Because in winter, food is a fatal attraction (for a character)


Blame Darwin if you step on the scale at the end of this winter and it tells you you’ve gained weight. In fact, it would (also) be a mistake of evolution if our weight tended to rise as the thermometer dropped. But not only that: it brings the cold, the sadness of gray days… Everything that tempts us to eat in winter. As? What effect do winter foods have on the body and above all on the spirit? And is there anything we should really eat in winter?

Winter, winter and lots of food. If there is a “fat season,” it’s winter. The moment in which our hunger seems to increase and so does the weight. Yunsheng Ma’s team at the University of Massachusetts Medical School followed 593 people aged 20 to 70 in the US to track changes in food, physical activity and weight over the course of a year. She recorded a maximum caloric intake in November (86 kcal per day more than the minimum in May), a collapse in activity in December and a peak in weight in February with a difference of half a kilo. “Average, but maybe underrated. I would say that the variation of 1 kg, at the end of winter even 1.5 kg more is physiological”, comments Enzo Spisni, professor of nutrition physiology at the University of Bologna. «The important thing is that the weight is then lost; it happens naturally, because in the summer we spend more time outside, and thus there is an increase in physical activity even for the most sedentary, and because the heat tends to take away our appetite. However, if the pounds remain from one winter to the next, they become steps towards being overweight.”

In winter, therefore, we move less and tend to think more about food. Cold is just one element in the game. “Hunger increases if our brain ‘detects’ an increase in energy consumption, which happens when we are exposed to the cold and do physical activity,” says Spisni. The cold burns us because we have to maintain our body temperature: at -10°C (in suitable clothing) our basal metabolism, energy consumption at rest, increases by 10%. «The point of lowest energy expenditure for us is around 25 °C: if it is hotter or colder, we spend on activating the thermoregulatory mechanisms», explains Spisni.

“So if I’ve been active in the snow or working outside, I’ll have a bigger appetite.”

Fats and carbohydrates. In nature, the effect of colds on diet is evident. David Raubenheimer (University of Sydney) followed golden rhinos, monkeys living in the cold forests of China. He gave them extra food to see what they were eating freely, and saw that in the winter their energy intake doubled: the extra calories came from carbohydrates and fat, while protein intake was the same. In addition, the added energy corresponded to the energy expended to keep the body warm. The thing is, we’re not Chinese mountain rhinos, and neither are our grandparents. “If we are in an environment with a constant temperature – such as our offices or homes – the energy output does not change,” emphasizes Spisni. “For this reason, the idea that winter is the time to eat fatty foods and meat must be refuted: it was true for our grandparents, who really lived in the cold, in less heated houses and outside, did more activities, were slimmer. and not overfed like us. They would instantly burn food rich in saturated fat in the cold.”

In short, a logger in Lapland or a researcher in Antarctica needs a more robust diet. But us? “No. And there are no specific nutritional needs for winter, but it would be good to eat seasonal vegetables such as cabbage and other cruciferous vegetables: it is an opportunity to increase the intake of anti-cancer substances that these vegetables are rich in. In addition, seasonal vegetables have less pesticide residues : undergoes fewer treatments, which, on the other hand, are necessary for greenhouse crops,” advises Spisni. “Oranges and other citrus fruits can then provide vitamin C: with D being the main vitamin for immune defense. In winter, the concentration of vitamin D in the blood decreases due to insufficient residence in the sun, so it’s good to “go ahead” with vitamin C. take hours; however, with a supplement you have a short peak and the rest is eliminated. One orange in the morning and one in the afternoon provides the recommended daily dose. Herbs also provide vitamin C and are available dried in winter.”

If we are not in the cold, in theory we should no longer be hungry: but psychology overlaps with physiology.

