How to eat healthily during winter
Struggling to keep up your healthy eating during winter? As the nights begin to draw in, it can be tempting to reach for rich and comforting foods. For many of us this means carbohydrates, especially refined carbs.
Here, Dr Harriet Holme, a registered nutritionist, shares the secrets of eating well during the cooler months.
Healthy eating during winter
Why do we crave carbohydrates during winter?
Many of us find we are drawn to more comforting carbohydrates during the winter and there may be an evolutionary reason for this. Research shows that physiological adjustments in animals coincide with cyclical seasonal changes in our environment.
Increased body fat is one such adjustment that’s evolved to favour survival through the harsh winter months. This process begins as our daylight hours shorten (known as the photoperiod). This signifies future seasonal change and triggers a series of physiological changes across the animal kingdom.
What the science says
Studies also show that cortisol hormone levels show seasonality, with generally raised levels in winter compared with summer. These hormones are secreted during times of stress and play a role in the regulation of our blood sugar levels. When stress hits, they intervene to increase our blood sugar levels, ensuring that our brain has plenty of the sugar it needs to function optimally. They do this by promoting the synthesis of new glucose in the liver (a process known as gluconeogenesis) and by reducing the uptake of this glucose in our muscles and fat.
These hormones also oppose the effect of insulin (the hormone responsible for clearing and storing the sugar circulating our blood), leading to a further rise in blood glucose.
Chronically raised blood sugar levels can lead to weight gain, insulin resistance and an increased risk of type-2 diabetes. These hormones also have a possible opposing action on leptin (the hormone responsible for letting us know we’re full), as seen in mice, which can also lead to overeating and weight gain. While research has found that cortisol secretion associated with chronic stress is linked to a greater preference for energy and nutrient-dense foods, the same is true during higher levels of cortisol in the winter period. From an evolutionary perspective, these physiological changes would have been advantageous, helping us to gain weight during the winter period to survive during times of food shortage and cooler temperatures.
It’s not all bad news, however. It’s still possible to eat well and enjoy winter while avoiding significant weight gain.
What to eat during winter
Where possible, swap refined carbohydrates for wholegrain carbohydrates such as brown rice, millet, teff (a protein-rich seed), brown pasta, quinoa and bulgur wheat.
Wholegrain carbohydrates are so much more nutritious than their refined counterparts. They also contain substantially more fibre, which is good for your gut microbiota. If you aim to stick to a balanced plate of food it is easier to steer clear of temptation.
What’s on your plate?
Half of your plate should be fruit and vegetables, with a quarter of good-quality protein, a quarter wholegrains and spoonful of healthy oils/fats, such as extra virgin olive oil or avocado. Meal plans are a great way of cutting down waste and make shopping for food quicker and easier, while helping you to stick to healthy choices.
While there is no healthy meal plan that works for absolutely everyone, for the majority of adults, these practical tips should form the foundation.
- Eat a wide range of vegetables and some fruit.
- Aim to eat seasonally to reduce food miles and potentially benefit from higher nutrient content.
- Choose wholegrain carbohydrates (brown rice, wholegrain brown bread, millet, bulgur wheat etc).
- Incorporate fermented food such as kefir, kimchi and sauerkraut into your diet.
- Opt for healthy fats such as extra virgin olive oil, avocados and nuts.
- Aim for two portions of oily fish such as salmon or mackerel per week – or nuts and seeds if you don’t eat fish.
- Snack on a small handful of nuts and seeds each day.
- Aim for 30g of fibre a day.
- Eat a range of beans and pulses (such as chickpeas, kidney beans, black beans and lentils).
Over the festive period, eating healthy food needn’t mean a restricted plate of tasteless food. There are many ways to celebrate and indulge while eating nutritious food.
For example, for Christmas lunch, fill up on an extra portion of green vegetables and have half roast potatoes and half sweet potatoes. If you have a cheese course, choose artisanal cheeses (not processed cheese). These contain more of the beneficial microbes that may positively contribute to gut microbiota diversity.