As the temperatures dip, our desire for the sweet stuff soars. We find out why this happens and how we can suppress these urges. It’s staring at you, beckoning you with its soft, crumbly sponge and luscious folds of whipped buttercream. One look is enough to kick-start your salivary glands, and before you know it, you’ve inhaled the entire slice. So what is it about that piece of cake that we find so hard to resist? And why do we find it particularly difficult to curb these sugary cravings during the winter months? Scientists suggest tiredness, our hormones and even the sunshine (or lack of it!) could be to blame. It’s time we took a closer look at why we get winter sugar cravings and how to curb them
What is a craving?
‘Food cravings are intense and specific,’ says Hannah. ‘They are strong urges for a particular food that are hard to resist, and often associated with feelings of guilt once the food is eaten.’
LOW ENERGY LEVELS
The colder winter months are often associated with tiredness and lethargy. In nature, winter is definitely a time for snoozing – after all, if you were a bear, a bat or even a bee, you’d be hibernating at this time of year.
For us humans, as the days become shorter, our sleep-wake cycles become disrupted. The lack of sunlight means that our brain produces more of the hormone melatonin, which makes us sleepy. But what does this have to do with coveting that pack of biscuits? Well, according to Hannah Braye, nutrition therapist at Bio-Kult, we often crave sugar when we’re tired: ‘Sugar (glucose) is used preferentially by the body and brain as a quick source of energy. This could be why we have the urge to reach for refined carbohydrates and sugary foods when we feel tired and sluggish.’
Unfortunately, this can lead to blood- sugar crashes, making tiredness even worse and potentially perpetuating the sugar-crave cycle. But fatigue isn’t the only thing we have to contend with in winter.
Keeping these guys content is a full- time job. Having just a slight hormonal imbalance can put our whole body out of whack. Serotonin – a hormone known to stabilise our mood and boost feelings of well-being and happiness – can be sensitive to the seasons, with levels dropping in winter. So how do falling serotonin levels lead to cravings? There’s a strong link between carbohydrate cravings and mood. ‘Many people report an increase in positive mood shortly after eating a carbohydrate-rich meal,’ says Hannah. This is because simple carbohydrates and sugars can increase our serotonin levels. While serotonin is made in the brain from the amino acid tryptophan, carbs are crucial in helping this process along. They cause the release of insulin, removing all amino acids – except tryptophan – from our blood. That means tryptophan has no competition and can enter our brain, upping serotonin levels. Clever! We’re essentially self-medicating with sugar to make us feel happier. ‘This could explain why people tend to reach for the snacks at 3 – 5 pm, when serotonin levels are naturally less active,’ adds Hannah.
GIVE US LIGHT!
The reason why serotonin levels drop in winter is a lack of sunlight, caused by cloudy skies and longer evenings. Studies* show our brains produce more serotonin on sunny days than on darker ones. When sunlight enters our eyes, it stimulates parts of our retina that trigger our brain to produce serotonin.
Research** also indicates that vitamin D helps to maintain serotonin concentrations in the brain. In warmer weather, we can get vitamin D from the sun, but from June to August
in SA, UVB rays just aren’t as strong and our levels may drop.
So what can we do to stop us from sneaking in sugary treats at 4 pm?
✣ UP YOUR VITAMIN D INTAKE
During the winter months, many of us are deficient in vitamin D. Take a daily supplement to reach your 10 mcg RDI (recommended daily intake), help boost serotonin levels and lessen those desires.
✣ SNACK ON NUTS
Amino acid tryptophan is crucial in the production of serotonin. ‘Increasing tryptophan-rich foods – such as oats, nuts, seeds, chicken, turkey, beans, lentils and eggs – may help reduce cravings if you’re trying to wean off sugar,’ says Hannah.
✣ BREAK THE HABIT
‘Many of us reach for sugary foods out of habit or for comfort,’ says Hannah. To break these habits, you need to identify your triggers (whether you crumble at tea time
or are prone to late-night snacking). ‘You can then put strategies in place for weak moments,’ she adds.
✣ DRINK UP AND SWITCH IT UP
‘Dehydration is often misinterpreted as hunger or cravings,’ according to Hannah. Drink a glass of water to see if the craving passes. ‘Food cravings can also happen when we’re bored,’ she adds – it’s a way to escape monotony. Whether at home or at work, try and change your activity.
Try Hannah’s quick and easy food switches to help reduce your sugar intake in the winter months.
SWITCH HIGH-SUGAR FOR LOW-SUGAR LABELS
Pay attention to the ‘carbohydrates (of which are sugars)’ label on products. Anything with 5g or less sugar per 100g is considered a low-sugar food.
SWAP SUGAR ALTERNATIVES FOR CINNAMON
Unrefined sugar alternatives, such as maple syrup, coconut sugar, rice syrup and honey, have exactly the same effect on our blood sugar as the white stuff, and are just as addictive. Cinnamon is a natural sugar-free sweetener that can be added to porridge, yoghurt or fruit, and can help balance blood sugars.
REPLACE SUGAR WITH SWEET POTATOES (IN BAKING!)
While these have natural sugars, they’re also packed with fibre and resistant starch – meaning they cause less of a spike in our blood-glucose levels.
EXCHANGE TOMATO SAUCE FOR TABASCO
Condiments and pre-made sauces can be packed with hidden sugars. Try Tabasco, mustard or herbs for added flavour.
Photo by Andres Ayrton