How do we stay warm and happy, fit and healthy during the winter months?
By Anne Palumbo
Come winter — a season of short days, long nights, chilly temps and lavish holiday spreads — it’s easy to make some unhealthy food choices. We’re cold; we’re bored; we’re tempted; we’re restless. And some of us, no thanks to the decrease in sunlight, may also feel seriously down in the dumps.
Compound all of the above with dry, itchy skin and a cold that won’t relent, and it’s no wonder we’re reaching for that second helping of mashed potatoes.
Of course, we may also be reaching for that second helping simply because it’s winter and our appetite is heartier for comfort foods: stews, mac ‘n cheese, pancakes, pies.
While some experts suggest our cravings are a throwback to the days when we needed an extra layer of fat to survive the cold, most say it’s just physiology. “When outdoor temperatures drop, your body temperature drops, and that’s what sets up a longing for foods that will warm you quickly,” says nutrition expert and registered dietitian Kristin Herlocker. “Carbohydrate-rich foods provide the instant ‘heat’ boost your body is longing for.”
So, how do we stay warm and happy, fit and healthy during the winter months? Read on for healthy food choices that are easy to implement.
If you’re gaining weight, reach for better snacks
Studies indicate that the average person gains 1 to 2 pounds during the winter months, with those who are already overweight likely to gain more. Nutritionists suggest that consuming sugary, starchy fillers between meals may be the culprit, as these foods often don’t satiate us the way harder-to-digest foods do. Instead of snacking on chips or candy, eat a high-protein, high-fiber snack between meals — a snack that keeps you feeling fuller longer and your blood sugar steadier — like peanut butter on celery sticks, low-fat cheese on whole-grain crackers, or some nuts. Nutritious snacks will fuel the body’s heat mechanism — and the toastier we stay, the less we crave carbs. What’s more, healthy snacks are typically much lower in calories than unhealthy snacks. For example: One cup of unbuttered air-popped popcorn—30 calories; one cup of potato chips — 150 calories; one cup of strawberry halves — 50 calories; one Snickers bar — 250 calories.
If you’re feeling blue, try these mood-boosting foods
Being cooped up during the coldest, darkest days of the year can make us feel so listless and down. Is it any wonder our sweet tooth flares during the wintertime? Oh, if only that cookie were a legit fix! Unfortunately, a steady diet of simple carbs is the last thing our moods need in the winter. What we need, according to experts, is to consume foods with proven mood-boosting nutrients and fatty acids, such as vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin (found in fortified dairy products, eggs and mushrooms); folate, a B vitamin, that may help lessen depression (abundant in spinach, asparagus and lentils); and omega-3s, brain-building fatty acids believed to stabilize moods (found in salmon, walnuts and flaxseed).
And chocolate? Many studies support that consuming chocolate can help improve your mood, especially dark chocolate, which stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that create feelings of pleasure. Dark chocolate also contains serotonin, a mood-boosting antidepressant. The key with chocolate, however, is moderation.
If you’re susceptible to colds and coughs, fortify your body with these superstars
Most of us come down with something over the winter months, no matter how rigorous our hand-washing, no matter how sterile our environment, no matter how dutifully we’ve instructed those around us to sneeze into a tissue. But we can lessen our chances, experts say, by keeping our immune system healthy. While the jury is still out on which nutrients strengthen our immune system most, there is some evidence that foods rich in vitamins A, B, C and E (all powerful antioxidants), as well as zinc, iron, folate and selenium, do an immune system good! In other words, a balanced diet that’s high in a variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts and whole grains. A few superstar recommendations: broccoli, dark leafy greens, almonds, oatmeal, sweet potatoes, pumpkin seeds and garlic.
Will loading up on vitamin C during the cold months keep you sniffle-free?
Doubtful. Studies, so far, have found no evidence that vitamin C prevents colds. What some studies have found, however, is that higher doses taken at the onset may help shorten the length of your cold and reduce the severity of symptoms. How much vitamin C? The National Institutes of Health suggests that adults consume no more than 2,000 mg each day, as too much vitamin C may cause kidney stones, nausea and diarrhea. To pack the ultimate vitamin C punch, think outside the OJ carton and load up on these fruits and vegetables (which have more C than an orange): red and green bell peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, strawberries and kiwis.
And what about Grandma’s favorite cold remedy: chicken soup? There’s hard science that supports Granny’s claims! Research shows that chicken soup can ease your symptoms and may help you get well sooner — thanks, in part, to an amino acid in chicken that helps thin mucous to calm your cough and stuffed up nose. Welcome news for those pressed for time: Store-bought soups are just as effective.
If your skin is dry and itchy, add these skin-boosters to your diet
From the wind chill outside to the dry air inside, winter is not your skin’s best friend. Thankfully, the right foods can alleviate some common cold-weather skin woes by providing the nutrients needed to help skin cells stay strong, supple and hydrated. When it comes to relieving dryness, foods containing healthy fats are the ultimate power food for skin. Healthy fats — from the omega-3 fatty acids found in salmon to the monounsaturated fats found in nuts and avocados to the polyunsaturated fats found in corn oil — are known to strengthen skin membranes by locking in moisture and protecting skin cells. Eating a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables also promotes optimum skin health. Loaded with skin-protecting antioxidants and vitamins A, C, and E, fruits and vegetables help fight dry skin by keeping it renewed, elastic, and plump. Of course, water is a must and probably one of the most important nutrients you can consume to keep your skin hydrated and itch-free.
Note: The foods suggested throughout are merely recommendations, the tip of the iceberg when it comes to healthy eating. You know best what foods work for you.
Anne Palumbo is the author of SmartBites, a column that runs every month in In Good Health—CNY’s Healthcare Newpaper.