Why You Comfort Eat in Winter and What You Can Do About It

Comfort eating is common during the winter and the foods we crave are normally high in calories, which is not good news for our waistlines

A recent survey by wellness brand Healthspan found that 40% of those surveyed said they comfort eat and that his was one habit that people struggled to stop doing.

Most approaches to help us manage our weight talk about the importance of ‘what’ we eat and ‘how much’ we eat, without always guiding us to think about ‘why’ we are eating these foods.

This is where a food psychology approach can help. Just as animals tend to put on an extra layer of weight to survive the harsher elements in the winter, some of the same tendencies exist in humans.

Some studies suggest we consume more fat in the Winter and an average of 86 extra calories a day in Autumn compared to Spring (Nature Journal, 2006). Whilst this isn’t a huge number of additional calories every day, over the months this can soon add up to noticeable changes in our waistlines. It’s also been shown that the cooler months may impact on the hormones that control appetite and hunger, suggesting a reason why we crave more food in the Winter (Frontiers in Neuroscience, 2013). The lack of sun during the Winter may also impact on our choice of food. Sunlight triggers the release of mood hormones such as serotonin. The production of this hormone requires an amino acid called tryptophan, which is more readily available after eating carbohydrate foods. This could be a reason why we may be more drawn to eating foods such as pasta and bread during the Winter to help with the release of this important hormone and feel more upbeat.

Whilst there may be biological factors beyond our control that are influencing our food choice during the cooler months, this doesn’t mean we have to give up on our intentions to reach or maintain a healthy weight entirely. Winter time can also present us with other challenges, some of which we often try and resolve with food such as filling the time as we spend longer evenings in at home. Finding enjoyable ways to fill the time can be helpful and a few of those include:

  • Explore a new hobby- take a class, singing lessons, dance
  • Visit a local museum, play, musical, comedy, or jazz club
  • Put your wellies on and play outside in the rain
  • Play a board game
  • Plan a date for yourself or with your partner
  • Go ice skating
  • Get a massage, facial, manicure or pedicure
  • Go to the library and stock up on page-turners you’d enjoy curling up with
  • Have a dance party in your living room (guests are optional!)
  • Experiment with a new hairstyle or look

Tackling the issue of winter weight-gain is not that straightforward for some of us and simply involving ourselves in more distracting activities may not be enough to solve the problem. Winter can trigger unconscious associations from childhood that we may find uncomfortable:

  • Maybe you have evocative memories of being made go on school runs in the rain, being last across the finish-line and feeling embarrassed or ashamed.
  • Perhaps money was tight growing up and your childhood home didn’t have adequate heating and you felt cold a lot of the time during the winter. Now you’re an adult and in control, you want to give comfort to yourself by warming yourself though food.

As adults we often feel we should just be able to just ‘get over’ these experiences, but they can and do have a big impact on us in these formative years. The way to move beyond this is to get clear on the inner stories and associations you may have with winter. If you particularly struggle with winter weight-gain, then try the following:

  • Sit down with a notebook and pen and write about your memories of childhood winters (just thinking about it isn’t as effective as writing it down).
  • From this journaling, name your eating story, ‘Ah, I’m reaching for food because I’m trying to take care of myself’. This can take much of the unconscious energy out of the compulsion to eat.
  • Now you see your eating is driven by the need to take care of yourself, consider how you can replace it with other ways of taking care of yourself (or if you need a gentler approach, pair eating with a non-eating self-care task, see the list above for ideas).

Other additional strategies include:

  • Find alternative ways of keeping yourself physically warm: as well as the obvious like wearing as many layers as you need to and keeping the heating levels up, having a hot shower/bath, use aromatherapy oils that have a warming scent (e.g. Eucalyptus) or try them in a burner to scent your home.
  • Make sure you’re drinking enough fluids: in cooler months we may not feel as thirsty and thirst may be mistaken for hunger. Have some tasty low-calorie liquids to hand, like flavoured/sparkling water with fresh fruit as well as hot drinks such as herbal/fruit teas, hot water with lemon/lime.

If you don’t want to give up your favourite comfort foods, then another option is to make simple foods swaps to make them a little less calorific. A Survey of 2000 adults carried out by the egg firm Clarence Court found that 80% of Brits resort to their favourite meals for comfort. The top five meals from the survey included pizza, fish and chips, bacon sandwiches, full English breakfast and Burger and chips. Comfort eating doesn’t need to be unhealthy and these simple food swaps can help to lessen the load on your waistline without sacrificing on taste.

Pizza – there isn’t much you can do about a meal that is essentially bread and cheese, but you can reduce your portion size. Opting for a thin base over thick or stuffed crusts will help to reduce the calorie load. You could also opt for half of your usual choice and serve with salad for something a little healthier.

Fish and chips – again, opting for a smaller portion size is the obvious way to save on the calories and high saturated fat content of this meal and might be the only option from the local fish shop. If you’re making it at home, then try breaded fillets that can be oven baked and lower fat oven chips.

Bacon sandwich – try swapping thick cut white bread for a thinner cut wholemeal variety of bread for less calories and higher fibre. Grilling your bacon is also a healthier option to frying.

Full English breakfast – try swapping fried bacon for grilled, fried eggs for poached, and fried bread for wholemeal toast to reduce the calorie and fat content of the breakfast. Beans and grilled tomatoes add two portions of vegetables to your 5-a-day, which is a positive.

Burger and chips – try opting for a burger made with leaner beef to reduce the saturated fat content of the meal. Hold the mayo and any other creamy sauces and opt for tomato-based salsa.

You can also go topless by sticking to just the bun base. If you want to add cheese, then try reduced fat options that are already but into thin slices or grated.

References:

Frontiers In Neuroscience (2103) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3735984/
Nature (2016) https://www.nature.com/articles/1602346

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3735984/

Dr Jen Bateman

Clinical Psychologist, Ambassador for Healthspan
Founder of ‘Love Your Way to Weight Loss with Dr Jen’, a 12-week online programme that’s been proven by the NHS to be effective when other approaches have ‘failed’. Discover more at: www.DrJen.co.uk

Share