As winter approaches and the days get shorter, darker and colder, it’s normal to feel less motivated when it comes to prioritising your health and fitness. While you may find it easy to eat a healthy, balanced diet during the summer months, during the winter, sometimes all we feel like doing is curling up on the sofa with a big bowl of comfort food.
However, winter comes with coughs, colds and flu, so it’s important to make sure we’re eating the right food to support our immune system, and boost our general wellbeing. The good news is that making healthy choices doesn’t have to mean compromising on either comfort or taste – there are plenty of tasty, nutritious foods that will keep you warm and well-nourished during the chillier months.
Keeping reading below for plenty of ideas for health-boosting foods, delicious winter warmers, and comforting snacks to help keep your energy up!
1. Stock up on plenty of immune-boosting foods
During the colder months, it becomes even more important to boost your immune system. Central heating, closed windows and going between cold outside temperatures and hot indoor environments can all increase the risk of getting ill, while the lack of sunlight can make you feel tired and affect your mood. The festive season can also be hectic at the best of times, but this year, the pandemic means that many of us will be dealing with additional stress – which can also suppress the immune system and increase the risk of infection.
Making sure you’re eating plenty of immune-boosting foods is one of the best ways to stay healthy.
While eating a healthy diet won’t necessarily stop you falling ill, it plays a vital role in strengthening your immune system. We’ll take a closer look at the specific foods that are most important for proper immune system function next, but it’s helpful to prepare in advance, so that you can make sure that you have a healthy supply of these items in your kitchen.
Many of us know that when it’s wet and dark outside it can be tempting to push healthy eating plans aside and just order a takeaway, or snack on fatty or sugary food instead. So, you can help yourself avoid temptation by ensuring you have plenty of fresh, healthy food available at home.
2. Eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, we should all be incorporating more whole plant foods into our diet. This means eating plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, which are packed with antioxidants and can decrease inflammation in your body. Chronic inflammation can harm your immune system and is linked to many health conditions including heart disease, Alzheimer’s and cancer. Plus, fruit and vegetables also contain plenty of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals, which can further help to strengthen your immune system.
To boost your immune system it’s important to eat plenty of vitamin C – so try to incorporate foods like citrus fruits, broccoli, kiwis, cauliflower, berries and dark leafy greens into your diet as much as possible. Vitamin C has been shown to aid in recovery of the common cold – and further studies suggest that being vitamin C deficient can increase the risk of becoming unwell.
When buying fruit and vegetables, do bear in mind that foods that have travelled long distances are often lower in nutrients, so it’s always a good idea to buy seasonal, locally grown produce if you can. Seasonal winter veg includes pumpkins, squash, parsnips, beetroot, courgettes, rocket, mushrooms, potatoes and leeks – while seasonal fruit includes blackberries, pears, plums and apples.
One of the best ways to ensure you’re eating plenty of veg this winter is to make soup. Soups are easy to make, healthy, and wonderfully restorative, and you can make a big batch and freeze the extra for a day when you don’t feel like cooking. Another reason soups are so great is because they’re so versatile. You can put almost anything into a soup, and there are recipes for every diet and taste preference – whether you prefer hearty meat-based soups or warming veggie soups. For more inspiration, check out these tasty soup recipes on the BBC Good Food website: from creamy curried chicken soup to truffled Jerusalem artichoke soup, there’s hopefully something for every palate here.
3. Eat fermented foods
Your immune system is closely linked to your gut, so another way you can increase your chances of keeping well this winter is to prioritise your gut health. Fermented foods are high in probiotics, which keep your gut healthy by repopulating good bacteria and quickly identifying harmful cells – and many studies show that the people who regularly eat fermented foods have a stronger immune response.
Fermented foods include live yoghurt, kefir, sauerkraut, miso soup, tempeh and pickled vegetables like kimchi, so try to incorporate these into your diet as much as you can. Something as small as having a warming cup of miso soup each afternoon can make a big difference.
4. Choose fibre-rich foods
When it’s cold and damp, many of us begin to crave heavier, stodgier foods. This may be because cold weather stimulates our survival instincts, and we feel an urge to fuel up on calorie-dense foods as soon as winter approaches. It may also be because eating warms us up. Eating is comforting, too, so during a time when many of us are experiencing the winter blues it’s understandable we’d want to eat more. Whatever the reason behind our cravings, there’s nothing wrong with treating yourself now and then.
However, when you do feel like eating something stodgy, it’s a good idea to try to choose the foods that are also fibre-rich – so things like oats, wholegrains, potatoes (with their skins on), and brown rice, pasta and bread. Fibre feeds the healthy bacteria that lives in your gut and encourages regular bowel movements, so choosing fibre-rich foods can further support your immune health and digestion. Plus, eating fibre also helps you feel full, which can reduce any unhealthy cravings.
Kicking off your morning with a high-fibre breakfast is one of the easiest ways to boost your fibre intake, as many of the foods that are often eaten at breakfast are naturally high in fibre – things like fruits, grains, seeds and beans. If you don’t fancy having cereal every morning, don’t worry; the internet is packed with quick and delicious high-fibre breakfast ideas – from quesadillas filled with eggs, spinach and beans to warming porridge topped with berries. Check out a few tasty high-fibre recipes over on Greatist.
