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Food cravings stem from a multitude of physical, emotional, and spiritual causes. The resulting nature of these cravings may vary, but for most people, carbohydrate cravings tend to increase in severity and frequency as summer fades away into autumn and winter. At this time of year, many experience a sudden increase in sugar or starch cravings. Some people choose autumn to begin working with a nutritionist because they’re struggling to find solutions to cycles cravings followed by energy crashes that ensue. But it’s natural to want more carbohydrates in winter months; this seasonal shift in food-based urges is built into human physiology, a sign that we haven’t escaped our relationship with the planet’s rhythms.
New Season, Different Cravings
In accordance with the season, a combination of cooler weather and less light brings heavy, starchy foods to harvest. Winter squashes, root vegetables, and hearty big game animals come into season in autumn. With proper storage, winter squash can keep for multiple months, allowing us to draw upon their nourishment in the darkest of weather.
Richer in starches, these golden-hued vegetables are more calorie dense than their summer counterparts, allowing us to draw more energy per bite to insulate us from the cold. Beyond the benefit of their caloric density, winter squashes and root vegetables, such as carrots and sweet potatoes, are rich in beta carotene, which the body converts to vitamin A; this ultimately helps our ability to see in the dark, which is extremely useful during seasons with less daylight hours.
Research shows that humans tend to consume more calories and move less during the cooler winter months. Overall hunger may not be substantially different, but changes in light and heat may influence the types of foods we crave, leading to increased calorie intake. A 2005 study showed that daily calorie intake was nearly 100 calories higher in autumn than in spring. Additionally, physical activity is typically lower during winter, and lack of activity itself can influence cravings and appetite. While this study indicated that fat intake peaked in the winter and carbohydrate intake peaked in the summer, many people crave a combination of starch and fat year-round.
Temperatures notwithstanding, the decrease in daylight hours influences brain chemistry and can have a powerful effect on food cravings. Serotonin production directly correlates to the number of daylight hours, so having less light results in reduced serotonin production. Serotonin not only influences mood, but has an appetite-suppressing effect as well.
Carbohydrates contain the amino acid tryptophan, which helps create serotonin in the body. With shorter daylight hours resulting in reduced serotonin production, our bodies turn to carbohydrates to compensate for low levels of serotonin. While science on winter appetite isn’t definitive, it’s possible that differences in our ability to produce and break down serotonin may alone affect cravings, and these variances keep researchers divided.
What Causes Cravings?
Below are some common causes of cravings. This list is by no means exhaustive, and there’s often overlap between the physical, emotional, and spiritual basis of cravings. Emotional cravings tend to be rooted in events and incidents, while spiritual cravings tend to be more systemic in nature.
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- Blood sugar fluctuation
- Decreased daylight
- Food intolerance
- Gut flora imbalances
- Lack of sleep
- Nutrient deficiencies
- Too much or too little
- Disconnection from oneself
- Disconnection from that which is bigger than oneself (God, Goddess, nature, etc.)
- Disconnection from one’s purpose and meaning
- Social isolation
Cravings Without the Crash
This sharp shift in cravings is exacerbated by the cultural and market-driven cues to consume more sugar, alcohol, and comfort foods throughout the holiday season. The quick, easy fix inevitably lies in a pumpkin spice latte, muffin, or a bowl of pasta. While these processed choices do supply a significant and quick surge of tryptophan to boost serotonin production, they also come with sharp spikes in blood sugar. This ultimately leads to an energy crash, followed by a declining mood driven by low blood sugar, which then creates more cravings. It’s a roller coaster many people struggle with in autumn.
Additionally, lifestyle choices that are at odds with the season can have a significant impact on the severity of our cravings. In winter months, activity in nature slows down: Plant growth slows or stops, animals hibernate, and reproduction grinds to a halt in most species. Prior to the introduction of artificial light, human activity also decreased significantly. However, the cultural norm during winter today is to defy the darkness by filling cities with strings of lights. Instead of resting, we consume loads of caffeine and sugar. We act in defiance of nature and fill our schedules with multiple events throughout the holiday season, stress over expectations of holiday meals and gifts, and give ourselves less time to rest and relax during the time of year when nature promotes the opportunity for a break.
Even if our obligations don’t allow us to rest more from October to February, we can be more conscious about our choices during the darker months. Getting to bed a little earlier and being more selective about how often and to what degree we enjoy seasonal commitments can make significant difference in our food cravings. Additionally, stepping outside daily — especially on sunny days — can boost the body’s ability to produce serotonin in winter months. Exercising outside in daylight hours compounds that effect further, because exercise has the ability to boost serotonin production as well.
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Regulating blood sugar levels, exercising, adjusting sleep patterns, and addressing nutrient deficiencies work together to eliminate food cravings. However, building these habits takes time, and addressing the immediate craving combined with supportive lifestyle changes is the key to success.
Just as all carbohydrates aren’t created equal, neither are all cravings. While some cravings are generic and can be satisfied through several food choices, other cravings are very specific. A chocolate craving can’t be satisfied by red licorice, even though both are considered sweet. When making substitutions, pinpointing the type of craving at play — crunchy or creamy, salty or sweet, chewy or smooth — allows you to dial in an appropriate substitute.
The first step to breaking that holiday carb-fat-sugar cycle is switching the type of carbohydrates you eat. Carbohydrate-rich foods that are unprocessed and rich in vitamins, fiber, and antioxidants supply the body with nourishment and sought-after tryptophan while reducing the spike and crash brought on by sugar, refined white flour, and alcohol. Denying the craving through willpower, guilt, and self-admonishment rarely works long term and can worsen existing seasonal affective disorder. Eating healthier carbohydrates that address precise cravings satisfies your craving while working on underlying troubles that may be at the root of these cravings, such as blood sugar imbalances, insufficient sleep, vitamin deficiencies, and poor gut health.
Whole grains, potatoes with skins, yams, parsnips, carrots, and other starchy vegetables can help quell strong seasonal cravings. Roasting root vegetables and winter squash caramelizes the starches and heightens their natural sweetness. The fiber in these vegetables also slows down absorption of the starches, preventing the spike and crash in blood sugar levels. Substitute beans (a slow-burning carbohydrate), in baked goods such as brownies, for sweet treats that are easier on the body.
Once you address the physical root of cravings, your mind is more equipped to tackle emotional and spiritual roots to food cravings. Working through relationship or career struggles, trauma, or grief, and reconnecting to what gives life meaning is easier and more effective when the body isn’t under the stressors of sleep deprivation and erratic blood sugar levels. Any cravings that remain after you resolve physical causes are likely to be emotional or possibly spiritual in nature. If you find this is the case for you, cravings that aren’t satisfied by good food substitutions may be best addressed and transformed through supportive communities and practitioners focused on these areas.
We must eat to live. But we must also eat well to live well, and attending to our food cravings is a first step to healing and improving our relationship with food.
Aimee Gallo is a licensed sports nutritionist and holistic health coach. She’s the founder of VIBRANCE Nutrition and Fitness. Find out more at Vibrance Nutrition.