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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. Our 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.
Influenza season usually begins in October, peaks in December and February, and can even run into late spring. (1) Between 2018 and 2019, an estimated 35.5 million US citizens suffered from influenza alone. (2)
In addition to getting a viral infection, experiencing a shift in mood is common during the darker months. Many individuals find themselves suffering from a seasonal affective disorder.
According to the National Institutes of Health, “seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that comes and goes with the seasons, typically starting in the late fall and early winter and going away during the spring and summer.“ (3)
The symptoms of winter-related SAD are relatable and almost predictable, which include low energy, a feeling of social withdrawal or “hibernation,” weight gain, sleepiness, and a craving for carbohydrates. (3)
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. People also do not get as much fresh air or make as much earthly contact as they do in the summer months.
The cold chill of winter impacts more than just your body temperature. However, there are ways you can improve your health during this long and dark season.
Notably, regular exercise can boost your mood, warm you up, 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.
Lastly, 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. (4)
A lack of sleep can result in the production of fewer immune-fighting proteins. (4)
In addition to these basic winter health habits, you can optimize your diet to ease your winter journey. Here are five types of foods that can support colds, improve mood, support sleep, jump-start your motivation, and keep you feeling full and satisfied.
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 powerful protective punch demonstrating both antibacterial and antiviral properties.
One human study also found that elderberries can shorten a cold and reduce its symptoms in air travelers. (5)
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. Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in fatty fish, walnuts, hemp seed, flaxseed, seaweed and algae, chia seeds, and even kidney beans.
The superstar of omega-3 food sources is fresh salmon, preferably wild-caught.
Dr. Mischoulon from Harvard University states:
“Two omega-3 fatty acids –eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) –are thought to have the most potential to benefit people with mood disorders. For example, omega-3s can easily travel through the brain cell membrane and interact with mood-related molecules inside the brain. They also have anti-inflammatory actions that may help relieve depression.” (6)
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. (7)
Melatonin, created in the pineal gland in the brain, comes alive at night as it pumps melatonin into the bloodstream. (8) This is why you begin to feel sleepy in the evening at around 9 pm.
However, the pineal gland does not produce melatonin during the daytime, a handy mechanism to prevent unnatural sleeping habits. If you have trouble falling asleep, a natural melatonin boost from melatonin-rich foods, such as a banana, can help.
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. Oatmeal 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, or refined grains, whole-grain oats take time to digest and break down, providing long-lasting energy.
Studies have even found that oatmeal improves appetite control and increases feelings of fullness. (9)
One cup of oatmeal contains a little more than 15% of your daily value of fiber as well. So eat up!
5. Root vegetables
Root vegetables are exactly what they sound like: vegetables that grow underground. Examples of root vegetables include 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. (10)
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 over indulge in these starchy plants.
6. Warm soups
There is a reason everybody loves soup, especially in the winter. 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.
In addition to 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, you can always improve your diet by focusing on whole foods.
With a reduction in physical activity, it is also common to gain a little weight during winter months.
You can clean up your diet to support your overall health and weight with a few good habits:
- Reduce your intake of processed foods.
- Limit your sugar consumption.
- Increase your fiber intake and watch out for unrefined carbohydrates.
- Consume at least three servings of fresh vegetables every day.
- Consume at least two servings of fresh fruit every day.
- Start each morning with one large glass of water.
- Encourage healthy digestion by staying active after a meal.
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!
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 recipes 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 at most 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)
For a healthy diet, consider whole grains, such as quinoa, brown rice, and oatmeal, as they can be prepared warm and provide fiber.
Fish is always a great lean protein source, and the colder weather can bring an abundance of tuna and salmon. These fish can provide omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to lower triglyceride levels. (12)
Don’t fall into the misconception that it is difficult to find an abundance of fresh vegetables during the winter months. While that may be partially true, there are still some great winter vegetables to consider.
Root and cruciferous vegetables are great choices in cooler months. Carrots are rich in vitamin A, and broccoli can increase your intake of vitamin C.
Collards and Brussels sprouts provide iron as well as vitamins A and C. You can still consume those summer vegetables. Frozen vegetables are always available and are just as nutritious as fresh vegetables.
Vitamin D deficiency is a major health concern these days 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 the sunlight.
During the winter, as you tend to want to stay warm and indoors, 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 probably the best source, 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 a compound called catechins, which are types of polyphenols. Higher amounts of catechins can be found in green tea than in other types of tea. (13)
It is suggested that catechins can help prevent some chronic diseases of the heart, type 2 diabetes mellitus, and some cancers. Some studies also concluded that catechins could help prevent infection. (13)
Tea is an excellent choice for a warm beverage in winter months. It is lower in caffeine than coffee. Just be sure to watch how much sweetener is added, if at all.
About Laura Sebring, MS, RD, LDN: Laura is a registered dietitian in Raleigh, North Carolina. She holds a master’s degree in nutrition and dietetics from Meredith College. With a passion for weight management, she helps clients successfully achieve their goals through diet and lifestyle changes.