Fall is here and the cooler days and nights that go with it make it feel like it’s time to trade in summer salads for heartier comfort foods like soups and stews. That got us wondering: Is there a reason cold-weather months have us craving heavier comfort foods, while in the summer we tend to choose lighter-feeling foods like salads and grilled options? We brought our question to the nutrition experts at Tahoe Forest Hospital and were happy to learn that there really is something to it. Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Dana Dose was kind enough to enlighten us.

Why do we crave heartier sustenance during colder seasons, like fall and winter, and lighter fare during warmer times, like spring and summer?

Reasons for this vary from physiological and biological explanations to environmental and situational ones. I believe it’s a multi-factorial issue. Hormone fluctuations cause increased hunger — maybe due to an age-old “need” to have an extra layer of fat to keep warm during the winter (which is no longer an issue for most humans). Another physiological factor could be that during the winter, there is less opportunity for the sunlight to promote release of serotonin, which enhances mood. Carbohydrate intake leads to this same release of serotonin; thus, we may crave carbs as a way to improve mood in the absence of as much sunlight. Plus, heavier foods tend to have a more comforting feel. When it’s cold and dark outside, a thick and hot meal feels like a warm hug.

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Do our nutritional needs change with the seasons? And if so, why?

Yes! Our needs change through the seasons, which is why it’s recommended to eat seasonal fruits and vegetables. It just so happens that they often provide just what our bodies need at exactly the right time. One example is all the delicious citrus fruits that come into season during the winter. They’re packed with Vitamin C, and right on time to help our immune systems perk up when we need it most. Also, in the Truckee/Tahoe region, our Vitamin D needs increase during the winter, simply because we aren’t getting enough from the sun any longer. Focusing on foods that are high in Vitamin D, and sometime supplementing, is necessary during winter months. Fluid needs will go up during your most active season as well. 

Is this something innate that goes way back in time to the earliest civilizations when we didn’t have all the luxuries that modern society offers us and we had to prepare our bodies for the coming winter by putting on fat stores? (Similar to the way animals look for food before winter?)

Maybe! Some research points to this being a reason we crave extra calories and fat during the winter months. Other scientists have found that environmental factors are more impactful. The winter months just happen to be when holidays take place, jam-packed into a few months’ time. Oftentimes, traditional holiday meals bring extra calories from heavy sauces, fatty meats, sugar-laden desserts, and alcohol. More opportunities to indulge result in more calories consumed.

Any recommendations for eating heartily but healthfully?

Hearty meals don’t have to bring extra calories. Here are some ideas to enjoy comforting, warm, satisfying food while keeping meals balanced and calorie-conscious:

1. Bean soups – these are thick and hearty, and they lack the extra fat and calories from creamy soups and meat-heavy stews.

2. Substitute any meat protein with fish or a vegetarian option such as tofu or tempeh. These go great in stir-fries and stews. Salmon is a terrific source of Vitamin D and heart-healthy fats to satisfy your body’s fat cravings like a steak dinner would.

3. Enjoy fruit (optionally with up to 1 ounce of dark chocolate) for dessert.

4. Don’t be afraid to barbecue in the winter for an optimal lower-fat cooking method. Put on your winter coat and grill out, snow or shine! If you prefer to stay inside, try an indoor grill-style device that will cook your food while letting the fat drip off proteins and leaving your veggies tasting like summertime. 

5. Remember the veggies! Roasted seasonal root vegetables like beets, parsnips, and rutabaga warm the soul and nourish your body.

~ Dana Dose is a registered dietitian, nutritionist, and certified diabetes educator with a passion for coaching individuals through change to reach their healthiest self, and helping entire communities see their health potential. She has over nine years experience improving health among individuals and populations and holds supportive certifications in personal training, health and wellness coaching, and adult weight management. 

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