There are a few reasons we crave starchy, creamy bowls of deliciousness in wintertime.
The obvious one is that the colder weather drives an appetite for warm food to help bring up body temperature. During colder weather, particularly if you spend a lot of time outdoors or are in a house with inadequate heating, you are going to burn through more energy to help maintain your core temperature (aka “shivering”).
Despite how uncomfortable it can feel to be cold, this is actually really good for our metabolism; shivering activates a hormone called irisin, which is responsible for converting our white adipose tissue into a more metabolically active brown adipose tissue, meaning we burn more energy overall, which can be a good thing.
However, we also burn through more energy, including the body’s own carbohydrate stores (liver and muscle glycogen), for which we have a limited storage capacity. When running low on these, most people will crave carbohydrate-type foods to help replenish. And while there is nothing wrong with the occasional hearty pasta, pie or fruit crumble with cream on a cooler winter night, if you find yourself diving into these on a too-frequent basis, it may impact negatively on your overall health goals.
A good way to combat this is to rely on meals that are little to no effort, can be prepared the night before and slow-cooked over several hours to be ready when you get in the door at the end of the day. Team these with a mash made by combining kumara or potato with cauliflower, swede or broccoli for the creamy comforts of a mash without the stodge.
SAD (seasonal affective disorder)
While it might be the cold that can change your food preferences, for some people the time of year affects their mood and, in turn, increases their desire for something more comforting. It’s estimated that 4-6 per cent of people suffer from seasonal affective disorder (the winter blues) and around 10-20 per cent of people have a more mild form, with women more likely to be affected than men.
The clinical symptoms people experience when the days shorten is slowing-down, having a hard time waking up in the morning, a reduction in overall energy and concentration across the day. They also crave more sugar, starches and comfort foods, and this cluster of symptoms can last for as long as the winter months do until the days become longer again.
There are genes which predispose people to be more at risk than others, and research has found that people who suffer from SAD have extended night-time melatonin production — this can disrupt a normal circadian rhythm that affects (among other things) all of our hormones, partially explaining the drive for comfort-style foods during winter.
For people who are in this camp, light therapy (or natural light exposure) is extremely effective at resetting circadian rhythm, and getting out into the natural light as soon as you wake (or having a high-intensity lamp for dark winter mornings) is key for this.
Vitamin B6 is important in the process of serotonin production (one of our “feel good” hormones) and while we can take supplements, the body usually absorbs vitamins better from food sources. Foods rich in vitamin B6 include poultry, salmon, shrimp, beef liver, dairy products like milk and cheese, lentils, beans, spinach, carrots, brown rice and sunflower seeds.
These foods are also rich in an amino acid which is also a serotonin precursor, tryptophan. Ensuring an adequate amount of these foods in the diet over winter, combined with getting out into natural light and (for some) investigating light therapy, will all be effective at reducing symptoms associated with SAD.
Not all comfort foods are laden with starch, fat, sugar and stodge, and when salad leaves you feeling cold, soup can be a great standby. However, most people team this with a couple of pieces of toast and little else. Again, once in a while this is no major, the danger here is that blood sugar levels will tumble after lunch, so instead of a productive afternoon of work, you’ll be wanting to slip underneath your desk for a short kip.
If you do choose the soup option, opt for one that is free of a lot of additives, vegetable oils and preservatives and add some additional protein to the mix: leftover sausages or meatballs, sliced hard-boiled egg or grab a couple of roasted chicken drumsticks if you are picking up some soup on the run from your supermarket. Your energy levels and subsequent afternoon appetite will thank you.
Here are some of my favourite vegetable bowls that I like to throw together that provide fat, protein and (obviously) an abundance of the good green (and orange and white) stuff. Some of these are prepared in advance, some can be done on the go at work. Having some supplies at work to spice up your lunch is a good way to alleviate food boredom and the call of the cafe downstairs. Olive oil, salt and pepper, a good quality spice mix or lemon pepper will help.
Warm vege goodness bowls
Brussels & bacon
Cook 2 rashers bacon until crisp, then roughly chop. Stir-fry 2 cups brussels sprouts (chopped in half) in 2 tsp coconut oil. Add a cajun-type seasoning. Take off heat. Add bacon bits. Top with leftover shredded chicken or two hard-boiled eggs, sliced.
Sesame spinach with salmon
Pan-fry a large bunch of chopped spinach in 2 tsp coconut oil until wilted. Sprinkle with ½ tsp sesame oil and 1 tsp tamari sauce and mix through a large can of salmon or tuna. Top with 2 Tbsp lightly toasted sesame seeds.
Broccoli & cashew
Blend together a medium head of broccoli with 1 cup stock or broth (such as Campbell’s or Best Bones' broth) and ¼ cup cashews. Pour into a small pot and simmer until hot. Remove from heat and top with a protein (hard-boiled egg, shredded chicken, etc) and 1 Tbsp lightly toasted sunflower seeds.
Basil & coconut veges with salmon
Steam 2-3 cups chopped winter vegetables in a microwave until just cooked. Mix through 2 Tbsp coconut cream and 1-2 tsp basil pesto. Add a large can of salmon and sprinkle with 1-2 Tbsp lightly toasted pumpkin seeds.
Roast vege salad
Heat up leftover roast vegetables and mix through baby spinach leaves, 1 Tbsp salad dressing (I use a cashew dressing), ¼ cup tamari almonds and a couple of hard-boiled eggs, sliced.
Cauliflower rice risotto
Whizz some raw cauliflower and broccoli in a food processor to create “rice” and pan-fry it in coconut oil. Add 1 cup raw prawns, ½ cup peas, a bunch of spinach and ½ cup stock. Stir to cook and for the “rice” to absorb the stock. Top with grated parmesan or nutritional yeast flakes to serve.
Through her subscription service of meal plans and nutritional support, nutritionist Mikki Williden helps people manage their diets in an interesting way, at a low cost. Find out more at mikkiwilliden.com.