Ask the Diet Doctor: Why Do I Crave Comfort Food?
An insatiable desire for all things cheesy, creamy, and carby may be the sign of a serious health problem
Q: Why do I crave comfort food more in the winter?
A: Seasonal changes in food cravings are a good example of the tight link between food and our hormones and emotions. If you notice a marked changed in your levels of desire for homemade baked macaroni and cheese (my No. 1 comfort food) as the weather turns colder and darker, it could be due to seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
This condition is characterized by increased anxiety, oversleeping, lethargy, and problems concentrating. Since comfort foods are generally high in fat and carbs, they can increase serotonin production and thus feelings of wellbeing, making them a natural pick for anyone feeling low.
See your doctor, and if it turns out you do have SAD, try some of these treatments to deal with your wintertime blues instead of heading to the kitchen.
Improvement in blood levels of the "sunshine" vitamin is associated with a decrease in depressive symptoms. I recommend that you get your vitamin D levels checked (this is a simple blood test that your physician should have no problem approving for you), and then supplement with vitamin D according to your test results. If you want to skip the blood test, you can start taking 2,000 to 3,000 IU of vitamin D each day, as this dosage is shown to be safe. I would caution against supplementing with higher levels, however, without having a blood test done.
This involves sitting in front of a light box, which simulates natural light, for a predetermined period of time each day. For the most effective treatment, you should look directly into the light box light. As with most things, start out slow with 10- to 15-minute sessions, and work up to longer sessions depending on the severity of your symptoms.
It doesn't get much easier than a walk outdoors. One study in Denmark found that going for a stroll outside was as effective as light therapy for the treatment of seasonal affective disorder. And there's no substituting nature photos on your laptop for time spent taking in real nature: In a review of research looking at the impact of nature versus technologically simulated nature (for example, nature scenes projected on HDTVs), researchers found that technologically simulated nature is as effective at improving mood and wellbeing as staring at a brick wall, but a real window to nature improves wellbeing and reduces stress.