Will comfort food keep you happy and satisfied this winter? Nutritionist Rob Hobson explains how and why comfort food can improve our mood
There is a lot of evidence to show that what we eat is related to how we feel, but the relationship is sometimes complex.
Many health conditions such as depression, anxiety, insomnia and PMS have also been shown to be affected by mood, and in some cases addressing what you eat can help manage them.
Mood and food can also be considered a two-way street, as either your mood dictates what you eat or what you eat (or don’t eat) affects your mood, which can be the result of insufficient intake of certain nutrients.
What about comfort food?
Comfort food is common in winter as a way for people to try to improve their mood. A recent survey by wellness brand Healthspan found that 23 percent of those surveyed said they turn to comfort food during the winter months to help beat the winter woes.
However, binge eating can lead to weight gain, which can negatively affect mood. The short-term effects of eating typical comfort foods can also make some people feel guilty.
So it might be useful to redefine the meaning of comfort food.
Comfort food should be comforting
‘It’s important to redefine what comfort means because certain foods can make things worse,’ explains Rob Hobson, head of nutrition at Healthspan.
‘Forget sugary food, burgers and take-out as this source of comfort is short-lived and often riddled with guilt. Comfort food should be comforting, which means nurturing and nourishing you with key nutrients that will support your health and well-being.
‘The very spicy flavors and umami are perfect and can be found in bowl foods such as soups, stews, stir-fries, stews and curries’.
READ MORE: 5 recipes for healthy pasta perfect for the weekend
Why do we turn to comfort food in winter?
Evolution might have something to do with this. Before we had housing, heating and other amenities, people had to increase their weight to keep warm.
This survival mechanism may be innate in us and makes us crave foods high in sugar and fat during the winter.
Habit can also play a role as we seek out familiar foods. Nostalgia in certain foods reminds us of childhood, creating feelings of joy.
What role do our hormones play?
Your gut can also play an important role, especially since research has revealed its close connection to the brain. Approximately 95 percent of the body’s serotonin and 50 percent of dopamine are produced in the gut.
These neurotransmitters affect mood and feelings of happiness and well-being; during digestion, complex processes involving the brain release these chemicals.
These chemicals are also released in response to exercise and sunlight, which decline during the winter. During the winter, we can look for certain foods that give us extra encouragement to improve our mood.
To produce serotonin, the body needs the amino acid tryptophan
Low serotonin levels can also occur during winter when there is a lack of sunlight. Low levels of serotonin are also thought to occur during the menstrual cycle, which can cause cravings.
To produce serotonin, the body needs the amino acid tryptophan. Eating carbohydrates can help with this because it stimulates the release of insulin, which attracts other amino acids into the body’s cells, leaving tryptophan a clear path to the brain without any competition. This may be why we crave carbohydrate foods during the colder months.
READ MORE: 5 Easy Grain Bowl Recipes For Comfort Food Without Guilt
How are certain nutrients related to mood?
Several nutrients in the diet are directly linked to mood, which can result in fatigue and exhaustion or increase the risk of disorders such as depression and anxiety.
The primary source of this vitamin is the sun. Research has shown that many of us have low levels during the winter.
Low levels of the ‘sunshine vitamin’ have been linked to seasonal depression, called seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
You can get vitamin D from foods such as eggs, fatty fish and fortified foods
A recent study also found that vitamin D supplementation may help reduce symptoms associated with depression.
You can get vitamin D from foods such as eggs, fatty fish and fortified foods. Mushrooms can also synthesize vitamin D from the sun, and some supermarkets now carry varieties that are rich in this nutrient.
A good strategy is to supplement after the clocks have turned to increase your intake, try Healthspan Vitamin D3 Vegan Blackcurrant Gummies, £8.95.
READ MORE: 6 healthy foods perfect for autumn
B vitamins and magnesium
Both vitamin B complex and magnesium are needed by the body to convert food into energy. These nutrients are also depleted in times of stress, which can lead to mood swings as fatigue and exhaustion begin to set in.
Magnesium is essential if you are under stress, as low levels can also lead to a deficiency, increasing the risk of anxiety. Together, depletion and scarcity create a vicious cycle.
B vitamins are found in many different foods, so a varied diet can ensure your intake. Foods rich in magnesium include nuts, seeds, leafy greens, whole grains, beans and legumes.
READ MORE: 3 Low-Carb Dinner Recipes That Will Really Fill You Up
Food rich in fiber
Low blood sugar can make you feel irritable and unable to concentrate properly, so it is advisable to eat regularly and avoid skipping meals to protect your mood.
What you choose to eat also matters, and to keep your blood sugar levels stable, you should include plenty of fiber in your meals. Fiber helps slow the release of glucose from the food you eat.
The type of food you choose to eat also matters. Switch from processed grains (white) to whole foods such as bread, pasta and rice.
Also, include beans and legumes as they are the richest source of dietary fiber.
READ MORE: Brain food: 7 key nutrients for a healthier brain
Iron is produced by red blood cells responsible for carrying oxygen around the body. Low iron levels can significantly affect your mood by causing extreme fatigue and exhaustion.
In Great Britain, 23 percent of women have too little iron in their diet. You can increase your iron intake by eating red meat, fatty fish, beans, nuts, dark green vegetables and dried fruits.
Planning your diet during the winter months can help you beat the winter blues. There’s nothing wrong with comfort food, but again, think about the kind of food that will bring you true comfort instead of the kind that are more likely to lead to weight gain and guilt.