Winter can be a challenging time for exercisers. Dark mornings and nights can affect mood, cold weather can make outdoor exercise far from attractive, wearing big clothes can reduce body awareness and lack of sunshine can reduce production of vitamin D. It’s no surprise that Seasonal Affective Disorder (or SAD for short) makes many of us feel less than great during the long, winter period.
Add to SAD the yearly cold and flu outbreaks and it’s a “perfect storm” that can undo all of the hard work of the warmer months. However, winter does not need to result in loss of fitness, weight gain or poor health and there are several things that can be done to prevent a seasonal decline.
Boost the immune system
The immune system comes under serious assault during the cold, winter months. Closed windows, central heating and sharing confined spaces with people who are unwell means that suffering illness during winter becomes increasingly likely.
Increased stress, a common feature for many people during the festive season and any other time when families gather together, can also suppress the immune system leaving it open to invasion.
However, steps can be taken to reduce the severity of illness and even prevent infection in the first place by boosting the immune system. Several nutrients play an important part in proper immune system function.
Vitamin C has long been associated with improving immune system function. Good sources of vitamin C include citrus fruits, berries, broccoli, sweet potatoes and red, green or yellow peppers.
Zinc, found in oysters, red meat, poultry, beans, nuts and whole grains has also been linked to optimal immune system function.
Fermented dairy products such as live yoghurt, kefir and sour cream as well as fermented foods such as sauerkraut, miso soup, tempeh and pickled vegetables are all high in probiotics. Probiotics help keep the gut healthy by repopulating stocks of good bacteria. This bacteria plays an important part in the function of the immune system. Ironically, the use of antibiotics can deplete good gut bacteria so to ensure a full recovery after being prescribed this kind of medication, consuming probiotic foods is a must.
It’s important to note that, as beneficial as these foods and nutrients are for proper immune system function, they should not be consumed in isolation but as part of a balanced, healthy diet.
Lack of sunshine can result in lack of vitamin D – vitamin D is produced on exposure to the ultraviolet light present in sunshine. A lack of vitamin D can cause depression, bone and/or joint pain and fatigue. Thankfully, and despite the sun making itself scarce during the winter, vitamin D is readily available from a variety of food sources including:
- Oily fish such as salmon, herring and mackerel
- Egg yolks
- Beef liver
- Portobello mushrooms
- Fortified cereal
- Fortified milk
Vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin which means it needs dietary fat to be effectively transported and utilised within the body. For this reason, healthy fats such as extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, butter from grass-fed cows and rapeseed oil as well as nuts and seeds should be consumed as part of a balanced and healthy diet.
Bad weather means that stodgy comfort foods are very appealing and who can forget the nutritional onslaught of the festive holiday season? It’s very easy to fall into the trap of overeating and gaining weight during the winter and wrapping up in warm, bulky clothes can disguise any weight gain.
However, when springtime rolls around, that layer of fat will have to come off. Losing fat requires a lot of work so it’s a much better idea to avoid overeating and minimise winter weight gain in the first place.
While the occasional indulgence is fine, frequent comfort eating is not so it is important not to allow comfort eating to become habitual. Rather than eating lots of unhealthy comfort foods such as cakes and puddings, eat healthy foods that contain a lot of vegetables and fibre and are also low in fat. Soups and stews can be very satisfying and warming but don’t need to be high in calories.
To minimise the impact of any high-calorie wintertime treats, time their consumption around exercise when insulin sensitivity and glut4 levels are elevated. This will promote the uptake of nutrients into muscle cells and away from fat cells.
Eat enough fruit and vegetables
Fruit and vegetables are nutritional powerhouses packed full of essential vitamins, minerals and fibre. However, fruit and vegetables that have travelled long distances are often lower in nutrients than those grown locally so it makes sense to consume seasonal, locally produced fruit and vegetables whenever possible.
Nutritious seasonal fruits and vegetables that are readily available in the winter months include pumpkins, butternut squash, apples, beetroot, courgettes, rocket, samphire, marrow, mushrooms, potatoes, leeks, blackberries, pears, plums and parsnips. Each of these foods is high in essential nutrients and should be very good value during the winter months.
Consume more good carbs
Cold, damp, dark weather can increase carb cravings and being cold tends to increase the need for carbs as the body needs extra energy to stay warm though involuntary thermogenesis – shivering.
Carbs can be healthy or unhealthy. Unhealthy carbs tend to be refined and contain a lot of sugar and while they provide a quick energy fix, a rapid and powerful insulin response can create a similarly quick energy slump. They are also easily converted to stored fat.
In contrast, healthy carbs are usually less processed and low in sugar so they release their energy more slowly. This helps to keep blood glucose levels and therefore energy levels stable.
Good winter carb options include potatoes, sweet potatoes, whole-grain breads and pastas, brown and wild rice, legumes, millet, quinoa, buckwheat and whole oats.
Wintertime hydration is still an important consideration despite the cold weather. Lower temperatures, sweating less and a general lack of thirst may mean that exercisers and non-exercisers alike drink less water and, instead, drink more comforting hot beverages such as tea, coffee, soup and chocolate.
While tea, coffee and even hot chocolate provide a useful source of water, their caffeine content means that urine output increases which could cancel out some of their contribution to hydration. To remedy this, try replacing some caffeinated beverages with caffeine-free alternatives such as herbal and fruit tea, soup, warm water with lemon, decaffeinated coffee and tea.
Prevention is better than a cure for the winter blues so put these tips into action to stay on track this winter.