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Why do you eat your feelings during winter?

Kate Freeman

My name is Kate Freeman and I sometimes eat my feelings. I do. It happens.

One time I was in such a bad mood, I resorted to cooking chocolate. I know. Not my finest hour.

Emotional eating is a bugger of a bad habit. For those of you struggling with your weight, emotional eating is often the major barrier standing between your current self and one that’s 10kg (or whatever) lighter.

You can know all there is to know about nutrition, but if you’re feeling sad, crappy, stressed or in a ‘bugger it’-style attitude then it’s chocolate, biscuits, cakes, hot chips or generally carb rich and low nutrient meals all the way to guiltsville.

Round and round and round we go, suffering with the same old mental cycle.

Starting a diet on Monday. Messing it up. Throwing in the towel and then eating whatever. Starting the diet again on Monday.

For those of you familiar with this scenario, you’ll know its not a merry-go-round that fills you with joy. Yet you ride it regularly. Emotional eating often happens with comfort food, specifically processed carbohydrates and sugar. Not to mention fatty and salty foods. Chips and aioli anyone? These cravings can often grow as the weather gets cooler.

As I sat curled up on the couch the other night, listening the the wind howl, I just wanted something hot and yummy to eat. Our abnormally warm weather is coming to an end. Winter was being blown in.

My clients often voice concerns about whether they can keep up their healthy eating habits over winter. Carbohydrates and sugar cravings can wreak havoc with healthy eating patterns. Not because they’re inherently bad or evil but because it’s not like you’re craving brown rice or sweet potato. No one ever said: “I binged on four bean mix the other night, it was not pretty.” No, we tend to go looking for highly processed and energy dense, nutrient poor foods that are easy to overeat.

My next sentence does not excuse you from taking responsibility from what you put in your mouth, but there may be a scientific reason as to why you crave carbohydrates during winter! Here’s how:

Changes in the seasons are linked to changes in mood.

In fact, depression and anxiety are actually more common during the winter months. These extreme mood changes are known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Have you ever come across a better acronym? It’s like a dentist called Dr Fang!

Anyway, it’s believed that SAD may be caused by a number of factors, one of those being a lack of vitamin D. Vitamin D is not a true vitamin, in the sense that you have to eat it. The body can make vitamin D itself, but it needs sunlight on the skin to do so. During winter the sun is not as strong, we stay in doors more and if you’re an office worker or cover up most of your skin for cultural reasons you’re at a higher risk of vitamin D deficiency. Deficiency is actually reasonably common in Canberra and worth getting checked with your GP.

So you’re at a higher risk of depression during winter. Interesting. With its direct cause unknown, most likely a very complex blend of psychology and physiology, depression is believed to be an imbalance of neuro-transmitters. In particular, depression is linked to low serotonin (a type of neuro-transmitter) levels.

Eating carbohydrate actually increases the release of serotonin in the brain and improves your mood. Further to this point, lower serotonin levels are also linked to carbohydrate and sugar cravings.

The conclusion: Your sugar cravings are all in your head – both physically and psychologically! OMG!

So what are you supposed to do?

Well, that’s a very good question. Managing emotional eating behaviours, food cravings and poor eating habits can take some work. Often you’re trying to change habits that you’ve been repeating daily for years and years and years. Some of them since childhood.

You’ve got to be prepared to commit to the process of change, which might mean three steps forward, two steps backward and doing that for months and months. Old habits die hard.

Here are some quick tips:

  1. Stay organised. Planning what you’re going to eat is an important part of eating well, especially if you’re busy. Set yourself up for success! I recently launched an eBook on this very topic: The Tale of the Headless Chicken, Healthy Eating for Busy People.
  2. Get good advice. Nutrition advice needs to take into account your food preferences, lifestyle, skills, routine and ability to make it happen as well as be based on good information about nutrient rich foods. Find a practitioner who can get something right just for you!
  3. Learn some skills for managing your thoughts and belief systems. Thoughts lead to feelings and feelings lead to behaviours. Start with our blog post on mindful eating.
  4. Start with whole foods first. We can argue the finer details of nutrition, but they actually don’t really matter. Up your vegetable intake, eat more foods that haven’t changed between the farmer and you. Focus on nourishment and including more nutritious foods, rather than restriction and cutting out ‘bad’ foods. Including more whole foods will naturally decrease your intake of less healthy foods.

Enjoy the next few months of cold weather! You can do it!

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Kate Freeman

Kate Freeman is a Registered Nutritionist and the founder and managing director of The Healthy Eating Hub. Kate’s healthy eating philosophy is all about whole, fresh foods, being realistic about life and creating long term healthy eating habits. She doesn’t believe in detoxes, fad diets or quick fixes. Once you’ve finished working with Kate, you’ll be empowered to feed yourself well for the rest of you life! More about the Author