Hungry as a Bear

As the weather gets colder and fall settles into winter, many people experience an increase in appetite. Once they start eating, they can't seem to stop.  Appetites are out of control. What causes this "hungry as a bear" syndrome?

A days become colder and shorter, nights are longer; you become more exhausted as each holiday passes. Cravings for high-calorie, high carbohydrate foods increase---hot breads, pasta, macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes and gravy. Studies have shown than the average person tends to eat more during the winter months, and gains at least 1-2 pounds. Those who are already overweight or obese tend to gain much more. 

Some believe this winter appetite and body fat gain is similar to bears preparing to hibernate. Many, many years ago, people did need an extra layer of body fat to survive harsh winters and less available foods. These days, not so much.

Most experts think winter food cravings are more about human physiology. As outside temperatures go down, body temperatures also drop. The internal "self-preservation" mode kicks in, creating cravings for high carbohydrate foods. Body feels cold; brain says carbs. These starches and sugars burn quickly, increase blood sugar, and you feel warmer. Unfortunately, as blood sugar zips up and subsequently crashes, it sets off the urge to reach for more of these carbs again and again...creating a vicious surge/crash/eat cycle. 

Short days and long nights create a lack of light affecting 6% of the population with seasonal affective disorder or SAD. Studies have shown that people with SAD tend to have lower blood levels of serotonin and have higher intakes of foods rich in carbohydrates which increase the level of serotonin in the brain. Self-medicating with carbs.

Nasty weather conditions and less light make exercising outdoors less enticing. Without indoor alternatives, many people are less active in the winter months. Less exercise, lowers the level of endorphins and serotonin in the brain; carb cravings increase. To avoid the move less, eat more, weigh more trap, be sure to decide now what your cold-weather alternative exercises will be.

And all the holidays don't help: Halloween to Thanksgiving to Christmas to Hanukkah: candy, potatoes, bread, pie, cookies, and more candy. These comfort foods and seasonal favorites supply readily available carbs provide a quick fix of serotonin and calories, feeding that ongoing vicious surge/crash/eat carb cycle.

How do you calm the hungry bear? 

  • The biggest key is to keep your blood sugar levels steady. Consume regular small meals and healthy snacks, eating 5 - 6 times each day.
  • Be sure to include lean protein, high fiber, and healthy fat which digest more slowly and provide a more lasting supply of energy. A good snack would be peanut butter on half a whole wheat English muffin or low fat cheese stick and a whole grain cracker. These frequent healthy mini-meals increase the internal furnace, keeping your warmer.
  • Lighten up your favorite high carb comfort foods. Whole grain pasta, lowfat milk and cheese make your mac and cheese healthier. Whip up mashed potatoes with non-fat milk or a little chicken broth without the fat. 
  • Staying warmer actually helps squelch those carb cravings! Wear warm socks and clothing to stay warm when the outdoor temps drop. 
  • Clear the counters and keep high carb snack foods covered and out of sight. 
  • Exercise; stay active.
  • Laugh. Watching a favorite comedy show or reading a funny story zips up serotonin.
  • Pet your dog or cat---it's also been shown to increase serotonin.
  • Give someone special a hug! Hugs are calorie-free and serotonin stimulating.