Every year as August comes to a close, I notice my appetite increase and my drive for climbing, training, and physical exertion wane. The shift feels dramatic in contrast with the summer, when I have low appetite, a high motivation to get outside, and more grit when projecting.
At first, I perceived this pattern only with myself. However, as I’ve learned during my past five years working with climbers as nutrition clients, this is a common story: Climbers mention that they’re hungrier as the days get shorter, with a concurrent drop in energy and grit, and perhaps some weight gain (muscle and/or fat). So, how do we optimize these shifts—especially into “winter mode,” which often causes panic in climbers?
Far from being a constant, appetite—the desire for food or drink—is impacted by a plethora of variables, including sleep, exercise, our emotional state, and, yes, the seasons. Generally, the foods we crave as the days shorten switch from lower-calorie foods like fruits, vegetables, and salad-type meals to higher-calorie foods like hearty fats, carbs, and stew-like meals.
We could end here, asking that you surrender to the brilliance of Nature and the age-old wisdom of the body. But I know that we climbers—with our focus on performance and the strength-to-weight ratio—won’t like that. So, let’s break down the variables that impact seasonal shifts, as well as how to maintain momentum throughout. (See “Seasonal Eating” sidebar below for specific nourishment.)
Variables that Impact Appetite
First off is temperature. Colder temperatures provoke the body to expend—and thus require—more energy to keep the vital organs warm. Food provides energy (calories), which the body uses in various ways to maintain a healthy temperature. When we ingest more calories than required for maintenance—a hyper-caloric diet—our body increases in mass (both muscle and fat, depending on the circumstances). Mass helps insulate us. Moreover, digestion creates heat, hence why simply eating can warm you up. In fact, eating increases both metabolism and skin temperature. Because every individual has unique caloric needs, there is no set formula for how many more calories we need per degree of drop in ambient temperature.
When we eat fats and carbohydrates (think starches, fruit, and sugar) beyond our caloric-maintenance needs, those foods are used to make fat, which helps to insulate the body. This may play into why we crave richer foods as the temperature drops. (In fact, in colder climates, greater body fat may be evolutionally advantageous.) Interestingly, the more abdominal fat we have, the less our appetite goes up when the temperature drops. So, if you’re already lean, you may notice a larger increase in appetite in colder weather.
On the flip side, warmer temperatures also require the body to respond. Between sweating, lethargy, and a drop in appetite (remember, digesting and absorbing food create heat), the body is always modulating systems to maintain balance. When the body is working to cool itself, your thirst increases and you crave foods with a high water content like fruits (watermelon, apples, peaches, etc.) and vegetables (celery, tomatoes, cucumbers, etc.). Meanwhile, both appetite in general and an appetite for rich food naturally wane to adapt the body to increasing external temperatures.
Light cycles and our resulting circadian rhythm also impact appetite. Changes in light impact when we make hormones like melatonin (the sleep hormone), ghrelin (the “I’m hungry hormone”), and cortisol (which ensures ready energy in the form of glucose). Thus, changes in the seasons—not only the temperature but also the length of day and available daylight—impact how we eat.
Autumn and winter also bring the holidays. Between stress, colder temperatures, shorter days, and increased access to sugary, high-fat foods, weight gain in winter is common.
Nutrition Synchronized with the Seasons
Regardless of the root causes, most climbers will crave more food through fall and winter. So, how to maintain both a healthy weight and a nourishing relationship with food? The answer lies in lifestyle modifications.
Respect what your body is asking for
This is the most important component, as it relates both to eating enough optimal food and not overindulging in suboptimal food. When you learn your body’s hunger and satiety cues and eat accordingly, you can’t go wrong. This requires body awareness—something we climbers are fantastic at (see “Practicing Body Awareness” sidebar below).
Choose whole, nourishing foods most of the time
When we eat whole foods (an apple, peanuts, milk, soybeans, chicken, etc.), our body not only receives more nutrition, but we feel more satiated. This reduces cravings for processed, high-fat, and sugary foods. Nourishing foods also support healthy brain chemistry, energy metabolism, motivation, and sleep.
Base your meals around whole-food protein sources
Protein, whether it’s plant- or animal-based, supports satiation and reduces cravings. Eating protein also supports muscle-building, ever advantageous to keeping your metabolism healthy.
