sooner that you think.

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