Eat to Beat the Winter Blues - and Still Lose Weight!
By Dietitian, Juliette Kellow BSc RD
After another wet, miserable summer with picnics rained off, barbecues cooked in the kitchen and day after day of grey skies, chances are as the dark nights and colder days set in, so too will the winter blues.
Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder
According to the Mental Health Foundation, one person in 100 suffers from Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD, a form of depression that tends to occur from September to April.
Symptoms include low energy levels, extreme tiredness and sleepiness, a lack of concentration, apathy, irritability, anxiety, a loss of libido, mood changes and a weakened immune system so there’s a greater chance of catching colds and flu.
And it’s not good news for anyone who’s trying to lose weight, either. SAD typically causes carb cravings, so that we overeat and then weight gain.
Seasonal Affective Disorder
Even though we might not have full-blown SAD, it’s estimated that many millions of us suffer from a milder version of the condition called subsyndromal SAD or the ‘winter blues’.
In fact, according to one survey carried out earlier this year, around half of all Brits say the winter months leave them feeling depressed, miserable and turning to comfort food to cheer themselves up.
Imbalance of Chemicals Cause Seasonal Depression
There are several theories to explain the symptoms of SAD. One of the most popular suggests that problems occur because of the lack of daylight our bodies get in the winter months. It’s thought the amount of light that enters the eye affects certain hormones and chemicals in the hypothalamus of the brain.
When less light enters the eye – as is the case with shorter, darker days – imbalances in these hormones and chemicals occur. And it perhaps comes as no surprise to discover that it’s the hormones and chemicals that typically influence our mood, sleep, appetite and libido that are the most affected!
Lack of Light Gets Us Depressed
Scientists believe that sufferers of SAD may produce more of the hormone, melatonin. This hormone, which helps to regulate our sleep and wake patterns, appears to be affected by levels of light. Generally, when there’s plenty of light, the production of melatonin is reduced, helping us to wake up.
In contrast, when there’s less light, melatonin production is increased, helping us to sleep. It’s thought that people with SAD are particularly sensitive to low light levels and respond by producing more melatonin, resulting in sleepiness, lethargy and difficulty in waking up.
Serotonin And Winter Blues
Many experts believe that low levels of a brain chemical called serotonin may have an important part to play in the winter blues. In particular, serotonin affects our sleep, mood and appetite centres, so when levels are low we’re more likely to feel tired, depressed and hungry. Indeed, research has found that sufferers of SAD have lower levels of serotonin in the winter months.
Eat to Beat Winter Blues
There’s good news for food lovers though. Because whilst experts agree that some of the main treatments for SAD include light therapy, medication and counselling, what we eat can also help to ease the symptoms of the winter blues. And better still, if we choose sensibly, it doesn’t mean we’ll end up piling on the pounds either.
Eat Regularly to Beat SAD
When it comes to beating the winter blues, it’s important to eat regularly. You’ve undoubtedly heard it many times before, but skipping meals will result in low blood sugar levels, which in turn will leave you feeling tired, irritable, lacking in concentration, and above all, extremely hungry.
By the time you reach this stage, you can forget a nice healthy bowl of cereal or wholegrain sandwich. Chances are, all you’ll want is a doughnut, bar of chocolate or enormous muffin to give you a quick energy boost to restore your blood sugar levels back to normal. And in the winter, when the weather is cold, you can hide your body under baggy jumpers, so you may find it far easier to justify why it’s okay to eat these foods.
What to Eat to Beat the Winter Blues
There’s plenty you can eat to boost levels of serotonin in the brain. Remember, this ‘feel-good’ chemical affects the part of the brain that regulates mood, appetite and sleep, so boosting levels means you’re less likely to feel miserable, overeat or have trouble sleeping.
Starchy carbohydrates such as wholegrain bread and cereals, porridge, brown rice, wholewheat pasta and fruit and veg all help to indirectly lift levels of serotonin. Exactly how they work to boost serotonin is complicated. In simple terms, eating carb-rich foods triggers the release of insulin, which in turn helps an amino acid (protein building block) called tryptophan enter the brain, where it’s used to make serotonin.
Many protein-rich foods such as beef, chicken, turkey, fish, eggs, cheese, nuts and seeds are also naturally rich in tryptophan and so eating these foods can help to increase brain levels of serotonin.
Vitamin B6 is needed to help convert tryptophan into serotonin, so it makes sense to eat plenty of foods rich in this nutrient such as fish, pork, eggs, brown rice, soya beans, oats, wholegrains, peanuts, walnuts, avocado and bananas.
Don’t let the winter blues take control. Use the WLR Food and Exercise Diaries to help you reach your weight loss goals. Try them free for 24 hours!
www.mentalhealth.org.uk - A charity improving the lives of those with mental health problems or learning disabilities.
www.sada.org.uk - The world's longest established support organisation for Seasonal Affective Disorder.