It’s easier to stay on track with your diet in the spring and summer when farmers’ markets tempt you with fresh produce. As the days grow shorter and the temperatures drop, eating healthy becomes more of a challenge. When you get home from work and it’s dark outside, you may be less inclined to prepare a healthy meal. It becomes easier and more convenient to grab something quick and throw it in the microwave.
To make matters worse, some people end up with a case of the “winter doldrums.” How does this happen? Your eyes are exposed to less direct sunlight in the winter as the days grow shorter. The drop in light exposure causes hormones like melatonin, which regulates your sleep-wake cycle, and neurotransmitters like serotonin that regulate mood, to drop. Your energy levels dwindle and cravings for sugar increase.
Some people experience a more severe form of the doldrums called seasonal affective disorder. This is a mild form of depression triggered by seasonal change. The winter doldrums make it harder to muster up the motivation to work out. Plus, a drop in serotonin can trigger carb cravings. In some people, this creates a vicious cycle of too much snacking on sugary foods and too little exercise.
Then there are the holidays. According to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, most people don’t gain large amounts of weight around the holidays. In fact, the average holiday weight gain is only a little over a pound. Doesn’t sound like much, does it? The problem is most people don’t lose that extra pound. A pound of weight gain yearly adds up.
Winter weight gain isn’t inevitable, but the colder temperatures and lack of sunlight make it more challenging to maintain a healthy weight. What can you do to stay on track all with you winter nutrition all winter long?
Winter Nutrition Tip: Keep Easy-to-Prepare Healthy Foods Around
You may have less access to fresh fruits and vegetables in the winter but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the health benefits of fruits and vegetables. Keep frozen vegetables and antioxidant-rich berries in the freezer to prepare quick and healthy meals. Frozen fruits and vegetables are a rich source of phytochemicals that support healthy immune function. That’s important when cold and flu bugs are making their rounds. Because frozen produce is flash frozen at its peak of freshness, it offers the same nutritional benefits as fresh produce. Plus, you don’t have to wash and chop up frozen veggies. When it’s cold outside, make a big pot of vegetable soup using frozen veggies to warm up fast.
Winter Nutrition Tip: Get Enough Vitamin D
Spending less time outdoors means your skin is soaking up less direct sunlight. Winter is the season when vitamin D deficiency makes its appearance, especially if you live in a part of the country that gets little direct sunlight in the winter. Some research has linked low levels of vitamin D with weight gain. One study found older women with lower levels of vitamin D gained more weight over a 5-year period than those with sufficient levels of the “sunshine vitamin.”
As your vitamin D level drops you can experience other symptoms like fatigue and muscle aches and weakness. As a result, you feel less like exercising and more like lounging on the couch.
How can you get more vitamin D? Take advantage of sunny winter days by spending time outdoors. Add more foods that contain vitamin D to your diet like wild-caught salmon, eggs and vitamin D-fortified milk. It’s challenging to get enough vitamin D from diet alone. Ask your doctor to check your vitamin D level with a blood test to make sure you don’t need a vitamin D supplement.
Winter Nutrition Tip: Eat More Probiotic-Rich Foods
Inside your intestinal tract are trillions of bacteria that help maintain intestinal order. Preliminary research shows these gut-friendly bacteria help keep bad bacteria and yeast in check. Studies show obese women have gut bacteria that differ from those of lean women. In addition, some small studies show supplementing with certain strains of probiotic bacteria may help with weight loss. Other research suggests gut bacteria could affect appetite hormones and play a role in insulin resistance.
There’s another reason to make sure the population of bacteria in your gut is a “friendly” one. More than 70% of your immune system lies in your gut. Healthy gut bacteria help keep your immune system “primed” to fight off foreign invaders. While there’s no proof that taking probiotics prevents colds or the flu, there is support for this idea.
What’s the best way to seed your gut with gut-friendly probiotic bacteria? Supplement your diet with a cup of low-sugar yogurt with active cultures every day. Fermented foods of all types contain probiotic bacteria. Although probiotic supplements are available, it’s still not clear which probiotic bacterial strains offer the most benefits. Plus, you don’t know what you’re getting when you buy a probiotic supplement. If possible, get your gut-friendly bacteria from natural sources. Kimchi, anyone?
Winter Nutrition Tip: Clean Out the Cabinets and the Fridge
Make a “clean sweep,” literally. Don’t give yourself easy access to unhealthy foods and snacks. When you’re spending more time indoors, you have lots of opportunities to munch. Make sure what you’re noshing on is healthy.
Do a pre-winter kitchen clean-up and purge the sugary, processed items. Replace them with healthier fare that will satisfy a cold weather craving in a healthy manner. Nuts, yogurt, frozen berries, pumpkin seeds and modest amounts of dark chocolate are better-for-you options.
The Bottom Line?
When the weather outside is frightful and a little too cold for comfort, make sure you have plenty of healthy snack options on hand. Attention to nutrition will help prevent winter weight gain and keep your immune system primed to fight off winter colds and viruses.
N Engl J Med. 2000 Mar 23;342(12):861-7.
WebMD. “Low Vitamin D Linked to Weight Gain in Older Women” (2012)
Science Daily. “Certain probiotics could help women lose weight, study finds” (2014)
Mercola.com. “How Probiotics May Aid Your Weight Management” (2014)
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