How to eat well in winter
If you’re the type of person who eats healthily during the summer but lives on comfort foods when the temperature starts to plummet, there’s good news. You can eat healthily all through the winter – and the even better news is if you do, you’ll have more energy to sail through any cold snap the season can throw at you.
Years ago, before central heating came along and kept us warm at home and at work, it was important to gain fat during the winter to help keep out the cold. This may explain why we feel like eating more during the winter and keeping our diet light during the warmer months. The problem is, we no longer need that extra layer of fat to keep us warm. But the urge to eat stodgy foods is still with us.
One way to overcome comfort food cravings is to eat as healthily as possible, and to have plenty of lean protein in your diet. Go for plenty of beans and pulses, nuts, seeds, fish and lean cuts of meat. Make sure you have some protein with each of your main meals – a portion should be around the size of your hand.
Include protein in snacks too – for example if you’re having fruit, have a few nuts too. Or try having a protein bar when you’re in the mood for something sweet instead of reaching for the biscuit tin. These may help satisfy your sweet tooth while at the same time boost your protein intake. Another delicious and convenient way of getting enough protein in your diet is to have a whey protein drink (if you’re watching your weight, choose a whey protein drink with reduced calories).
If you tend to feel hungry more often when the weather’s cold, try to eat little and often. If you don’t go for more than three hours without eating, you can avoid hunger pangs caused by dipping blood sugar levels.
Eat with the seasons
To make sure you’re getting as many nutrients in your food as possible, it’s a good idea to base your diet on foods that are in season during the winter months. Seasonal foods tend to be grown locally, which means they’re usually really fresh and contain a high level of nutrients. If, however, you eat non-local, non-seasonal foods, there’s a good chance they’ve been transported from other countries, and they can lose nutrients while they’re in transit and storage.
Take bananas, for example. If they’re picked in the Caribbean they can take 14 days to arrive in UK supermarkets, which includes six days’ shipping time. Meanwhile, if you buy a lettuce in December, there’s a good chance it’s travelled a long way to get here and has been refrigerated for weeks while in transit.
Here’s a quick guide to what’s in season during the autumn and winter months:
Fruit: Pears, apples, blackcurrant, figs, nectarines, peaches, plums, elderberries, tomatoes.
Vegetables: Aubergine, cabbage, carrots, artichoke, beetroot, broccoli, butternut squash, celery, courgettes, cucumber, fennel, garlic, leeks, marrow, onions, peppers, potatoes, radishes, runner beans, wild mushrooms, celeriac, kale, watercress, rocket, pumpkin, turnip.
Fruit: Pears, apples, clementines, cranberries, passion fruit, satsumas.
Vegetables: Cabbage, runner beans, swede, turnips, artichoke, beetroot, butternut squash, celeriac, celery, kale, leeks, parsnips, potatoes, pumpkin, wild mushrooms, Brussels sprouts, onions, cauliflower.
Fruit: Pears, clementines, lemons, oranges, passion fruit, satsumas, pomegranates.
Vegetables: Brussels sprouts, cabbage, potatoes, swede, beetroot, cauliflower, celeriac, celery, kale, leeks, parsnips, turnips.
You can find seasonal food in supermarkets – check the country of origin to see how far it’s travelled. But for food that’s been grown as locally as possible, there’s no better place to buy than at a farmers’ market or farmer’s shop. To find the closest market or shop where you live, search the National Farmers’ Retail & Markets Association website or visit Find Local Produce.
Top winter foods for health
Winter is peak time for cold and flu viruses. But eating certain foods may help your immune system stay strong. If you’re susceptible to winter weight gain, certain foods and nutrients can also keep the cold-weather pounds off.
Here are some of the things you should be eating more of during the winter months:
Eat lots of different coloured fruit and veg – at least five portions a day (the more the better). This can help boost your intake of antioxidants and keep your immune system ticking over. Kale is in season throughout the winter, and is rich in antioxidants. Add some chopped kale to your winter soups or stews, or braise some in a pan with a little olive oil, chopped garlic and seasoning.
Green tea is an ideal winter hot drink as not only is it full of antioxidants called polyphenols, it also contains caffeine, which may help boost your metabolism. This may explain why green tea is popular with people on weight-loss diets. If you’re not fond of drinking green tea, you can get it in supplement form.
