As the temperature starts to drop, the changing season brings on cravings for homemade apple pie, hearty soup, roasted root veggies and all things pumpkin spice. But why are fall and winter foods so often comfort foods?
There could be more to this shift than a simple desire for the familiar. Eating warm food – and warmer meals in general – might offer benefits for health, immunity and even weight loss.
What are “warming foods?”
The concept of warming foods comes from Ayurveda, a holistic approach to medicine and health that originated in India thousands of years ago. Ayurvedic practices purport to bring balance to the body and provide protection against disease. Although very little research has been done on Ayurveda, some of the constellations of symptoms it aims to address correlate with known medical issues, such as circulatory problems, digestive difficulties and hormonal imbalances.
According to Ayurvedic tradition, warming foods improve both circulation and digestion. However, “warming” doesn’t always refer to temperature; instead, it indicates the food has a “potency” that confers certain benefits. Eating these foods is supposed to rid the body of cold and help with problems like chilly hands and feet, low energy and poor digestion.
Are warm foods and hot meals healthier?
But what about foods usually served hot, like soup, stew, chili and curry? When it comes to food temperature, the potential benefits overlap with but don’t always mirror Ayurveda’s claims.
Take digestion, for example. Warm food might be easier on your gut for two reasons:
- Cooking begins breaking food down, effectively jump starting the digestive process
- Hot meals are often eaten more slowly than cold dishes, which can help prevent bloating
Cooking certain foods may also make them more nutritious. Some compounds are more bioavailable after cooking – like the lycopene in tomatoes and the beta carotene in carrots. Cooking also reduces levels of nutrient binding compounds, such as oxalates, to release more vitamins and minerals.
Plus, hot food is just plain satisfying. Have you ever noticed how much more flavorful a bowl of stew smells compared to a bowl of salad? That’s because hot food gives off more aroma molecules, which stimulate your senses and prime your body for digestion.
7 cold weather food options to power you through the seasons
Ready to take advantage of the benefits of hot meals? Add these seven foods to your cold weather menu:
Complex carbohydrates – Whole grains, beans and legumes contain carbs that take much longer to break down and absorb than those found in white flour and sugar. The resulting increased digestion time may help you stay warm.
Bananas – It may sound strange, but plain old bananas are actually temperature regulators! They contain both B vitamins and magnesium, which support thyroid and adrenal function to keep you warm when you’re cold and cool you down when you’re hot.
Winter veggies – Some of the most comforting flavors of winter – think sweet potatoes, squash and pumpkin – are high in antioxidants and good for digestion. Combine them with other warmth boosters to stave off winter’s chill.
Ginger – Whether you sip it in a tea or enjoy it as part of a flavorful Indian dish, ginger can help improve blood floor and enhance heat production in your body. However, it also acts as a diuretic, so be mindful of how much you use.
Chili peppers – Spicing up your food with fresh or dried chili peppers is another tasty way to prompt your body to generate more heat. Just don’t overdo it; if you make yourself sweat, you could wind up cooling down instead of warming up.
Cumin – If chili peppers are too much for you, try cumin instead. It’s not entirely understood why this savory spice warms you up, but since it tastes good and is also beneficial for digestion, it can’t hurt to give it a try.
Soup – The quintessential winter comfort food, soup is just about the best hot meal you can eat. Not only is it the perfect canvas for playing around with combinations of other warming foods, but studies also show it to be particularly satiating, so you feel full with fewer calories.
What about brown fat?
If you’re one of the many people concerned about winter weight gain, brown fat could be one of your best allies. Brown fat, or brown adipose tissue (BAT), is responsible for keeping you warm and usually activates when you’re exposed to cold temperatures.
Does that mean eating hot food shuts off the BAT furnace? No; in fact, eating certain foods can prompt BAT activation and help you maintain a healthy weight throughout the chilly months. Try these additions to your warming winter meals:
- Complex carbohydrates
- Arginine-rich foods, such as peanuts, lentils, chickpeas, pumpkin seeds and whole soy products
- Chili peppers
- Ceylon cinnamon
Note how some of the same foods that work to warm you up also activate brown fat! You may be able to get a small additional boost by swapping your traditional hot chocolate for green tea or matcha, as well.
So, go ahead and enjoy your favorite warming foods this winter. You’ll beat the chill all season long and be ready to welcome spring with better health.