Why are you hungrier in winter?

11 Aug 2020

Food + Drink Health Winter

As the winter season draws in, we want more of that winter food – but what is it about those chilly months that makes us hungrier?

During the winter season, everyone expects to put on a few pounds – those cold days demand big plates of steaming dinners and warming puds. For us, longer nights means more time to tuck into one of our H-boxes in front of the fire as we snuggle down in our pjs.

Although we resign ourselves to gaining a bit of extra weight during the Christmas season, we might find ourselves craving a bit more of that winter food than usual, even before the festivities begin. We unpick why we’re hungrier during the colder months.

pug sat in blanket

Why am I so hungry in the winter?

Most of us experience an increase in appetite in the winter. Whilst this is partially because we crave a bit of comfort food on a dark and freezing night, there is actually some science behind our winter food cravings.

The hibernation theory

One theory as to why we get hungrier during the winter is that we have primitive impulses which prompt us to stockpile calories for the winter season ahead, just as animals do during the autumn months. Of course, nowadays we don’t need to stock up on nutrients, but many many years ago food would have been much scarcer in the cold months.

Our survival impulse would therefore try to make us store up all the calories possible to help us prepare for times when food would be harder to come by. This would also explain why we want foods which are rich in carbs, sugar and fat: these foods can be easily stored as fat to ensure self-preservation for when there’s less food around.

junk food and fast food of burger with chips

This primal urge to stockpile food may not be purely due to an intellectual understanding that the harsh months of winter is coming. In fact, Ira Ockene, a cardiologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, suggests that our sensitivity to light is the element which triggers us to eat more. Once we start to see less of the sunlight, our body starts to push us to seek food, eat more of it and eat it faster.

The time to feast

Another argument puts more of a shine on why we crave more winter food in the cold season: rather than eating to survive, we eat more out of enjoyment. Marcia Pelchat of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia believes that our winter habits stem from an opportunity to spend time indulging in our more favoured foods. As we have less of a chance to exercise and play outside, we end up staying in and nibbling on leftovers, grazing on snacks and enjoying bigger celebratory dinners.

Pelchat argues that food which evokes a nostalgic and positive memory makes us more likely to indulge in the food. So, winter foods which are strongly associated with the season – think roast dinners, hot chocolates and rich puddings – are more likely to be consumed during this time as we have fond memories linked to the foods.

roast dinner for christmas dinner with turkey

A bout of the winter blues

We’ve already discussed whether we crave chocolate more when we have the blues, but what about food in general when it comes to the winter blues? Feeling a bit down in the dumps on a cold and grey day is pretty normal – the winter blues are so common that it even has a medical name, Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD. But how is it caused?

As we’re exposed less to sunlight, we can become deficient in Vitamin D, the mineral needed to keep our bones, teeth and muscles healthy in our body. If we have a lack of this, then we may experience lower levels of serotonin, the neurotransmitter that helps us feel emotions of happiness and pleasure. These feelings of sadness can cause us to want to eat more to perk ourselves up.

The shorter daylight hours brought about during the winter can also affect our mood – sufferers of the winter blues tend to produce higher melatonin, a hormone that regulates our sleeping cycle. This can cause feelings of lethargy and symptoms of depression.

statue of a sad depressed person

These blues can make us crave sugary and carb-heavy foods, such as chocolate, pasta and bread. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with a bit of comfort eating, just make sure you’re incorporating plenty of fruit, veg and whole grains in your diet.

Not enough H20

Surprisingly, we sweat as much in the winter as we do throughout the year. The heat from the radiators or the open fire, the endless layering up of clothes and the mountains of blankets over us still prompt us to sweat.

However, as many aren’t aware of this, this could lead to dehydration – we don’t actually realise that we still should be drinking as much water as we do on a summer’s day. As the body’s response to dehydration can be confused with hunger, we might find that we’re tucking into the snack drawer more than we normally would.

two friends laughing in blankets and woolly hats

Does temperature affect hunger?

The ambient temperature affects our appetite for winter foods than in more ways than you might think. During this season, our bodies work harder to keep us warm, burning more energy in the process. This means our desire to eat more becomes stronger – our bodies need fuel in order to keep us warm. On top of this, eating helps to generate internal heat, so eating more helps us stay at a comfortable temperature.

However, you must remember that it’s important to watch what you eat: responding to your urges for warming foods by snacking on high-sugar, high-fat treats may make you feel good for a bit, but eventually your blood sugar levels will dip, leaving you colder and hungrier than before.

Do you burn more calories when it’s cold?

