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Winter is a season of rest and recovery, and for most, it is a time of reduced energy output. The body’s internal clock fights the mental will to wake up early and stay up late. The body, much like those of many animals, begins to conserve energy and slow down.
With the changes in temperature also comes the onset of the cold and flu season. Getting sick is almost unavoidable at some point during winter. (1)(2) Also, experiencing a shift in mood is common during the darker months. Many individuals find themselves suffering from a seasonal affective disorder.
In addition to the increased likelihood of illness and feeling a little down, winter typically restricts exposure to sun rays. Most individuals get outside less and find themselves stuck indoors more often. As a result, vitamin D production due to sun to skin contact is reduced.
Foods to Eat During Winters
Elderberries are small berries with a rich deep-purple color. They are popularly known for their high zinc content and sweet taste in syrups. These small berries are packed with a powerful protective punch and exhibit both antibacterial and antiviral properties.
One human study also found that elderberries can shorten a cold and reduce its symptoms in air travelers. (3) Elderberry can be found in medicinal syrups, tasty lozenges, chewable tablets, gummies, and tea preparations.
Omega-3 fatty acids have been linked to innumerable health benefits covering multiple aspects of the cardiovascular system and the nervous system. (4)
Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in fatty fish, walnuts, hemp seed, flaxseed, seaweed and algae, chia seeds, and kidney beans. The superstar of omega-3 food sources is fresh salmon, preferably wild caught.
Looking to improve the quality of your sleep this winter? Consume one fresh banana before bed. Bananas are a good source of melatonin, the body’s natural sleep-regulating chemical. (5)
Melatonin is created in the pineal gland in the brain, which comes alive at night as it pumps melatonin into the bloodstream. (6) This is why you begin to feel sleepy in the evening at around 9 pm.
In addition, bananas are a great source of potassium. Potassium is an electrolyte that helps nerve cells to function and the muscles to contract. This mineral can be especially beneficial for those who suffer from muscle cramps.
Oatmeal is one of the most nutrient-dense foods you can eat. It is a fantastic food option in the winter because it keeps you warm and feeling full for long periods.
Unlike carbohydrate sources that are quickly absorbed, such as sugar-sweetened beverages, pastries, and refined grains, whole-grain oats take time to digest and break down, providing long-lasting energy. (7)
One cup of oatmeal contains a little more than 15% of your daily value of fiber as well. So eat up!
5. Root and cruciferous vegetables
Root and cruciferous vegetables are great choices in cooler months.
Root vegetables are exactly what they sound like: vegetables that grow underground. Examples of root vegetables are turnips, beets, carrots, parsnips, yams, and fennel. Root vegetables are packed with vitamins and minerals and can be a warm and satisfying addition to any dish.
Just one medium sweet potato can meet your recommended dietary allowance of vitamin A for the day. (8) Carrots are rich in vitamin A, and broccoli is high in vitamin C.
Root vegetables also tend to be high in carbohydrates, which can supply your body with a good deal of energy on a cold winter day. However, be mindful of the amount of root vegetables you consume so that you do not overindulge in these starchy plants.
Collards and Brussels sprouts belong to the leafy green cruciferous family of vegetables and provide iron as well as vitamins A and C. Although these are primarily grown in summer, they are available as frozen vegetables during winter and are just as nutritious as fresh vegetables.
6. Warm soups
There is a reason everybody loves soup, especially in the winter. (9) Not only does the touch of heat feel nice when the weather is not very friendly, but cooked, pureed, and liquid foods are easier for the body to break down.
When you cook your food, you help break down that hard-to-digest fiber. While fiber intake is extremely important, raw fruits, vegetables, and legumes can cause symptoms such as gas and bloating.
Manually “predigesting” your food can ease stomach symptoms. This effect is especially beneficial if you are not as active in the colder months, and your gut is feeling a little sedentary.
Dietary and Lifestyle Habits to Ease Your Winter Journey
Here are a few guidelines to improve your mental and physical health during the long, dark winter season:
- Regular exercise can boost your mood, warm up your body, and help fight off the winter fatigue from shorter days. Do not let your physical activity needs fall to the side; be sure to get at least 20–30 minutes of physical exercise every day. A brisk walk around the block, a quick gym session, or a warm yoga class can do the trick.
