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Winter is coming...and it’s making you Hungry.

It’s that time of year when the weather turns cooler, the leaves are turning, the days are shorter - and I am constantly famished!

A month ago I had no problem with skipping a meal or intermittent fasting, but now I am definitely hungrier, and craving starchy, higher calorie foods. At first I wondered if this was just a coincidence, that stress and fatigue was making me reach for the quick energy foods, but I realize that this happens to me every fall season, when I gravitate towards the comfort foods.

I am not alone. A research study showed that people tended to eat an average of 86 more calories per day in the fall and ate more saturated fat in the winter months. (Euro J Clin Nutr 2006) It stands to reason that this is an evolutionary, biological human instinct: the uptick of hunger hormones in order to store more fuel (aka fat) on the body in preparation for the leaner months to come. In the developed world, however, we are fortunate to not have a lack of food in winter, and this instinct tends to do more harm than good to our health and waistlines.

How do our hormones change in winter?

The shorter days and longer nights, lead to a circadian shift, less Vitamin D production, an increase in melatonin (making you sleepier) and decrease in serotonin (which can lead to the winter blues). When feeling fatigued we tend to gravitate towards energy dense, higher calorie foods. Carbohydrate intake increases serotonin levels, which is why we may crave sweets to improve mood. In addition, glucocorticoid stress hormone levels tend to be higher in the wintertime, and there is a complex seasonal variation in ghrelin and leptin (hunger/satiety hormone) release. (Front Neurosci 2013)

If our hormones are working against us this season (when trying to maintain or lose weight) what can we do about it?

1. Acknowledge that this is a real thing and make intentional choices.

Rather than eating all the chips and berating yourself afterwards, pause and thank your hormones for doing it’s job to ensure you will survive the winter, and then make the conscious decision to let your body know that “Thanks, but I won’t starve!”

2. Have awareness of your food and hunger signals.

Keep a simple food journal to keep track of what you’re actually eating. Are you truly hungry when you eat? Or are you eating out of stress, fatigue, or habit?

There’s a fantastic word in Japanese, “Kuchisabishii” which literally means “lonely mouth”. You’re not hungry, you just long to put something in your mouth.

3. Create a new habit, so that when you find yourself staring into the refrigerator or looking through the pantry, instead take a walk around the block, make some tea, or brush your teeth.

4. Try and get some exercise during the day (if before/after work doesn’t work because it’s dark out, try a brisk walk during lunch or take the stairs instead of the elevator) and get some sunlight while it’s out there to help boost your Vitamin D.

5. Fill up on the healthy, feel good, comfort foods.

  • Make sure you’re staying hydrated, as we tend to drink less water in cooler weather - (I fill my glass water bottle with hot water from the dispenser every morning), hot teas are also filling and comforting.

  • Increase your lean proteins (beans, nuts, seeds, good quality eggs, salmon)

  • Soups, so many different soups.

  • Roasted seasonal veggies.

  • Cruciferous veggies (broccoli, brussels sprouts), pumpkins, squashes, sweet potatoes

  • Apples and pears

  • Citrus fruits (mandarin oranges)

  • Steel cut oats

  • A square of dark chocolate (with a schmear of nut butter)

Enjoy the seasonal offerings - Autumn is the time for harvest, and Winter a time for celebration and gatherings. Human connection with family and friends will help to lower stress hormones and just be mindful of what and how much you eat. So fully enjoy that slice of pumpkin pie (but you don’t need that AND the chocolate cake AND the double helping of stuffing). You will feel so much better and enjoy yourself more when you’re not over-stuffed but feeling nourished and energized.

The information provided here is meant for general informational purposes only and is not intended to be nor should be construed as medical advice.

If you would like to achieve your best health and mindset, I invite you to come and work with me. Follow me on social media @Dr Minako for more health tips. If you are a cancer fighter or survivor and are interested in immunotherapy, come visit us at the Tokyo Cancer Clinic.

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