Dinner's here! [Wild Turkey. CREDIT: WIKIPEDIA]
With lumps of buttery mashed potatoes, steaming hunks of thick turkey, and slabs of hearty pumpkin pie, many of us used Thanksgiving to kick off a holiday season full of steaming, rich cuisine. But why is it that we reach for heavy warm foods when the weather gets colder? Is it custom and habit, or is something more at work?
In a 1998 issue of Vegetarian Times, Lisa Turner explains that substantial foods, which are often high in calories and fat, break down more slowly in the digestive tract, releasing a steady flow of energy to the body and raising internal body temperature. High calorie, fatty foods are the only thing that gets some of our fellow mammals through the winter: bears transform such foods into thick insulation so that they can sleep through the winter, and other animals, like squirrels, use the energy to survive the cold winter months.
Though it may be surprising, the colorful vegetables which decorate winter’s colorful tables are dense themselves. The prominence of these hearty vegetables, from pumpkins to beets to acorn squash, which ripen just in time to take the place of summer’s fresh tomatoes, zucchini and lettuce, is another reason winter fare tends to be denser. Unfortunately for humans, winter often means enjoying less physical activity outside in the cold and more cocoa by the radiator, so rather than burning off those extra calories, we get the infamous holiday weight gain. Our mammalian instincts are not the only thing that makes us eat fatty foods in winter: Kate Heyhoe, in her online column Global Gourmet Today, explains that culture drives some wintertime culinary customs.
Chinese tradition identifies winter as a season for rich and hot “yang” foods like beef and chicken, bamboo and mushrooms, and spicy or sour dishes. There may be physiological support for this cultural custom. Chili peppers, which are commonly used in “yang” foods, get their bite from a compound called capsaicin. This compound quickens the body’s metabolism and produces heat, writes Vikki Ortiz for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in Wisconsin.
The ginger and garlic also used in these dishes contain natural antibacterial compounds. Vitamin C and beta carotene – also found in winter vegetables like carrots and broccoli – can stimulate the immune system, helping the body fend off winter bugs like the flu and sinus infections.
All these things—including tradition and familiarity—affect our preferences for down-home, winter comfort food, but when a comfort food becomes a lifeline, there may be more going on than cherished memories and mammalian instincts. When coupled with depression, fatigue, or withdrawal from society, excessive cravings for high-carb, high-fat foods may be a sign of winter Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD.
Winter SAD may be caused by lack of sunlight, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians web site. The symptoms may be eased by extra light exposure. If more time spent outside or by a window is not enough, a doctor may recommend use of a light box, but not tanning beds which contain harmful UV light that ages and burns skin. The symptoms usually stop naturally in the springtime, as sunlight increases and creamy casseroles give way to crisp salads.
Our seasonal culinary desires have their roots in biochemistry and instincts, in seasonal availability and in cultural or family traditions. From Grandma’s herb-roasted turkey to Aunt Beverly’s sweet potato bake, we have many reasons to reach for rich heavy comfort foods as the wind turns chilly.
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