Green coffee bean extract, on the other hand, is available as a supplement and is also popular with slimmers. Described as ‘promising’ as a weight-loss supplement by researchers reviewing green coffee extract trials (i), it contains high levels of active compounds called chlorogenic acid.
Pumpkin flesh is rich in beta carotene and vitamin C – which may help support your immune system. Cranberries and other winter berries also contain vitamin C.
Fish, lean meats and – if you’re a vegetarian – mushrooms – all contain substances called nucleotides, which are thought to be involved in producing immune system cells.
Cayenne pepper – add a pinch to your food if you suspect you have a cold starting, as it may help prevent or reduce congestion.
Garlic is widely used as a natural cold and flu fighter and is thought to have antibiotic, antiviral and antifungal properties.
Prepare your garlic in advance, so it’s ready if you go down with a winter bug. Chop up several cloves of garlic and soak in some olive oil. When you feel the first signs of a cold or flu, take a spoonful as required. Your breath may not exactly be fragrant, but your garlic preparation could stop the virus in its tracks or reduce the amount of time you’re affected.
Onions are also useful in protecting against cold and flu viruses as they’re high in sulphur, which may help keep the immune system healthy.
Water is essential to keep you hydrated during the winter, though many people drink less of it than in the warmer weather. Living and working in centrally-heated buildings can also dry up your mucous membranes, which can mean your immune system is more susceptible to a virus attack. The best way to prevent this is to drink plenty of fluids (water is ideal).
Brazil nuts are rich in selenium, a mineral that helps support the immune system, as well as omega-6 fatty acids. Try snacking on a few Brazils every day during winter, as they’re also a great source of protein and fibre.
Oily fish provides omega-3 fatty acids, which may help with a number of winter problems, such as dry skin, joint aches and the winter blues. If you don’t like eating fish, try taking a good-quality fish oil supplement.
Other nutritional supplements you may want to consider taking during the winter months include echinacea – a traditional herbal medicinal product used to relieve the symptoms of the common cold and influenza-type infections.
A good-quality multivitamin and mineral supplement, meanwhile, may help you make sure you’re meeting all of your body’s nutritional needs during the winter months.
On the other hand, if you’re trying to avoid winter weight gain, you may want to try CLA (conjugated linoleic acid). A naturally occurring fatty acid found in meat and dairy products, CLA is available in supplements that are popular with people who want to lose fat and maintain weight loss.
Winter food swaps
This winter, try swapping traditional winter foods that are heavy on the stodge and fat with lighter alternatives. Here are a few suggestions:
Swap mashed potato for cauliflower mash
Cauliflower mash is just as tasty as mashed potatoes, but it’s more nutritious and lower in calories. Steam some cauliflower, then blend until smooth. Add seasoning to taste, and a dollop of natural yoghurt if you want to make it creamier.
Swap steak and kidney pudding for beef casserole
Rescue your slow cooker out of its summer hibernation and use it make lots of nutritious casseroles (cooking the ingredients slowly can help lock in the flavour and the nutrients). Serve with a portion of steamed green vegetables.
Swap treacle pudding for warmed figs
Figs are a great source of iron for vegetarians, and they’re in season during the autumn. Cut a couple of fresh figs in half, put them under a hot grill for a minute, then add a spoonful of Greek yoghurt.
Swap macaroni cheese for turkey bolognese
Turkey mince is lower in fat than beef mince, but it’s just as delicious. Serve with a healthy tomato sauce and a small portion of whole-wheat pasta.
Swap rice pudding for fruit compote
Stew some apples and pears with a few cloves or vanilla pods to make a comforting fruit compote that’s rich in vitamins. Sweeten with some local honey and serve with crème fraiche.
Swap hot chocolate for chai tea
Try some spicy tea next time you arrive home feeling chilly. Chai contains warming cinnamon, cardamom and ginger, and, unlike hot chocolate, it won’t wreck your waistline. Add some honey if you prefer it sweet.
Onakpoya. I, Terry. R, Ernst. E. The use of Green Coffee Extract as a Weight Loss Supplement: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomised Clinical Trials. Gastroenterol Res Pract. 2011. 2011;85(5):382852. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2943088/