And so, in winter, the desire for “comfort food” sometimes increases: food that comforts us and makes us feel good, associated with childhood or home cooking, often rich in carbohydrates. From spread to mom’s lasagna… «The amount of comfort food we eat depends on how much comfort we need. In winter, there are fewer hours of daylight, we stay indoors more, exercise less and can be more socially isolated: all of these can have a negative impact on mood and make us more likely to focus on comfort food and sugary foods to feel better. that”, explains Rachel Herz, neuroscientist from Brown University (USA) and author of Why We Eat What We Eat (Edt).

Sugars against sadness. “In winter, we can feel more bored: we eat just to do something, and we pay more attention to the stimuli to eat.” Physiological and psychological mechanisms are behind the effect against sadness. “Firstly, foods rich in sugar and fat stimulate the pleasure and reward centers of the brain and lead to the release of substances that immediately make us feel good: the mere fact that we taste the sweet taste before the food is metabolized has this effect,” says Herz. “Secondly, comfort food is often associated with childhood. Its scents take us back to memories and emotions associated with care and comfort, and it makes us feel good. Like a warm hug from a mother.”

Then there are the holiday binges that make us eat. And that winter foods can be more tempting. “If they are hot, in addition to having a nice heat, they release more aroma. The smell of food triggers the mouth to water and the secretion of gastric juices, and the feeling of hunger is partly derived from it. Many winter foods have a pleasant aroma and this increases the desire to eat them. People are more willing to dive into polenta with mushrooms than a salad,” says Spisni. And unfortunately, many winter foods are “rich” in weight. “Summer ones generally have a lower caloric density: they fill our stomachs and fill us up, but they give us fewer calories”. However, evolution seems to be a bit to blame, as we said. According to a study by Andrew Higginson from the University of Exeter (UK), we should have an unconscious urge to eat more in winter.

“We used a computer model to simulate the strategies of thousands of individuals (animals) given varying food availability to determine what the ‘optimal level’ of fat to accumulate is. The model predicts how environmental conditions determine the strategies that evolve,” explains Andrew Higginson. We are not so surprised by the computer’s response. “The best strategy is to accumulate more fat during periods when food availability is uncertain, as an insurance policy in case nothing else is available: for our ancestors, it was cold, with limited resources and increased energy consumption to keep warm”.

However, it must be said that warm winter meals have a pleasant side effect. Herbal teas or soups seem to be able to cheer us up in addition to warming us up (except during the holidays: it’s officially thanks to Santa there). “Some research has shown that holding something warm in our hands warms us emotionally,” explains Rachel Herz. Among them are studies by Lawrence Williams (University of Colorado at Boulder, USA) and John Bargh (Yale University, USA). They had volunteers hold cups of hot or cold coffee and asked them to rate the person’s personality: participants with the hot cup rated them as “warmer,” meaning generous and caring.

Hot soup and altruism. In another experiment, volunteers who held a warm gel pack tended to choose a small gift for a friend rather than for themselves. Scientists believe that the sensation of warmth brings us back to the maternal body warmth we experienced as children: therefore we associate physical warmth with psychological warmth. Furthermore, both “hot” sensations are processed in the same area of ​​the brain, the insular cortex. More examples? At Japan’s Kyushu University, they showed that holding a hot, empty cup made women (this effect was not seen in men) more altruistic towards a person from another community. And a study by Han-Seok Seo (University of Arkansas, USA) showed that after eating hot soup – rather than room temperature – participants reported more positive emotions.

Alcohol won’t warm you up. “Consuming hot drinks or food warms us up physically, which can make us feel more positive and calm for a short time,” explains Rachel Herz.

“However, the effect depends on the person and what they consume: if we drink hot tea or coffee every morning, it is unlikely to affect our mood. But a cup of chocolate calms us down and makes us feel happy: physically because of the heat, mentally because we are indulging in a sweet treat, physiologically because of the sugars and fats.” And speaking of fluids that “warm,” alcohol is not one of them. It dilates the blood vessels, so initially it actually warms our limbs, but then this dilation causes us to lose more heat: if we’re out in the cold, this can increase the risk of hypothermia. A better thermos with herbal tea.


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