Are your cravings for winter comfort foods a reality or a myth?

Dan Lepard's spinach and rosemary macaroni cheese - comfort food at its best.
Dan Lepard's spinach and rosemary macaroni cheese - comfort food at its best.  Photo: William Meppem

Winter's only just around the corner and as the nights draw in and the chill seeps into our bones, there's only one thing to do: stock up on food and eat, eat, eat. Mashed potato, stews, casseroles with dumplings and chunky soups. Portion control is out, and comfort is in. Sticky date pudding anyone?

But is craving comfort food in winter a myth?

According to science, no. The body responds to the colder months in a number of ways, affecting our portions and the types of food we consume. One simple explanation comes down to the cold triggering a subconscious survival instinct in us. 

A 2016 University of Exeter study highlighted this. Researchers used computer modelling to predict how the amount of fat an animal stores should respond to food availability and the risk of being killed by a predator.

"All animals, including humans, should show seasonal effects on the urge to gain weight. Storing fat is an insurance against the risk of failing to find food, which for pre-industrial humans was most likely in winter," said lead author Dr Andrew Higginson.

Classic wintry comfort food: mashed potatoes with chicken gravy.
Classic wintry comfort food: mashed potatoes with chicken gravy. Photo: William Meppem

Marny Lishman is a health and wellbeing psychologist. She says that, for many tribes, winter would have been a time of scarcity where many foods would have started to become unavailable. 

"People would have probably consumed as much as they could while it was available to conserve energy, so that they could stay warm and stay alive," she says. 

Survival instinct isn't the only thing to impact on our winter eating habits. Our hormones also play a part.

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A study published in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience in 2013, which looked at data both in people and in animals, found that seasonal changes affected many hormones related to hunger and appetite, including glucocorticoids, ghrelin, and leptin.

Another study found that a lack of vitamin D (specifically from sunlight) decreases the release of serotonin in the body. Subsequently, people increase their carbohydrate intake to elevate these serotonin levels and improve their mood. It's a similar situation for those people affected by seasonal affective disorder (SAD). 

"Many people are deficient in vitamin D because they spend most of their work and personal life indoors, and cover up a lot when outside," says Lishman. "In the winter, exposure to outdoor light is limited further and this can result in psychological health problems, including low mood."

Feeling socially isolated can leave you reaching for the stew.
Feeling socially isolated can leave you reaching for the stew.  Photo: William Meppem

While inhaling a big bowl of stew by yourself may be comforting on those cold, dark winter nights, a 2015 study found that, if it leads to social isolation, it could result in you eating more. 

"Those who are experiencing low mood often try and find external coping mechanisms to comfort themselves, and food is often one of these," says Lishman.

Before you put down that plate of bangers and mash, know that not all winter comfort food cravings are about meeting our physical or psychological needs. Sometimes, they're simply because we want to eat hearty delicious food that we love and the cold provides the perfect opportunity. 

So as the cold sets in and your cravings start, what's the best and healthiest way to satisfy yourself?

Accredited dietitian Natasha Murray says winter is a great time to experiment with different varieties of food.

"Veggies such as parsnip, turnip and swede are perfect for hearty meals and lean proteins help you to feel warm and full and have zinc to help boost your immune system" she says. "Garlic is a powerhouse for winter because it adds flavour and contains the antioxidant, allicin, which may help reduce our risk of catching colds."

Murray adds that yoghurt and fermented foods such askefir, miso and sauerkraut are excellent sources of probiotics. Breakfasts high in fibre and protein, such as porridge with milk, will keep you feeling full for longer. 

"There are so many things to love about seasonal winter foods," says Murray. "There are amazing colours of beetroot, squash and pumpkin and beautiful fruits like citrus, apples and pears which are packed with vitamins and minerals.

"Embrace winter food and enjoy it while you can."