Why Are We More Hungry In The Winter?

Dec 19, 2011
Originally published on December 19, 2011 11:24 am

If you feel hungrier as winter draws near, you're not alone. Even though most of us spend our days in climate-controlled offices and homes, our appetites seem to change when the days grow shorter. Some researchers say it's our primitive impulses promting us to stockpile calories for the winter ahead.

"We are driven by things implanted in our brain a long, long time ago," says Ira Ockene, a cardiologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School who has long been interested in how seasonal variations influence our health.

Ockene's own research has documented that caloric intake tends to increase as the weather turns colder. He also points to a study done at the University of Georgia back in 1991.

Researchers closely tracked how much people ate from season to season and how quickly they ate it. Turns out, the study subjects consumed about 200 more calories a day beginning in the fall when the days grow darker.

Ockene says we seem to be very sensitive to light. Less of it, he says, prompts us to seek food and eat it faster.

"If you look out your window and have grassy, treed area, that sounds like chipmunk behavior, " says Ockene.

Not all scientists agree about our winter food-seeking habits.

"I'm not disputing the possibility that people eat more in the winter," says Marcia Pelchat of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. But she says doesn't think it's a vestigial "chipmunk" instinct.

Pelchat says another explanation: Our winter eating habits are likely born of opportunity. There is more holiday feasting, better leftovers, more grazing in the kitchen, and fewer opportunities for playing and exercising outside.

At every turn, it seems, our environment cues us to eat.

And holidays sometimes bring strong associations with particular foods. Whether it's cake or your favorite holiday cookies or pies, these treats are often tied to good memories. And the associations we have — the memories linked to the foods — can make us want them even more.

"The stronger the link becomes " says Pelchat, between the food and the memory of loving the food, "the more likely you are to indulge in the food." She says cravings are sometimes just memories repeated.

It doesn't take a scientist to see that this pattern of eating is a recipe for weight gain.

So, whether it's biology, opportunity, or good memories prompting us to eat more, there must be way to minimize the extra padding come winter, right?

Well, part of it may depend on what you crave. "Chili, lots of chili" is Hal Brewster's seasonal indulgence. The 28-year-old law student tells us he's not a big carb guy. He goes for protein, which tend to satisfy our appetites

"There definitely seems to be more fullness associated with protein," says Janet Polivy, who studies the psychology of eating at the University of Toronto at Mississauga.

Her studies suggest that you don't want an all-or-nothing diet: Depriving yourself of a food entirely can backfire and lead to overeating.

So you've heard the answer before: moderation. If you crave carbs, try adding in some protein.

"I instead of having a big bowl of pasta, have a small one and have a chicken breast with it," says Polivy

Whether it's pasta, coconut cake or those holiday cookies, Polivy says it's probably best not to deprive yourself completely of the foods you love.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer, in for Steve Inskeep.

In Your Health, if you feel hungrier or you're noticing more cravings in wintry weather, you're not alone. Even though our climate-controlled culture is hardly in sync with the natural world, lots of people still find their appetites vary significantly from season to season. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Ask almost anyone, and you'll get the same answer to this question.

Do you eat more in winter?

HAL BREWSTER: Yes.

AUBREY: How much more?

BREWSTER: A significant amount.

AUBREY: Hal Brewster's response was pretty typical. He's a lean, 28-year-old student at Georgetown Law School. And just how many more calories does he think he eats this time of year?

BREWSTER: Probably three to 400 a day.

AUBREY: Really? That much more?

BREWSTER: I think so.

AUBREY: And what do you crave? What do you tend to eat more of in the winter?

BREWSTER: Chili. A lot of chili.

AUBREY: Ah-ha, a savory, stick-to-your-ribs dish that's high in protein. Now, if you ask cardiologist Ira Ockene why this happens, he points to our biology. We have primitive impulses, he explains, prompting us to stockpile calories for the winter ahead.

DR. IRA OCKENE: We are driven by things implanted in our brains a long, long time ago.

AUBREY: For evidence, he points to a study done in Atlanta. Hardly a frigid city, right? Researchers closely tracked how much people ate from season to season and how quickly they ate it. Turns out, the study subjects consumed about 200 more calories a day beginning in the fall, when the days grow darker. Ockene says we seem to be very sensitive to light, and less of it prompts us to seek food and eat it faster. That's what the subjects in the Atlanta study did.

OCKENE: And despite the fact that they were eating both more and faster, at the end of the meal in the fall, they rated themselves as still hungrier than in the spring. So what does that sound like if you look out your window and you happen to have a grassy, treed area? That sounds like chipmunk behavior.

AUBREY: So the phenomenon's explained, right? Well, not so fast, says scientist Marci Pelchat of the Monell Chemical Senses Center.

DR. MARCI PELCHAT: I'm not disputing the possibility that people eat more in the winter, but I am questioning the assumption that this is our hibernation instinct coming into play.

AUBREY: Pelchat says there's a simpler explanation. Our winter eating habits are born of opportunity. There are more parties, better leftovers, more grazing in the kitchen and more holiday feasting. At every turn, our environment is nudging us, actually cueing us to eat. Sherry Newton-Diller says there is one sweet that calls her name.

SHERRY NEWTON-DILLER: Coconut cake.

AUBREY: Coconut cake?

NEWTON-DILLER: Coconut cake. So, in the winter that's what I get. I'm on my way there now.

AUBREY: Whether it's cake, Linzer torte or your favorite holiday cookies, this is the kind of food that's around during the holidays. And oftentimes, we associate them with good memories. A taste of pie can take us back to our grandmother's kitchen or another moment in childhood. And these associations make us want to eat these foods even more.

PELCHAT: The stronger the link becomes, you're more likely to indulge in the plate of cookies.

AUBREY: Or the coconut cake. It doesn't take a scientist to see that this pattern of eating is a recipe for weight gain. So whether it's our biology, opportunity, or good memories prompting us to eat more, there must be way to minimize the winter munchies. Well, think back to our lean, chili-craving friend Hal Brewster. He told us that he's not a big carb guy. The dish he craves is full of protein. And the great thing about protein is that it's satiating.

DR. JANET POLIVY: There definitely does seem to be more fullness associated with protein.

AUBREY: Janet Polivy is a researcher at the University of Toronto. Her studies suggest that you don't want an all-or-nothing diet. That can backfire. So you've heard it before, but moderation, right. And try to balance the carbs with protein.

POLIVY: For lunch, instead of having a big bowl of pasta, have a smaller portion of pasta and have a chicken breast with it.

AUBREY: Whether it's pasta, coconut cake or those holiday cookies, Polivy says it's probably best not to deprive yourself of the foods you love.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.