Why Do You Feel Hungrier When It's Cold Out? Here's What a Dietitian Has to Say
If you live in a climate with changing seasons, you may have noticed that as the temperature drops, your hunger levels rise. Or, on a chillier-than-normal day, your appetite may feel harder to satiate. Turns out, it's not all in your head. Colder weather does seem to make people feel hungrier, and it's natural to eat heartier meals during the winter or the colder days in any season. Here's what a registered dietitian says about how the cold affects your appetite.
The science on why you might feel hungrier in the winter
"While every person is different, it is common for people to feel hungrier when it's cold out," says Bri Bell, RD, a dietitian based in Toronto. "One of the simplest reasons is that your body needs to use more energy to keep itself warm in colder environments, especially if the cold causes you to shiver." Even if you live in a place that doesn't experience a cold winter season (or if it's just a cold day in another season), the impact of lower-than-normal temps remains consistent.
That said, there's not a ton of evidence to back this up. First, although you do burn some extra calories to keep yourself warm, the amount is negligible, and a 2019 review published in Obesity Reviews states that there's very little research on how cold weather actually affects overall calorie intake in humans. Other studies have found that though short-term exposure to cold temps can increase total energy expenditure, there is significant variability between subjects (meaning it can impact different people differently).
Another potential reason for increased appetite could be how the cold affects your hormones. A 2019 study published in Nutrition & Metabolism found that levels of leptin (the hormone that helps trigger fullness) were higher at warmer temperatures and lower at colder ones. But the research on this topic is less than conclusive. A review published in Frontiers in Neuroscience explains that changing circadian rhythms—the result of fewer hours of light in the winter—can impact circulating levels of many hormones. In particular, levels of leptin and ghrelin (a hormone that makes you feel hungry) fluctuate with the seasons. However, their results suggested that leptin levels actually increased in the winter, while ghrelin levels decreased, contrary to the findings of the 2019 study. More research is needed to clarify the connections among seasons, temperatures and hormone levels, particularly leptin and ghrelin.
Eating can temporarily warm you up
Still, as Bell says, it's very possible that you'll feel hungrier when it's cold out—maybe because of your slightly increased energy demands, or maybe because your body literally warms up after you eat. "The process of eating and digesting food can actually increase our body temperature slightly, so it's natural that our body would signal for us to eat more as a way to keep us warm," Bell says.
This increase in body temperature due to digestion happens no matter what you eat, whether it's a warm soup or a cold salad. But eating or drinking something warm may have a bigger impact.
Carbs might help boost your mood
Another hormonal shift that could be indirectly impacting your hunger levels is a decrease in serotonin levels (a mood-boosting hormone) due to decreased sun exposure in the winter. Luckily, there are a few foods that can help you deal with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) that is commonly seen in the winter, including eggs, fish and whole grains. Because carbohydrates increase our production of serotonin, it's natural to crave more carbs in the winter.
While symptoms of SAD may be more common in the winter months, there are days in every season where we could use something healthy to make us feel better. Fortunately for us, mood-boosting foods like carbs, fish, chocolate and berries can help all year round.
Choose satisfying, nourishing foods to satisfy winter cravings
Instead of trying to fight winter hunger and cravings, lean into them. Bell recommends tuning into your hunger and fullness cues instead of eating mindlessly, in order to give your body what it needs. This strategy aligns with the principles of mindful eating, which we are big fans of here at EatingWell.
One simple tweak that might leave you feeling more satisfied on colder days is to choose warm versions of your go-to foods instead of cold ones. "For example, switch up your regular side salad with some sautéed greens as a side dish instead," Bell says. "You're still eating the similar foods but in a way that will help keep your body temperature up and more satisfied."
Additionally, lean into comfort foods like stews, casseroles, and pasta dishes, choosing recipes that deliver a balance of protein, carbs and fat (which helps with both taste satisfaction and physical satisfaction).
The bottom line
Although you might feel hungrier in the winter, your body doesn't need significantly more food than in warmer months. Also, a colder day in any season might leave your appetite feeling higher than usual. Instead of stressing about increased hunger, honor that hunger with satisfying, nourishing foods. All cold weather is temporary and will leave room for lighter, fresher meals when you can soak up the sun.