The confluence of New Year’s Resolutions and winter food cravings is wrecking havoc with our good dietary intentions. As winter is finally making itself known in the Northeast, we started wondering about how our taste buds relate to this chilly season. In winter we tend bulk up on carbs and comfort foods, yet in summer we naturally crave healthier fare such as fresh fruits and veggies from the garden. Why? In winter, we need more heat, so we ingest more fuel. Increased caloric intake in winter helps our bodies stay warm. Right? Sort of.
We know that taste buds change over time. Little kids who hate greens somehow grow up to magically love kale and Brussels sprouts. This is because as we age, our taste buds “wear out” and even start to disappear from the sides and roof of the mouth. Foods that were once too strongly flavored become more palatable, and in some cases even enjoyable.
We also know that a food’s temperature and color affect its taste. We know that smell is a huge factor in our perception of flavor. We know that depression affects the taste buds; studies have shown that anxiety and stress reduce our sensitivity to flavors. (read more here).
But what about weather? Do the seasons influence our perceptions of flavor? Does winter weather affect our taste buds, or are seasonal food cravings simply psychological?
According to WebMD, “feeling cold triggers a self-preservation mode that sends the body a message to heat up fast. And that message is often played out as a craving for carbohydrate-rich foods — the sugars and starches that provide the instant “heat” boost your body is longing for.” Even though any food will boost your metabolism, we are culturally predisposed to find warmth and comfort in heavier things like mashed potatoes and mac and cheese
It could also be SAD, Seasonal Affective Disorder. For many of us, our moods often reflect the weather: cloudy outside, cloudy inside. “Winter SAD may be caused by lack of sunlight…symptoms may be eased by extra light exposure. If more time spent outside or by a window is not enough, a doctor may recommend use of a light box…The symptoms usually stop naturally in the springtime, as sunlight increases and creamy casseroles give way to crisp salads.” (http://scienceline.org/2006/11/ask_moser_food/)
In winter, we need to lighten our spirits. High-calorie, high-fat foods initially produce feelings of happiness in the brain. Memories of enjoyable eating experiences come into play and we start to crave certain textures and smells. We even crave the way a favorite food feels in the mouth. But junk food tends to leave you hungry. When treats “melt in your mouth” (called vanishing caloric density) a signal is sent to your brain that you might not be eating as much as your brain would like you to eat. Your brain doesn’t think you are full. So you grab another cookie, chocolate truffle, potato chip, etc.
You can overcome, or at least counter, these food cravings simply though not necessarily easily. Go outside! Even a few minutes outdoors can combat the SAD that might lead you down the garden path towards Girl Scout cookies. And eat a wider variety of foods. Your brain loves variety. Give it what it loves: eat foods in a wide variety of flavors, tastes, textures, temperatures, and colors of food.