5. Spice up your cooking
The winter months are a great time to get creative in the kitchen – and one of the best ways you can boost your health while cooking delicious meals is to use more of the spices that provide health benefits. Turmeric is proven to have many health benefits, including helping prevent heart disease, Alzheimer’s and cancer – plus, because it’s a very powerful antioxidant, it can also protect your body’s cells against damage. From aromatic curries to comforting noodle soups, check out these easy turmeric recipes from Olive Magazine.
Ginger and garlic also have antimicrobial properties, which means they can destroy harmful microorganisms like viruses, and lower your risk of infection. They’ve been used around the world for thousands of years for their medicinal benefits. If you want some ideas for using more ginger in your cooking, check out these suggestions from Bon Appetit – and if you want to eat more garlic, these 30 recipes should get you inspired. Alternatively, you could start your day with a spicy juice shot containing plenty of ginger and turmeric. Aside from being packed with the nutrients we need in winter, it’s a great way to spice up a dark winter morning!
6. Enjoy some winter warmers
When you’re out and it’s cold and miserable, it’s tempting to warm up with a seasonal winter warmer from a coffee shop. But while those eggnog lattes and creamy spiced mochas may taste great, they don’t provide us with much else but sugar and fat. Instead of choosing one of these caffeinated, high calorie drinks, try to fuel up with healthy hot drinks that warm your organs and muscles from the inside and stimulate circulation and metabolism.
We’ve already seen how good ginger is for your health, so why not try to get into the habit of drinking fresh ginger tea each morning? Hot lemon water is also meant to have many health benefits, and is a warming and refreshing way to start the day. If you prefer drinking coffee, you could add some festive flavours to your brew, like cinnamon and nutmeg. Cinnamon is thought to reduce inflammation and improve memory, while nutmeg contains compounds that boost mood, relieve pain, and lower blood pressure. For some ideas on healthy winter warmers you can knock up quickly, check out these hot drink recipes on Simple Most.
It’s also important to consider that many of us don’t stay as hydrated as we should be during winter. Because we’re not getting hot or sweating much, we’re often not aware how much water we’re losing – but it’s just as important to hydrate during the winter months as it is in summer. The NHS suggests drinking six to eight glasses of water a day during the winter, so having a few healthy winter warmers each day can help you achieve this.
7. Keep your energy levels up with healthy snacks
Cold weather can make us tired and hungry – and when we’re tired and hungry, snacking on unhealthy treats can be more tempting. This can be especially challenging over the festive period, when many of us have lots of indulgent and snackable foods at home! While it’s fine to treat yourself and enjoy your favourite foods over the Christmas period, it can be easy to get into the habit of overeating. To keep your energy levels up – and to keep hunger at bay – try to make sure you’ve got plenty of healthy foods to nibble on when you feel a bit peckish.
Nuts are one of the best things to snack on in the winter. Not only are they suitably festive, but they also contain serotonin (a “happy hormone”), which can boost your mood during the gloomy months, and they’re packed with healthy fats that act as natural anti-inflammatories. Plus, because they’re high in B vitamins (which help you convert food to energy), and magnesium (which helps prevent muscle tiredness) they can actively help you fight winter fatigue.
Other foods containing healthy fats that are good to snack on include boiled eggs, dark chocolate (although ideally, only a few squares!), avocados, fatty fish like smoked salmon, and chia seeds. If the thought of snacking on seeds doesn’t excite you, check out these deliciously decadent chia seed pudding recipes: from refreshing pineapple protein puddings to chocolate and peanut butter, these work equally well as a breakfast or dessert. If you want some more inspiration for healthy winter snacks that will keep your energy levels up, then check out these ideas by Brit + Co. Ricotta plum toast, roasted sweet potato bites, spinach and courgette muffins… there’s hopefully something for every type of snacker here.
8. Get your dose of sunshine
Lack of sunshine can reduce the production of vitamin D – and being deficient in vitamin D can lead to depression, fatigue, and bone and joint pain. You can get vitamin D from a variety of foods including oily fish like salmon and mackerel, portobello mushrooms, fortified cereal and milks, egg yolks and fortified juice.
The government also recommends that we consider taking a vitamin D supplement (in a safe amount) during the autumn and winter months when sunlight is less available. According to the NHS, a safe dose for the average person is 10 micrograms (400 IU) of vitamin D each day between October and March. It’s important that you do not take more than the recommended daily amount, as vitamin D has the ability to build up in the body in toxic amounts, which could lead to serious health complications. If you’re thinking about taking a supplement, or you’re concerned about your vitamin D levels, then it’s always best to speak to your GP first, as they can advise you on what the right course of action is, based on your individual circumstances.
You can buy vitamin D supplements from Amazon, from your local pharmacist or supermarket, or from Holland & Barrett. To find out more about vitamin D, you might want to have a read of our article. While we can’t get enough vitamin D from the sun alone during winter, it’s still good to get outside every day when it’s still light, even if it’s for a brisk walk around the block. Not only is every bit of exercise beneficial, fresh air and daylight is also good for boosting our mood.
The winter season can seem bleak at the best of times – but after the events of this year, many of us will be dealing with increased stress levels, or feelings of isolation. This means it’s even more important to prioritise our health and wellbeing over the next few months. By making sure you’re eating the right foods this winter, you’ll help to give yourself a better chance of staying well and feeling positive over the months to come – as well as ensuring you’re fighting fit for the year ahead.
Do you have any favourite winter recipes, or things you like to eat or drink when it’s cold outside? We’d love to hear your ideas! Leave us a comment below or join the conversation over on the health community.