It’s cold out there! All of a sudden, it feels like, winter is upon us. And with that comes the urge to head inside and hibernate somewhere warm and cosy.
We also crave different foods in winter. I don’t know about you, but I lose my interest in crisp, cold salads around about now, and it doesn’t really return until spring rolls around. What I want now are warm, comforting foods; foods that make me feel satisfied and warm inside, as well as out. I want hearty, I want starchy. These are the foods that make me feel good right now.
As it turns out, this is not just a psychological craving. There’s increasing evidence linking what we eat with mental wellbeing.
The most recent study to catch my eye was one published in the journal Social Science and Medicine looking at the relationship between fruit and vegetable consumption and wellbeing. The researchers looked at data from 50,000 people in the UK, and found a direct relationship between fruit and vegetable consumption and better mental health: the more, and the more often we eat veges and fruit, the more our mental wellbeing increases.
The researchers here found wellbeing rose in what they called a ‘dose-response way’ with both the number of portions of fruits and vegetables consumed, and the number of days in a week people ate either fruits or vegetables. In other words: the more plants people ate, the better they felt.
There are several theories about why this might be. One of my favourites is to do with carbohydrates. Studies have found links between the ingestion of carbohydrate-rich foods – think starchy veges like potatoes – and increased concentrations of brain serotonin, which leads to a more positive mood. Our serotonin receptors are located mostly in the gut, and when we consider that quality carbohydrates are great food for our gut bacteria, this makes sense.
One interesting study had subjects keep food diaries and mood journals, and found that on the days when more carbohydrates were consumed, mood was better and people felt more energetic. The effect built over time: the more carbohydrate consumed over the week, the happier the person tended to be.
We know, of course, that there’s a difference between different types of carbohydrates. A pancake is not the same as a potato; a lollipop is not the same as a lentil. Whole-food sources of carbohydrate – like potatoes – are far better for us than refined, processed carbs, which by contrast have been found to have a negative effect on mood.
It’s also thought vitamins and minerals in food affect mood. The antioxidant properties of vitamin C, for example, have been shown to help manage the body’s level of oxidative stress and lower inflammatory markers, which have been associated with the onset of depressive mood. It’s worth noting Kiwis get a fair chunk of their vitamin C from potatoes.
So what does this mean when we’re thinking of putting the dinner on of a winter’s evening?
It means adapting the way we eat all year to the season. It’s still half a plate of colourful veges – all those non-starchy ones which are also great for our mental and physical health – and a quarter of the plate for some quality protein. And we should celebrate the place of the carbohydrate – that last quarter of the meal – on our winter plate. Whether it’s a good old-fashioned baked potato (leaving the skin on means more vitamins and fibre) or some tasty roasties, that carb is going to do you good.
*Niki Bezzant is a food and nutrition writer and speaker. See www.nikibezzant.com