Comfort Food Cravings
Why Do We Have Them, and What Can We Do About Them?
Well, it’s that time of year. The kids are back in school, the nights are a little cooler, and Halloween decorations are appearing in department stores. Fall is knocking on the door and for many this is more than welcome after the heat and humidity of summer. But if Fall’s knocking on the door, Winter’s just put on her blinker and is pulling into the driveway. And with winter comes, for many, the craving for foods known as “comfort foods.” Why do we crave certain foods during the winter? Is it “all in our heads” or is there some physiological basis for these cravings? If you’ve ever experienced a food craving, you know it’s not all in your head. Some of it might be, but there are also physical reasons we absolutely have to have a piece of chocolate cake or a bag of potato chips. So why do we crave foods? There are a number of reasons:
- Sometimes we simply crave the things we can’t have. So if our number one New Year’s Resolution is to lose those 20 pounds, we may find ourselves craving the things we’ve stopped eating like sweets and high carb foods, simply because we know we can’t have them.
- In some cases, food cravings may be an attempt to self-medicate. In the winter we tend to stay indoors more, limiting our exposure to the cold but also to sunlight. The days are shorter, having the same effect. For many, this time of year can be difficult due to the condition known as S.A.D., Seasonal Affective Disorder. The lack of sunshine can cause or worsen depression, and the foods we typically crave at this time of year are foods that trigger a temporary increase in serotonin, the hormone linked to mood and depression.
- Many of us also crave certain foods as a response to stress. There aren’t too many more stressful times of the year than the holidays. And that stress isn’t just a bad day’s worth of stress. It can be a couple of months’ worth of stress. Chronic stress can cause food cravings due to our body’s need for high energy (sweet, high carb, high in fat), foods to keep going.
- Even if we crave certain foods year round, we may find ourselves craving them more during the winter. This could be a throwback to the days when we stocked up to survive the winters. It could also be a response to the fact that before the days of hothouses and refrigerators, certain foods were not readily available during the winter. Wanting what we couldn’t have.
While many of our cravings have a legitimate physical basis, there’s also no denying that comfort foods have a positive effect on our psyche. The ice cream after the breakup. The bowl of tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwich for lunch after a rough morning. The macaroni and cheese, well, any excuse for macaroni and cheese will do, won’t it? These cravings probably have their foundation in our emotions. Most likely, we reach for a food that brings back good memories to help us through a bad day. Things like ice cream (birthday parties, rewards for good grades,etc.), cookies (fond memories of baking with Mom), apple pie (the smell of Grandma’s kitchen)…you get the idea. My latest craving is ice cream. Brings back memories of my Dad, who considered ice cream one of the five major food groups.
So yes, food cravings are for real. But unfortunately, they aren’t for real really good for us. Not in the long run, anyway. The foods we typically crave are sweet, starchy, or heavy in fat. Things that we need in small doses. That whole pint of ice cream, though, maybe isn’t such a good idea. So what can we do instead? Here are a couple of suggestions:
- Find a different way to deal with stress. Now I know that’s much more easily said than done. But an exercise program or a new hobby can go a long way towards fighting off the stressful situation related cravings.
- If the holidays create much of your stress, try to eliminate some of the stressors. Let someone else cook the turkey this year. Start shopping a little earlier. Support some local smaller shops to avoid the mega-malls and all that traffic. Ask the kids to help clean the house before the company arrives. Don’t feel you have to do it all, or do it perfectly.
- Divert your attention. In other words, stop thinking about the food you’re craving. Come up with something to do that requires you to focus on something else. Take up crossword puzzles. Read a good book. Play solitaire on your computer. Anything that takes your mind off the food will help.
- Try to get more sunshine during the winter. Even a short walk can be helpful. Take the dog for a longer or extra walk. Park across the parking lot instead of in the closest spot you can find.
- Try substituting a healthier alternative. Sweet potatoes rather than chips. Dark chocolate instead of milk chocolate. Replace the ice cream with Greek yogurt (my Dad’s rolling over in his grave right now – sorry Dad).
I don’t think we’ll ever be rid of food cravings, especially the emotionally based ones. And with winter coming we’re getting into a time of year that, between the holidays and the lack of sunlight, can be very difficult for many of us. But we can control them so they aren’t making us fat and creating a vicious cycle of physical issues that create more stress which leads to comfort food cravings which make us fat and unhealthy which stresses us out and makes us crave chocolate cake and ice cream…
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