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  • Monika Getty

The Eating Season

Thanksgiving was last weekend, and I always find it's the start of what I call "the eating season". Thanksgiving is a time where we usually all get together (except for this year, what with the pandemic and the government warning us not to get together in large groups) and gorge on all the yummy foods people cook. Turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes with gravy, vegetable dishes in cheese, vegetable dishes in butter, cakes, pies, drinks, you name it, we eat it.

It's funny how the change in the seasons and weather changes our appetites for different food. In summer, all we want is barbecued meat and veg, fresh salads, fruit in season. Once the weather changes to fall, all we want is casseroles, pasta and soup. Eating seasonally is a good thing; in fall, apples are fresh and at their best, squash is delicious roasted in the oven (although my husband would disagree with me), carrots are sweet and crunchy. However, the change in weather and daylight hours seem to make us eat more in general, hence the eating season.

Scientists don't agree as to why this is; some say this drive to eat more is deeply ingrained in our genetic and psychological makeup. It's a survival tactic from days when we didn't live in climate controlled houses or had access to the wide variety of foods available year round as we do now. Winter was a hazardous time in terms of food: the fall harvest would determine how much food was available in winter, and when it was gone, additional food resources were extremely hard to come by unless you were very rich. We may unconsciously try to store up all the calories we can to help us survive in times of scarcity, much like hibernating animals do. This would also explain why we crave foods high in sugar, carbs and fat at this time of year, to help us survive the "lean winter" months.

Another theory is that our eating more is opportunistic: there are more large feasts this time of year, with better leftovers and more grazing. The weather is generally less pleasant to exercise and play outside, making us want to stay inside and do things associated with more snacking, such as watching a movie. Certain holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas are also associated with our favourite treats: apple pie, cheesecake, shortbread cookies, etc., and these treats are linked with good memories. The stronger the link, the more likely we are to indulge in these foods. Sometimes cravings for certain foods is just our way of trying to repeat those good memories and make us feel good.

Having fewer daylight hours can affect our appetites and cravings as well; sunlight is one of the factors to trigger our body to release serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is a "feel good" chemical that can boost our moods significantly, which is why many antidepressants work by increasing the amount of available serotonin in our bodies. Eating carbohydrates, such as sugar, pasta, muffins and bread also increase our serotonin levels (albeit temporarily) which is why some people seek out these foods to boost their mood and ease depression (including seasonal depression).

Even though the start of fall is the start of the eating season, we can do this in a healthy way. To satisfy both our bodies and our minds, we should seek out foods that not only fill us up, warm us up and makes us feel good but are good for us too. Here are some tips:

Stay hydrated: Colder temperatures often mean less physical activity so we tend to drink less water, and often being dehydrated can be misinterpreted as being hungry. When it's cold the thought of a cold glass of water may not be so appealing, so drink hot beverages such as tea or even just hot water with lemon, which will warm you up and keep you feeling full.

Control your cravings: When you feel the urge to snack, fill up on healthier alternatives like hummus and veggies, a piece of fruit with a handful of nuts, roasted chickpeas, yogurt with berries, even hard boiled eggs. Eating carbohydrates and protein together help keep you feeling fuller for longer and allows for a slower release of blood sugar so that you don't get a high then a crash as you would with just carbohydrates alone. Snacking regularly on healthy options also keeps your metabolism burning and lessens cravings for sugary, high fat and high calorie foods.

Get outside: Getting outside during daylight hours and having some of your skin exposed helps you to increase not only your vitamin D levels but also your serotonin levels. It also lets you get some much needed fresh air and exercise, which will also boost your mood and take your mind off of eating. You certainly aren't going to stand still when it's cold out so it will motivate you to keep moving!

Occasionally give in to cravings: Most experts agree that you should occasionally give in to your cravings; just try to watch your portion size and when possible, make a healthy swap. If you're craving pasta with cheese, use whole grain pasta combined with a lean protein as well as some vegetables and a sprinkling of cheese. Want something sweet? Make some hot chocolate from scratch using plain cocoa powder, allowing you to control the level of sweetness with added sugar. Sometimes the more you deny yourself something, the more you tend to eat of it when you do give in. As my Mom says, "Everything in moderation, including moderation sometimes."

When the weather turns chillier, I crave warming comfort foods. One of my favourite dishes is a brown lentil curry made in the slow cooker. Not only is it healthy but it's delicious too! The fact that I can make it in my slow cooker means that at the end of my day, my supper is all ready for me and all I have to do is cook my brown rice to go with it and enjoy.

Brown Lentil Curry

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 medium onion, chopped

5 cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons fresh ginger, minced

1 teaspoon whole cumin seed

1 tablespoon garam masala

2 teaspoons ground turmeric

½ to 1 teaspoon ground chile or cayenne, to taste

2 teaspoons kosher salt

1 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper

1 can diced tomatoes

4 cups water

2 cups dried brown lentils

1 can coconut milk

chopped fresh coriander

Heat oil in a pan. Add onion and cook for a few minutes until softened. Add garlic, ginger and cumin seed and cook for 2 minutes. Add garam masala, turmeric and chile and cook for another minute. Add the can of tomatoes and stir well, making sure all of the spices are not stuck to the pan. Add this mixture, the water and brown lentils to your slow cooker and cook on low for 6 to 8 hours until lentils are cooked, stirring every few hours. Add the coconut milk, salt and pepper, stir well and heat through for about 5 minutes. Serve over rice and garnish with fresh coriander.

For many, the start of the eating season can mean gaining weight and being unhealthy, but it doesn't have to be that way. You can eat well, live well and keep healthy with not a lot of effort. Now I'm going to go indulge myself with a hot cup of tea!

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