Experts have discovered that we have special heat-producing fat cells, called “brown fat”, which help to burn the energy from the food we consume for heat. According to Barbara Cannon, a professor of biomedical sciences at Stockholm University in Sweden, “cold exposure increases the amount of brown fat that is present in the body”.

So, the colder the temperature, the more brown fat we have to help us to burn energy. In theory, this means we should be burning more calories.

However, we also need to consider how cold it has to be to prompt our body to produce more brown fat. There are many factors which need to be first considered; our body’s existing deposits of insulating white fat – which we store for energy – determines how much of the cold we can withstand before we start to feel uncomfortably chilly. 

Shingo Kajimura, an associate professor of cell and tissue biology at the University of California, San Francisco, says studies have shown that spending two hours a day in an 18℃ room – dressed so you’re cool and shivering but not freezing – should be enough to increase brown fat.

However, you’d have to be willing to consistently expose yourself to chilly temperatures in order for your body to naturally burn off calories. So, whilst researchers have shown that cold temperatures can make us burn more calories, most of us wouldn’t have either the time or patience to really experience the benefits of this.

Do we need to eat more in the winter?

Although we could be burning a bit more energy during the winter season, we probably don’t have to be stockpiling up on food to see us through the months. Our metabolic rate isn’t that heavily affected by the change in temperature, and though we may crave more winter foods, we certainly don’t need excessive amounts to survive.

Moreover, it’s important to watch what we eat during the winter – Kajimura has stated that we have increased blood pressure and a higher heart rate during the winter, as “when exposed to cold, the body tries to prevent heat loss by shrinking blood vessels”.

london in the winter time with snow

Prompted by the change in temperature from warm to cold, these blood-pressure swings could trigger a heart attack or stroke in higher-risk people. This explains why a five-degree drop in ambient temperature increases a person’s risk of stroke by 11%. For those who are more susceptible to such health issues, binging on fatty, salty and sugary foods can cause a spike in blood pressure, putting them more at risk.

What is the best food for cold weather?

Whilst it’s perfectly normal to want a bit of extra nosh during winter, it’s important to eat the right things. We’ve taken a quick look at some of the best foods to eat throughout the winter days, keeping you sustained, full, and most importantly, satisfied.

Oats

A serving offers more fibre than a slice of wholemeal bread, and it’s rich in minerals such as iron, which is needed to help carry oxygen around the body. The low glycemic index of oats can also help to prevent the risk of blood sugar spikes. However, the best thing about oats is that they’re a slow-burner: the fibre in oats makes you feel full throughout the day, meaning you’re less likely to snack on convenient fast foods.

porridge bowl with strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, kiwi

Although porridge is one of the most common ways to enjoy oats in the morning, if you’re not a fan of this classic breakfast then why not try whizzing your oats up to use as a flour substitute in pancakes? Of course, flapjacks are also a way to get your oats in – just don’t go crazy with these as they are often very high in sugar.

High protein foods

Protein is an essential part of our diet, and it’s a good way to fill you up. Fatty fishes (salmon, tuna, cod), meat, eggs, nuts and seeds, soya, lentils and beans are all great ways to get your protein in.

Not only is protein filling, but it can also help with weight loss – if you find you’re trying to shed a bit of weight post-Christmas then try incorporating more of it into your diet. One study showed that a protein increase from 15% to 30% of the person’s daily calories made overweight women eat 441 fewer calories each day.

Comfort foods

OK, so we know we’ve been telling you to resist the lure of salt, fat and sugar, but it’s also important to remember that completely restricting ourselves from what we enjoy never really works. Often, most diets fail as people cut out their favourite foods, and then find they can’t control their cravings and binge on them, before feeling guilty and starting the cycle again. Incorporating a few treats into a healthy, balanced diet is the best way to satisfy any urges, without the added feelings of guilt.

If you’re entertaining guests, why not treat them to our Dipping Adventure? A warming dessert which requires even less effort than a chocolate fondue, this makes the perfect after-dinner treat for when you want something a bit more special.

Of course, hot chocolate is a winter staple – ours is made with more cocoa and less sugar, by using grated flakes of the real stuff. We don’t add in any nasties: just simply melt and combine with your milk of choice for an extra creamy and indulgent drink.

For those who look for the deepest chocolate flavours, our 100% Dark Hot Chocolate is the best way to satisfy that cocoa craving – add your own sugar to taste, or simply relax into the lush and creamy undertones with a peppery finish.

hotel chocolat the velvetiser with our hot chocolate
Our high cocoa hot chocolate blend – for the smoothest results pair with The Velvetiser

Whilst you might find yourself reaching for the snack cupboard a bit more during the winter season, don’t worry – indulging yourself is all part of the festive fun. We can always start the diet in January, right? Maybe…