Winter can throw all kinds of nasty stuff at us – bone-chilling temperatures, umpteen new strains of flu and lots of gloomy, sunless days. Even fit, healthy runners need a little extra help at this time of year.
Luckily, help is only as far away as your refrigerator. That’s right: the perfect mix of foods can boost your mood, strengthen your immune system and keep you energised no matter how miserable the weather.
Beat the Blues
There’s something very wrong about going to work in the morning when it’s dark, and then leaving work when it’s dark again. In fact, research shows that the lack of sunlight during the winter months can cause mild depression in some individuals. Known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), the condition can be improved by increased exposure to sunlight or special electric lights. But there are some foods that will also help.
Since bananas are chock-full of vitamin B6, they help boost your body’s production of the brain chemical serotonin. This chemical helps elevate mood, giving you a calm, positive feeling. Most of us don’t meet our B6 need because refined grains, such as those found in most types of bread and pasta, aren’t usually fortified with this vitamin. To boost your intake, slice a banana over your cereal or eat one as a midday snack. Other sources of B6 include chicken, nuts, beans and avocados.
Fatty fish, in particular salmon, supply vital omega-3 fatty acids, which make up a substantial portion of each brain cell. Studies show that countries with populations that consume a lot of fish have dramatically lower rates of depression than countries that eat less seafood. Aim for two servings of fish per week.
Lean sirloin steak is one of the best sources of selenium, a trace mineral that has been shown to lift people’s spirits. One American study found that men who consumed extra selenium in their diets reported feeling happier at the end of the day than a control group. It’s best to obtain selenium from foods rather than from a supplement, as the mineral can be toxic in amounts just a few times the Recommended Daily Amount (RDA). Other good food sources of selenium include nuts, oatmeal and seafood.
Whole grains (cereal, bread and pasta)
These carbohydrate powerhouses help trigger the release of insulin in your body. This, in turn, encourages the amino acid tryptophan to enter your brain, prompting serotonin levels (and, consequently, your mood) to rise. Include carbohydrates in every meal and snack, aiming for 8-12 or more daily servings of grains, and between five and nine servings of fruit and vegetables.
Fortify Your Immune System
Here’s a statistic you’re not going to like: most of us average two or three colds per year, and your risk goes up in the winter months. But you don’t have to resign yourself to illness this winter. Instead, bolster your immune system with essential nutrients to help keep your defences high.
Believe it or not, winter is the sweetest time of year for oranges and other citrus fruits. Loaded with vitamin C (more than 100 per cent of the RDA in one orange), oranges can help boost your immune system by strengthening T-cells, your body’s warriors against intruders. One study revealed that 30 per cent of a seemingly healthy population turned out to be deficient in vitamin C, so aim for at least two vitamin-C rich fruits or vegetables a day. In addition to citrus fruits, good choices include kiwi fruit, all kinds of berries, broccoli and tomatoes.
Shellfish, from crabs to oysters and clams, pack extraordinary amounts of the mineral zinc (500 per cent of the RDA in an 85g serving of oysters), which keeps your disease-fighting white blood cells working properly. These cells literally engulf germs and render them harmless. So throw shellfish into soups or pasta sauce, or mix crab or prawns with low-fat cottage cheese to fill jacket potatoes. Other good sources of zinc include lean meats, beans and wheat germ.
A popular winter vegetable in America, butternut squash is now widely available in Britain. It’s packed with beta-carotene. Just 200g supplies substantially more than 100 per cent of the RDA for vitamin A (beta-carotene is converted into vitamin A in your body). All of your protective tissues, such as your skin, sinus passages and the lining of your lungs, rely on ample vitamin A for their proper texture and suppleness. Any cracks in these tissues allow unwanted bacteria, germs and viruses to enter your body. Roast butternut squash in the oven for 45 minutes to one hour, scoop out the flesh and serve as an accompaniment for your Sunday roast.
Along with other vegetables from the allium family (eg, garlic and leeks), onions contain quercitin, an antioxidant that acts like a wet blanket on invading bacteria. Make onions one of your staple foods this winter by adding them to soup, stir frys, casseroles and chilli. Other excellent quercitin sources include grapes, tea and berries.
Gloomy winter days can drain away your energy, leaving you curled up on the couch instead of meeting friends for an early evening run. Here are some simple eating strategies that will keep you energised:
Shrink your meals
Rather than super-sizing your meals, keep portion sizes small to avoid stuffing yourself like a Christmas turkey. Filling yourself to the brim will leave you feeling sluggish as your intestinal tract battles to try to digest all that extra food. This is especially true if you overeat at lunchtime.
Make some noise
Between meals, snack on crunchy foods to awaken both your mouth and your mind. Fresh winter vegetables, such as radishes, broccoli and cauliflower, dunked in a spicy dip (low-fat yoghurt with shredded chillis and lime zest) make for an energising snack at work. You can easily pack your own in a re-sealable container or purchase ready- to-go single servings of fresh vegetables and healthy dips in most supermarkets.
During the summer, you paid special attention to your fluid needs because it was hot. But wintertime can prove just as dehydrating. Dry, heated air combined with cold weather can dehydrate you faster than you think. You know that dull headache you sometimes get late in the day? That’s a prime warning sign of dehydration. Keep bottled water within reach all day long, or try low-calorie flavoured waters for a fresh, fruity way to stay hydrated.
Keep an eye on your caffeine intake from tea, cola and coffee. Don’t rely on caffeine to stay awake during sluggish winter days. It will only leave you jittery and dependent on the stuff. If you find yourself swigging coffee all day long, cut back slowly over several weeks. Caffeine-withdrawal symptoms, such as fatigue and headaches, can be pretty nasty if you decrease your intake too quickly. Trust me on this one; I speak from experience.
Summer-ripe peaches and strawberries may well be your idea of the perfect fruit, but there’s a host of winter produce that is just as fresh and delicious. They’re all in season, and available at larger supermarkets – so there’s no excuse not to stock up.
- Blood and navel oranges are an
excellent source of vitamin C, folic acid
- Cranberries, a great source of fibre,
potassium and vitamin C, can be sweetened with honey or used to make a sauce for turkey or even fish.
- Clementines are loaded with vitamin C, folic acid and fibre, and they’re perfectly sized for a quick snack.
- Kiwi fruit are another great source of
vitamin C and fibre.
- Pomegranates may not be the most
obvious of fruits, but they’re a great source of vitamin C and fibre. Stir the seeds into yoghurt with some honey, for a simple, tart-sweet desert.
- Artichokes taste fantastic steamed, and they also contain a good supply of vitamin C, fibre and folic acid, as well as potassium and copper.
- Bok choi, cabbage and curly kale are all great sources of vitamin C and carotenes. They make fine additions to any stir fry, or are great steamed and served with chicken or fish.
- Chestnuts, roasted on an open fire (or more likely in the oven), are a great source of vitamin C, or dice them up and add them to your turkey stuffing for added low-fat nuttiness.
- Sweet potatoes, a traditional part of American winter cooking, are great roasted or mashed, and are now widely available in the UK. They’re a good source of vitamins B6 and C, as well as beta-carotenes, potassium and copper.