Sugar is worse for you in the winter…It’s when your mental health takes the biggest hit. Americans indeed eat more salads and raw foods in the summer, but there is another aspect of dietary seasonality that happens at the end of each year: during the holidays, we all eat more pie, cookies, and other baked goods. They’re full of tradition but also can be full of sugar.
During the cold, dark winter months, we get less sunlight, less exercise, and many people experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a mild form of depression. People suffering from SAD start to crave sugary foods to help deal with these winter blahs.
Those with SAD eat more sugar because carbohydrate-rich foods cause blood sugar levels to spike, which raises blood insulin levels. When this happens, the amino acid tryptophan travels up to our brains, where it is converted to serotonin — a hormone that makes us feel happy.
This explains why eating ice cream makes us feel so happy. Ice cream contains plenty of added sugar, plus milk is a natural source of tryptophan. Together, these properties lead to a good release of serotonin to relieve stress and make us feel happy. This form of self-medication makes us feel good in the short-term, but too much sugar will lead to weight gain and other problems.
The Science = Facts
What the Experts Say = insight:
Eating sugar changes your physiology in two ways that increase your risk of depression, says study author Daniel Reis, a clinical psychology graduate student at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. First, it triggers an inflammatory response in the body and brain. Second, it reduces dopamine activity in the brain’s reward centers.
During winter, you’re already more susceptible to depressive symptoms (and therefore, sugar cravings) thanks to the season’s short days and lack of sunlight, among other things, Reis says. When all of these effects are compounded, your risk spikes.
What You Should Do = Action
Limiting your added sugar intake is especially important in the winter. Reis suggests indulging mindfully and capping your intake at no more than two tablespoons per day for women and three for men.