Winter Wellness: Nutritious foods for Health and Mood
Now that we are deep into winter many people will start to feel winter-specific changes to mood and become more susceptible to getting ill. This coupled with the shorter days, rainy weather and winds means we also have less opportunities to be active, and its definitely that bit harder to get yourself up at 6am to go the gym. While I can't help you get up on a dark rainy morning to hit the gym, I can share some guidance on how changes to your diet can enhance immunity and lift your mood.
Winter Habits Can Impact our Nutrient Intake
During winter there is a higher propensity to become deficiency in certain nutrients and vitamins. Vitamin D is a common vitamin deficiency in Northern Europe, particularly in winter, as well as B6, B12 and folic acid. Further Vitamin E, which is good for skin moisture, can help with skin dryness associated with the cold outdoors and changes to warmer tempretures as we head indoors. Fortunately, most vitamins and minerals that the body needs are met by eating a varied and balanced diet, with the exception of Vitamin D (the sunshine vitamin)
Below is a quick summary of some of the key vitamins and nutrients you may need to focus on a bit more, including some easy sources:
Known as the sunshine vitamin because exposure to sunlight helps the body to produce Vitamin D. This can mean that during winter months when the sun is low or clouded over, and we cover our bodies from the cold, many are lacking in Vitamin D. It is most commonly linked to mood disorders like SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) and poor sleep, tiredness and fatigue, and weakend immune system.
Common food based sources of Vitamin D are oliy fish like salmon, egg yolks, red meat and mushrooms. For those following a vegetarian or vegan diet there may need to be more reliance on supplements (consult your GP) or consuming foods that are often fortied with Vitamin D like cereals and plant milks.
While not specific to winter, Vitamin C is important in helping the body fight infections and maintain overall healthy. Obvious sources of vitamin C in food are citrus fruits (oranges, lemons and limes). Also found in higher proportions in bell peppers, tomatoes, cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage and cauliflower as well as white potatoes.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega 3 is an essential fat, when a nutrient is deemed 'essential' it means the body can't make it from scratch, rather it needs to come from the food we eat. Omega-3 play a key role in your bodys overall function and the proper working of cells including in the brain.
Foods rich in Omega-3 include oily fish, meat, seeds (chia, flax, hemp seeds) and walnuts.
Interestingly, Omega-6 is also an essential fat, but in Western diets we are typically consuming too much Omega-6 and not enough Omega-3.
B6 is important for brain development and function and keeping our immune system optimal. It is its role in our immune systems that makes it particularly important in winter. A deficiency in B6 is also commonly a function of insufficient levels of B12 and Folic Acid.
Good food sources of vitamin B6 include tuna and salmon, pork and poultry, dark leafy greens, chickpeas, peanuts, oats, bananas and fortified foods such as cereals.
Vitamin B12 is often mentioned in media, particularly as relates to a vegetarian or vegan diet as the best sources of this vitamin are all plant derived. It is important in the function of the bodys blood and nerve cells, and deficiencies can often present as symptoms such as tiredness and weakness, issues with appetite and bowel function, and mood changes.
Animal products are the best source of B12 including meat, fish, dairy milk, cheese, eggs. Given these sources are almost exclusively animal products vegans can be deficient in B12 so should consider seeking alternative sources such as supplements and from fortified foods like cereals, plant milks and nutritional yeast (check labels).
Folate / Folic Acid
Like the other B vitamins folate or folic acid helps keep your body healthy helping it make red blood cells as well as prevent changes to DNA (make and repair) that can lead to other diseases. Deficiencies can be associated with anemia given its role in creating blood cells as well as increase risk of diseases like cancer.
Some foods naturally contain folate but folic acid is added to other foods. You can also get folic acid from dietary supplements.
Foods rich in folate include broccoli, leafy green vegetables such as kale, spinach, cabbage, peas, chickpeas and kidney beans, avocado, eggs as well as brussels sprouts.
Folic acid is a synthesised version of folate added to fortified foods liek breakfast cereals, flour and bread and in supplements.
The changable weather associated with winter, not to mention the changes in tempreture as we move between indoors and outdoors, can impact our skin and hair, causing dryness, dandruff and itchiness. Vitamin E is an antioxidant so helps protect cells from damage as well as exhibiting anti-inflammatory properties. It also helps keep the skin hydrated and prevents moisture loss, making it an ideal vitamin for dry, winter skin.
Foods high in vitamin E include sunflower seeds, almonds, peanuts and peanut butter, and vegetables such as pumpkin, spinach, red bell peppers and asparagus.
Winter Lifestyle Habits for Better Mood and Health
Balanced Diet - Include a variety of the listed seasonal foods for a nutrient-rich diet.
If you can try to eat foods that are seasonal, as not only will they be fresher and richer in nutrients, they would have travelled less and probably come in less packaging (often there to prevent ripening over long journeys). Examples of seasonal vegetables include cauliflower, kale, leeks, purple-sprouting broccoli, brussel sprouts, parsnips, carrots and swedes.
Exercise and Sunlight - Regular physical activity and exposure to sunlight, even for brief periods, can significantly enhance mood and health. It can be as simple as a walk before it gets dark, or adding to your incidental exercise like walking to the shops instead of driving.
Use a SAD Lamps - If getting any regular exposure to sun is a challenge you may want to consider a SAD lamp. These can be helpful in combating Seasonal Affective Disorder. Best used in the mornings for around 30minutes, they have been reported by some to improve mood in the short-term.
Avoid Comfort Eating - Not just a good winter rule, but opting for nutrient-rich foods instead of processed, sugary comfort foods will always have benefits. Prolonged periods inside often mean more tv and relaxing, which is lovely of course, but also more opportunity to snack mindlessly. In our household we have to abide by the not-in-the-house rule, which basically means we don't have the temptation there, because if we did I would eat it.