Hydration is underrated in regard to controlling appetite and maintaining an optimal weight. In fact, we often mistake thirst for hunger, which leads to overeating, especially in the colder months when we don’t experience thirst as much. Through winter, it’s still imperative to hydrate via tea, water, or other sugarless drinks. Optimal water intake for adults ranges from 2 to 3.7 liters per day, depending on your body mass and activity level.
Make sleep a priority
Adequate sleep improves energy metabolism. On the flip side, sleep deprivation leaves us feeling hungrier than normal, craving carbs and with little resistance to sugary foods. Getting enough sleep goes a long way here.
Keep climbing, keep training
Sometimes motivation wanes when we feel heavy or not up to par in our bodies. Yet continuing to climb is important, not just because it keeps our skills sharp and body composition optimized, but also because movement promotes the production of feel-good biochemistry. And the better you feel, the less likely you’ll be to seek comfort food.
It’s also worth noting that, nutritionally speaking, seasons of higher caloric intake are best paired with training. On this note, training through the winter months allows us to synchronize our increased appetites—and therefore increased caloric intake—with increased exertion. In synchronizing food and training, we support the synthesis of muscle. Neely Quinn and Joe Kinder discuss this “train heavy, send light” concept on the Training Beta Podcast, episode No. 58. It’s not about forcing weight gain or loss, but instead about synchronizing with the ebb and flow of the two different states (training vs. climbing) and seasons (colder vs. warmer, respectively).
Get outside and climb—or do anything!
Sunlight on the skin and in the eyes is a strong cue as to the time of year. In winter when there is less sunlight, spending time outside is especially beneficial, as it impacts everything in the body, including sleep and feeding cycles.
Alyssa Neill is a registered dietitian who employs a holistic and synergistic approach to nutrition. Based in Colorado, she primarily enjoys outdoor bouldering.
Practicing Body Awareness
We are our own gurus when it comes to our health—our bodies hold all the answers. By checking in, we can 1) bring awareness to how we feel and 2) use this information as an indicator of our body’s needs. It’s simple: Slow down, take a couple deep breaths, and feel any sensations arise, and then use those sensations to inform yourself. The sensations may make you more aware of your levels of hunger or satiety, energy, comfort or discomfort, and motivation, as well as your emotional experience. You can then nourish accordingly, using the sensations as your compass.
For example: Climber A consumes excessive amounts of raw vegetables because he read that they’re healthy and support fat loss. He begins to notice (awareness) extreme bloating and cramping (sensations) in his lower abdomen, symptoms relieved only after his morning bowel movement but that typically return after his second meal of the day. While the bloating and cramping arise from gas produced by the fermentation of indigestible fibers by gut microflora, these symptoms are also the “communication” from Climber A’s body regarding his well-being. For Climber A, simply consuming fewer raw veggies will decrease the digestive burden and relieve the symptoms. When he is aware of and uses the sensations (bloating and cramping) as a message, rather than relying on an external authority (nutrition books) to inform him, he’ll achieve a better outcome.
Before industrial agriculture, we relied on what we could grow, hunt, and forage, which allowed us to naturally flux with the seasons and the nourishment available. However, now that we have all foods available all the time, it’s imperative to consider which foods will support you best during each season.
Shift toward warmer foods like garlic, ginger, walnuts, green onions, eggs, and slightly fattier protein sources. Add more fibrous carbohydrates like winter squash and tubers. Steam and sauté your food. Drink warm tea or room-temperature liquids.
Choose baked, roasted, and sautéed foods; consume stews, soups, fattier proteins, and protein on the bone. Add nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains, dried fruit, lightly cooked dark greens, cloves, coconut, dates, nutmeg, and chestnuts. Drink hot tea.
Play with bitter foods like cruciferous vegetables (cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and broccoli), mustard greens, watercress, and dandelion greens and/or tea, as well as beets, avocado, artichoke, and asparagus. Eat more fish, tofu, and lentils. Drink cooler water.
Choose high-water-content foods like vegetables, fruits, and greens. Cold salads, leaner protein sources, and whole-food carbohydrates will keep you cool. Raw food is best here. Drink plenty of cold water.