Holiday parties are just a fancy cover, and traditional family dinners are simply an excuse. The truth is, all we want to do at this time of year is … eat.
Winter days are shorter and colder, and the sunlight is weak. So is our will, and nothing fills that hole in the psyche like mom's meatloaf and scalloped potatoes. Or a slab of lasagna the size of a brick. Or a serving of spaghetti that would fill a garbage can lid.
Carbs and home cookin' are feel-good foods. They either trigger the release of the feel-good hormone serotonin in the brain or they can bring back memories of happier times, when life was less complicated or sad.
That's one explanation anyway. Or you can go with the one offered by Dr. Ira Ockene of the University of Massachusetts, who calls the uptick in our food consumption in fall and winter "chipmunk behavior," a primitive impulse to store calories for the winter. He theorizes that we are preparing for our own version of hibernation. In my house, that's television and flannel pajamas, down comforters and sleeping late.
Dietitians report that the average weight gain over winter is only about a pound, though it sure seems like more to me. But it is weight we don't take off in the spring and summer, so it accumulates over the years to unhealthy levels. We should actually be losing a little weight as we age.
But New Year's resolutions notwithstanding, it seems impossible to pass up a homemade batch of chocolate chip cookies when the wind is howling outside the kitchen window. Maybe we are simply feeling cozy, and cozy sounds a lot like beef stew with warm, buttery muffins. And if you are feeling gloomy, you just know a salad isn't going to make you feel as good as a piece of cake.
See? There is no escape. There is a hole at the bottom of our appetites the size of a snowman's noggin, and nothing seems to fill it at this time of year. A study out of Atlanta — where it doesn't even get that cold, for heaven's sake — reports that we eat more in winter, and we eat it faster, all in an attempt to stanch the cravings.
The other half of this equation is that we don't exercise as much in winter. Being out in sunlight helps increase those serotonin levels, but so does any kind of activity, including housework. But we don't do much of either in the winter. Why bother, when the afghan on the couch is calling your name?
It is important at this time of year, the experts say, to remember that food is neither good nor bad. It is not the enemy. It is just food. Some of it is better for us, and we should try to eat more of that kind instead of the carbohydrates that spike blood-sugar levels for a little while but send it plummeting after.
We can tweak those comfort food recipes, using chicken stock instead of butter in mashed potatoes, making a hearty vegetable soup instead of that stew. Exercise a little portion control. The television cooking shows offer plenty of such tips.
And we can try to move a little more than we want to move. If you aren't up for snowshoeing or cross-country skiing, you can certainly walk around the mall with a friend for 30 minutes.
These are simple suggestions that can make their own kind of difference in your winter mood — you won't think of yourself as nothing but a pathetic lump.