- You may also find that winter is a little easier to bear with a better light source. Many find success in purchasing an artificial sun lamp.
- Do not forget to watch your sleep closely. It is normal to feel less energetic in the winter than in the summer months, so allow your body to get adequate amounts of sleep. Aim for at least 7–8 hours per evening to boost immunity. (10)
You can clean up your diet to support your overall health and weight by:
- Reducing your intake of processed foods and focusing on whole foods instead
- Limiting your sugar consumption
- Increasing your fiber intake and cutting out unrefined carbohydrates
- Consuming at least three servings of fresh vegetables and two servings of fresh fruit every day
- Starting each morning with one large glass of water
- Encouraging healthy digestion by staying active after a meal
Expert Answers (Q&A)
Answered by Laura Sebring, MS, LDN (Registered Dietitian)
Several factors contribute to winter weight gain. Many people exercise less and have reduced outdoor activity.
Being active while staying warm can be achieved by trying indoor activities, such as basketball, volleyball, or indoor rock climbing. If you still want to get outside, consider layering clothing for outdoor activities.
Another factor for winter weight gain is holiday eating. It is easy to load a plate with those traditional dishes that might not be healthy choices. You can still indulge; just try to eat smaller portions. Use a smaller plate, and have just a few bites of each if you wish to consume multiple items.
Along with celebrations comes increased alcohol consumption. Wine contains about 160 calories per glass, depending on the type.
To avoid winter weight gain, stay active, watch portion sizes, and restrict daily alcohol intake to two drinks for men and one drink for women.
Avoiding processed foods is important. You should continue to eat a variety of healthy foods, including whole grains, lean proteins, fruits, and vegetables.
Soup is always a winter favorite, but be careful to watch for the sodium content. The recommended daily sodium intake is 2 grams or less. (11)
Vitamin D deficiency is a major health concern in winter and is a very common problem among people. Without this essential vitamin, your bones are at risk. Vitamin D is synthesized upon skin exposure to sunlight.
During the winter, as you tend to stay indoors and keep warm, you must try to get your recommended intake from your diet. There are some great sources of vitamin D that are available during winter.
Of course, milk is one of the best sources, but not all people can tolerate it. Mushrooms are a surprisingly good option to get more vitamin D. Another great source is fatty fish such as tuna, salmon, and mackerel, which are abundant in winter.
Finally, your doctor may recommend taking a daily supplement. Ask for your vitamin D levels to be checked annually.
Lean red meat is a great source of protein and iron and can be consumed any time of the year. However, other cuts of red meat may contain high amounts of saturated fat. It is recommended to limit saturated fats to less than 10% of your total daily caloric intake. (11)
Fats contain 9 calories per gram. Choose a lower-saturated fat option, such as ground beef, ground turkey, or chicken.
An increase in consumption of other protein sources, such as seafood, lean poultry, and plant-based sources such as beans, nuts, seeds, and legumes, is advised.
Many people enjoy a hot cup of tea on a cold winter day, but tea can be beneficial for the entire year. During the winter, some people associate consuming tea with soothing a sore throat or helping to relieve a cough. While this can be effective, there are many more possible health benefits from tea.
Two of the most popular types of tea are black and green teas, depending on the culture and geographic location. Green tea contains compounds called catechins, which are types of polyphenols. Higher amounts of catechins can be found in green tea than in other types of tea. (12)
It is suggested that catechins can help prevent some chronic heart diseases, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers. Some studies also concluded that catechins could help prevent infection. (12)
Tea is an excellent choice for a warm beverage in the winter months. It is lower in caffeine than coffee. Just be sure to watch how much sweetener is added, if at all.
A winter-appropriate diet focuses on supporting your immune system, increasing your omega-3 intake, boosting your melatonin levels, filling your body with slow-digesting carbohydrates, and cooking your food well. A diet that meets these criteria not only prepares your body to face the frigid weather but also improves your mood.
Since you spend most of your time cooped up inside your homes, it is natural that you cannot maintain your regular level of physical activity. Thus, if you do gain a little weight during the winter months, don’t let that bother you too much.
Even though your body may require a little more attention during winter, be sure to enjoy the crisp air and stay optimistic. You got this!