The Diet Detective: Fall Into Healthy Eating Habits

It's that time of year when it starts to get dark early, the days get cooler--in other words, it's the fall. And something else happens as well--we start eating more.

People show a marked seasonal rhythm with increased total caloric consumption, especially from carbohydrates, in the fall, associated with an increase in meal size and a greater rate of eating. (Interestingly, alcohol intake has a different seasonal pattern, with the highest intake occurring in the summer and the lowest in the fall.)

According to John de Castro, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas, El Paso, "We have a tendency to eat about 200 calories more per day during the fall." What does that translate to in terms of potential weight gain? As much as three to four pounds a year. "We tend to blame much of this 'fall' weight gain on the holidays; however, there are other causes," says de Castro, who excluded the holiday periods from his research.

Why We Eat More

Why do we eat more in the fall? More than likely, it's biological--putting on weight in preparation for the potential winter famine our ancestors faced. "It all makes sense--the fall harvest, storing up for the long winter months," explains de Castro. Historically, we have a tendency to eat when food is plentiful, because we never knew when our next meal was going to be available.

Kurt Krauchi, a scientist at the Psychiatric University Clinic in Basel, Switzerland, studied patients with seasonal affective disorder (a type of mood disorder that is caused by lack of light). He found that they ate more carbohydrates, particularly sweets but also starch-rich foods, during their depression in winter, and that their intake could be reduced with light therapy.

"There seems to be a relationship between light and depression, which leads to consumption of additional carbohydrates," says Krauchi. De Castro, however, found an increase in fall eating independent of decreased light and/or depression.

Tips For a Healthy Fall

Perhaps we eat more simply because bathing suit season is over, and we can start hiding excess calories beneath our winter clothes. Whatever the reason, it's important to realize that fall foods (soups, stews, breads, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, apples, pumpkins and all types of greens) can actually be healthier than foods of other seasons. They are typically packed with great nutrients, such as fiber, protein, beta carotene and vitamin C. Here are a few tips to keep the fall tasty and healthy:

  • Soups are great for you if they're not made with cream or cheese. Just watch serving sizes--we tend to eat whatever's in our bowls.
  • Stews can be hearty and fattening. Use loads of fresh vegetables, and go light on the meat and potatoes.
  • Avoid unconscious eating while watching football and the new fall TV lineup. Never bring the whole bag or bowl of anything to the couch or coffee table--pre-measure it in the kitchen beforehand. When it comes to chips, make sure they're baked, not fried.
  • For pizza, watch the toppings--they can double the calories.
  • Celebrate the fall harvest in other ways besides making pies. Apples are low in calories when they're off the tree, not in a pie.
  • If it's gotta be pie, try making pumpkin pie with artificial sweetener, egg whites and low-fat milk. And of course, just have one piece. Keep in mind that pumpkin seeds have about 300 calories per 1/4 cup.
  • Turkey is healthy, as long as you keep it lean and white.
  • Get out and enjoy the fall weather. The air is cooler, the leaves are turning and the countryside becomes more scenic. It's the perfect time to go outdoors and do something: Take walks on the beach or by the lake; go to the zoo; or ride a bike.
  • Keep in mind that once we set the clocks back, it gets darker earlier, so there are fewer outdoor options for physical activities in the evening. Make adjustments by joining a gym, planning evening walks at the mall or becoming an early riser.