Anyone who knows me can confirm that I just bloody love food. Anytime, anywhere, anything: Maccas nuggets, KFC popcorn chicken, tacos, burritos, ice cream, smoothies, chocolate (Maltesers and m&m’s rank highly), pasta, CHEESE, coffee, pizza, waffles, a giant brekkie with avocado, eggs, bacon and tomato. If I have to choose between food or anything else, the answer is always food.
While I love to eat all year round, one thing I do notice is that I eat a heck of a lot more in winter than I do in summer and definitely tend to over-indulge. Interestingly, a lot of people around the globe exhibit this same seasonal eating behaviour. Is it the delicious aroma of warm comfort food that just begs you to have seven helpings? The piercing cold that makes you want nothing more than to snuggle up in a blanket with a hot chocolate or steaming apple pie? Or the fact you can wear so many layers people don’t realise what a hairy, pale, food-hoarding gremlin you’ve become?
Beyond food’s basic purpose of fueling our bodies for survival, it is being used in increasingly elaborate ways and has become an integral part of so many cultures around the globe. Though cravings for rich, indulgent food in winter or smoothies and salads in summer could be due to habit, there are actually many elements that shape seasonal eating behaviour.
Back To Our Roots
Let me first take you way, way back to a time when Netflix wasn’t a thing and humans definitely did not have pet dinosaurs or rock versions of modern societal comforts like The Flinstones would have us believe. In parts of the world with extreme seasonal climatic changes (i.e. snow in winter and very hot summers), food availability often varied enormously. For hundreds of years, autumn – and the subsequent drop in temperature – meant that food resources sometimes became scarce. Unfortunately, our ancestors couldn’t just pop to Woolies or Maccas Drive Thru for a meal. The amount of food harvested in the autumn months dictated how much food a family would have for the colder winter months – lack of sufficient stores could very well lead to starvation. The richer you were, the more food you could store and buy.
As such, our desire to eat more once it gets cold, especially foods higher in fat and carbohydrates, could be an ingrained survival instinct prompting us to consume more calories in preparation for winter. Though it’s no longer an issue in first world countries with modern luxuries like heaters, houses and a pretty unlimited food supply, researchers indicate that “The urge to maintain body fat is even stronger in winter when food in the natural world is scarce.” So, our bodies naturally crave more food to increase our fat reserves and help get us through the colder months.
Another super interesting thing that comes into play is homeostasis and body temperature regulation. Before you groan and click outta this article, let me explain.
Basically, homeostasis is the process of our bodies maintaining a stable and fairly constant internal environment. To make sure everything is balanced and running smoothly, our body’s core temperature should usually stay between 35°C and 41.7°C. Now when you’re cold, your body temp will drop, and a response is #triggered by the brain. You might start shivering, and the body will work much harder to try and keep you warm and get your body temp back up. This expels energy, so yep – you require more energy in the form of food (a.k.a you get hungry AF). Food intake itself actually creates heat too, and is used as an actual way of temperature regulation by the body.
Basically, food just rocks.
Winter Can Make You SAD
Now I know most people have one type of weather they prefer – some love winter and some love summer (I am one of the latter if you haven’t already guessed). However, some people actually suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD. This is a genuine medical condition of recurrent seasonal depression or bipolar disorder, which begins and ends around the same time each year. For most people it starts around autumn and continues through winter – this isn’t just a case of the “winter blues”, it can be a pretty serious condition.
SAD is linked to decreased light exposure and is more common in locations where winter brings increased darkness (think places like Norway with only a few hours of light a day). Symptoms are usually similar to classic depression – irritability and feelings of fatigue and sadness.
So what does this all have to do with food?
Less exposure to sunlight = lack of Vitamin D = serotonin (a mood-boosting hormone) can’t be produced by the body. As a result, the body starts to crave high carb foods. Why? Well, carbohydrates actually help the body convert certain amino acids into… *drumroll* serotonin!
One last thing: when people are sad they often crave foods with nostalgic ties (e.g. Mum’s chocolate cookies). Satisfying these cravings can actually reduce feelings of isolation and make you happier. So next time you’re debating whether to eat that carb-filled cookie, trust the science behind it and just do it (you can thank me later).
It’s A Cultural Thang
Aside from all the science-y explanations, there is also a pretty simple reason for seasonal eating behaviour. It all comes down to culture and social norms – summer is all about smoothies, beach, acai bowls (love ‘em or hate ‘em they’re here to stay), ice cream on a hot day and outings to a park or beach. Winter is about yummy comfort food, snuggling up inside and just generally becoming a bit of a sloth.
Our brains actually create cognitive links between specific times of year and particular foods – hence why most people have those seasonal food cravings (like smoothies or ice cream in summer). It just becomes tradition to eat certain foods in certain seasons, whether we consciously realise it or not.
Social environment is also a big factor in eating behaviour. Eating decisions are heavily influenced by the social context and our expectations of the food and experience. So, social eating can really impact what we actually consume. Think about it: if you go out for a meal when it’s cold and everyone else orders a delicious steak and warm veggies plus decadent chocolate dessert, are you really going to order a salad and skip dessert?
Obviously the ‘eating more in winter’ point doesn’t apply to everyone – some people love winter, some people can control their cravings (how tho), some might not change their diet between seasons and some might indulge all year-round. It is, however, a pretty interesting way to look at eating behaviour and the many factors that impact our food desires and choices. Food for thought (pun 1000% intended).
I’m now starving after writing this so pls excuse me while I go eat everything in sight.