Winter is the season of snowball fights and skiing, going inside only when frozen to melt and warm up, sipping hot chocolate in front of a blazing fire.
Of course, some never venture out, opting instead to stay inside and binge-watch iZombie.
It’s also the season of being laid out with the flu, heavy coughs and head colds that take forever to shake off. Staying healthy when it turns cold requires a strong immune system, and the basis of that depends largely on what you eat.
Check out what the experts have to say, and then compare their recommendations to your own winter diet. Maybe a couple of tweaks (or beetroots) is all it’ll take to keep you healthy and flu-free this winter.
Best Foods for Winter
Eating for a Strong Immune System
Keeping your immune system in top shape is key to fighting off winter colds and flus, and eating well is your first line of defense. Registered nutritionist Teresa Boyce offers her top 10 winter superfoods at Body+Soul:
- carrots (vitamin A)
- wheat germ (B vitamins, iron, zinc and vitamin E)
- raw garlic
- natural plain yogurt
- fennel (in the carrot family; high in the phytonutrient anethole)
- tangelo or honeybell (cross between tangerine and grapefruit; high in vitamin C)
- salmon (one of the few dietary sources of vitamin D)
- beetroot (phytochemicals)
- eggs (protein, B vitamins, vitamins A, D and zinc)
- dark chocolate (iron, magnesium and zinc)
Nutritionist Daisy Whitbread at HealthAliciousNess adds a few more choices to those foods that boost your immune system:
- butternut squash and sweet potatoes (vitamin A)
- chilies, guavas, bell peppers, broccoli, papayas, and strawberries (vitamin C)
- oysters, wheat germ, peanuts, and sesame, pumpkin and squash seeds (zinc)
She writes that vitamin A “plays a key role in production of white blood cells, vital for fighting off infection.” Zinc, she says, “is necessary for the creation and activation of lymphocytes. Zinc has also been shown to help alleviate symptoms of the common cold, and may even accelerate the time to recovery.”
What Picky Eaters Can Do
Feeding children healthy foods can be difficult, especially if you have picky eaters, acknowledges registered dietitian Jessica Cording at the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. But there are things you can do to entice picky kids (or adults).
For example, if you’ve got children who refuse grilled or broiled salmon, Cording says to “try using a marinade or sauce they love on other foods — or cut the fish into small pieces and make kebabs with veggies.”
Her choice of a winter citrus fruit is clementines: They appeal to children because they’re easy to peel and usually seedless. In addition to Vitamin C and fiber, they “contain calcium, magnesium, phosphorous and potassium for strong bones and good muscle function.” Cording recommends tossing sections into salads, which may make the greens more appealing to young eaters.
The sweet taste of both winter squash and yams or sweet potatoes are popular with most kids, but one good-for-you vegetable may require a bit more creativity if you’re dealing with a veggie-balker: Cauliflower. A work-around here, Cording says, is to “try making cauliflower ‘rice’ in a food processor and adding it to stir-fries.”
More immunity boosters for kids come your way from Essential Kids’ Dr. Joanna McMillan, a dietitian and nutritionist. She takes advantage of the nutritional value of onions and garlic in pasta sauce and leeks in her leek and potato soup. Try making soups from dark, leafy greens, or finely shred the greens and add to sauces and stews. Used in a paste with ricotta cheese, you can pack a nutritious punch with your cannelloni.
Dr. McMillan notes that “70% of the immune system is in the gut and so good gut health is at the core of strong immunity.” She strongly recommends adding legumes such as beans, chickpeas and lentils to your family’s diet.
“Legumes are rich in soluble fibre and resistant starch,” she explains, “both of which fuel the good bacteria in the gut and in turn boosts immune function. They also provide plant protein and an array of nutrients.”
How Vegans Should Adjust for Winter Diets
Winters are hard on vegans and vegetarians. Vegan Diane Vukovic at PlenteousVeg writes that “to stay healthy as a vegetarian during the winter, you will have to get creative with all the winter fruits and veggies.”
This means planning ahead and buying loads of local vegetables peppers, greens and beans in season, then chopping them up and freezing them for use in winter. You can dehydrate fruits and also learn how to pickle in order to bring variety to your diet.
The Calcium/Vitamin D Connection
While a well-balanced diet and regular exercise are crucial to optimal health, sometimes things are out of your control. For instance, people who live in the Midwest know how dreary winter can be, sometimes going days on end with very little sunshine.
Exposure to sunlight is necessary for bone health. The Vitamin D Council, a non-profit organization that educates the public on vitamin D, sun exposure and health, writes: “The two main ways to get vitamin D are by exposing your bare skin to sunlight and by taking vitamin D supplements. You can’t get the right amount of vitamin D your body needs from food.”
During the winter months, then, people in northern climates especially need to maintain their levels of vitamin D through supplements.
It’s important to note that vitamin D works in conjunction with calcium, itself a mineral “necessary for life,” writes the National Osteoporosis Foundation. Without vitamin D, the body can’t absorb calcium. This means that you can have all the calcium in the world, but if you don’t have sufficient vitamin D, you can’t process the calcium properly.
Vitamin D deficiencies can show up in many ways:
- If an elderly person suffers a fragility fracture, for instance, the underlying cause may well be a Vitamin D deficiency.
- The same deficiency can impact young people, as well, and may be indicated by a youth who is not healing well after surgery to repair a bone fracture.
- Rickets are also a classic problem associated with not getting enough vitamin D.
Vitamin D is sometimes mentioned as something that can help those suffering from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), but the team at Berkeley Wellness says this isn’t true. “Studies testing vitamin D supplements for depression have had inconsistent or inconclusive results. Research has indeed linked low vitamin D to depression in general, but it’s unclear whether it is a cause or effect of depression — or just a marker for spending little time outdoors.”
Is Something Wrong With Our Food?
Other than perhaps Vitamin D, you would think that a varied diet of health food would give us all the nutrients we need. There are several reasons that this simply isn’t the case, and the team at Good Health explores why:
- The more food is processed, the more nutrients it loses. We know this, but the convenience factor is hard to beat when our time-pressed lives become busier, so “we turn to convenient, pre-packed (and processed) foods, starving our bodies of the nutrients they need.”
- Produce harvested early for shipping results in significantly lower nutritional value when compared to fruits and vegetables harvested ripe and eaten fresh.
- Long storage periods also deplete produce of nutrients.
- Consumer demand actually makes quality a lower priority. “Fruit and vegetables are often grown for commercial value, rather than nutritional value, opting for size or quantity over vitamin content.” In a related vein, over-farming and the use of fertilizers can result in soil that is deficient in minerals, such as selenium and zinc.
What about if you eat frozen fruits and vegetables in winter, when local fresh produce simply isn’t available?
Nutritionist Heather Bauer at Bestowed writes that both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the International Food Information Council (IFIC) are reporting “that nutrients in produce are generally NOT lost during freezing (and canning), and they provide the same essential nutrients and health benefits as fresh.”
“Before getting to the freezer, frozen fruits and vegetables are picked, quickly blanched (cooked for a short time in boiling water or steamed), and immediately frozen and packaged, generally when nutrient levels are at their highest,” she says. “Any fruits and vegetables are better than none at all.”