Beating comfort eating

Judith Wills / 20 November 2015

This is a tricky time for anyone trying to lose a few pounds, or even, to avoid putting any on, says our diet expert.

Not only are friends, neighbours and colleagues starting to offer us the odd mince pie or glass of port, but also throughout these dreadfully dreary dark days with endless rain/low cloud, food (and drink!) can seem like a great comfort.

And if one's stuck indoors more because of the dark evenings and bad weather, of course boredom or mild depression can easily lead to the biscuit tin.

Feeling down? Why it’s time to watch out for weight gain

Depression, so we've been told recently* affects 50% of us in the UK and research shows that it's most likely to occur in the winter months.

The cake tin and huge stodgy meals aren't the solution, even though it's the starches that are most often regarded as 'comfort food'. As my friend Jill said to me the other day, “Who on earth turns to a plate of kale when they need cheering up? At the very least, you need some buttery mashed potato, but buttery pastry with lashings of rich sweet filling and some clotted cream on top is even better!”

Why we crave carbs when we feel low

Some research has shown that we crave carbs when we're fed up because they help boost levels of a neurotransmitter called serotonin in our brains, which in turn helps to produce feelings of calm and happiness.

There's little research on how much we need to achieve this effect and it won't work for everyone, anyway. If it does work short-term, long-term those depressive feelings are likely to become worse as you begin to regret the binges when they show round your tum and on the scales.

I know that I was never happier than when I achieved my lowest weight and greatest fitness levels in ages, a few years back. Just having a healthy and strong-feeling body and being slim enough to look okay in my clothes was a fantastic mood booster, for certain.

The real mood-boosting foods

And there are foods other than starchy carbs that can bring mood-boosting benefits, anyway.

There is some evidence that vitamin D3 and omega-3 fats can both help so it may be worth taking a supplement of both especially in the winter months (or, of course, eat more oily fish, which contains both).

Omega 3: the alternatives to salmon

The mineral magnesium (wholegrains, meat, dairy, leafy greens) has been shown to have a relaxing and calming effect, while two of the B vitamins – B12 and folate are often depleted in the body when you're depressed. Greens and pulses are good sources of folate, while B12 is found in animal produce so vegans should take a supplement.

Learn more about magnesium and its effect on your health

Find out more about Vitamin B12 

Learn more about folate

A non-food source of mood-boosting brain chemicals is quite simply, a good brisk walk in the fresh air – even if there's no sun around, the activity still increases feel-good endorphins. And who was it who said there's no such thing as bad weather – only the wrong clothes?

10 surprising mood boosters

Do you need to eat more when it's cold?

Talking of which, I've often been asked by slimmers whether their need for more food in the winter months is due to the cold weather – well, in the olden days our bodies did, apparently, give out signals they needed more food because an extra fat layer helped to protect us from the cold. But today few of us spend our days freezing in our homes, offices or cars, and when we do venture out, we wear plenty of layers.

So those cravings for more food are, sadly, rarely any longer explained by the cold. Unless, of course, you happen to be camping out in the Arctic this winter...

* Survey by The Depression Alliance 2015

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