Winter brings dozens of viruses and other health complaints, often leaving us feeling rundown or reaching for the tissues. Dietitian Caitlin Reid reveals the foods that can help you beat the winter woes.
Winter woe # 1: Colds and flu
A runny nose and a sore throat are two signs that winter has arrived! Colds and flus are spread from person to person, as droplets in the air, when people cough or sneeze. They can be inhaled directly, or be spread when a person touches a surface where droplets have landed. Germs then enter the body via the mouth, nose or eyes. Although generally not life-threatening, they cost our society an enormous amount in terms of medical visits, sick days and general discomfort. While there is no evidence that catching a cold or the flu is related to what we eat, nutrition is extremely important for maintaining our body’s immune function. Boost your immunity with these foods.
Eat citrus fruits
Why? They’re packed full of vitamin C, which has been found to help reduce the duration and severity of a cold when taken as a preventative measure. A review of the research has found that regularly consuming 200mg of vitamin C (equal to three medium oranges) shortens cold duration by 8 per cent in adults and 14 per cent in children. Large doses of vitamin C are also likely to alleviate the symptoms of a cold, making it easier to endure. Citrus fruits are in season during winter, so take advantage – it’s what our body needs!
The old wives’ tale that garlic helps fight colds and flu may just be true. Garlic’s health benefits can be attributed to allicin, which gives garlic its characteristic odour and many of its antioxidant properties. A study published in the journal Advances in Therapy found that people given a garlic supplement containing allicin had a shorter duration of illness and were less likely to develop a cold than those who didn’t take the supplement. However, though garlic supplements may be effective for cold prevention in adults, they are not recommended for kids, so add cooked garlic to their meals instead. Try our slow-cooked Beef ragu with gnocchi – which includes capsaicin-containing chilli that may temporarily open up your nasal passages and airways, allowing you to breathe more easily.
Drink green tea
Not only does green tea keep you alert yet relaxed, it appears to also reduce the likelihood and severity of illness. A 2007 study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition showed that people taking a special preparation of green tea as a capsule experienced colds and flu 23 per cent less often and had 36 per cent fewer sick days compared with people who didn’t take the green tea capsules. The immune systems of the people taking the green tea capsules produced more cells that fought off illness-causing bacteria and viruses. Anyone for a cuppa?
Winter woe # 2: Winter depression
Has winter got you down? Well, you aren’t the only one. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also known as winter depression, is a form of depression caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain related to a lack of light in winter and subsequent changes in circadian rhythm. While SAD appears to affect just 0.3 per cent of Australians (as our position on the globe ensures we receive a good amount of sunlight), we can suffer from a milder version of it, known as subsyndromal SAD, which causes depressive symptoms such as lethargy, anxiety, moods swings, overeating and sleep disturbances.
Eat low-GI carbs
Pasta and other low-GI carbohydrates, such as wholegrain bread, have been found to raise serotonin levels in the body. Serotonin is a ‘satisfaction’ neurotransmitter, which boosts mood and wellbeing, so eating pasta can help restore the balance of ‘happy’ chemicals in our brain. Not all carbohydrates are equal, so avoid refined, sugary carbohydrates which give us a short-term serotonin boost at the expense of a sharp drop soon after. Stick to low-GI carbs and you’ll not only maintain your serotonin levels, you’ll reduce cravings for sugary foods. Try one of these pasta bakes: Roasted Mediterranean vegetable lasagne, Creamy chicken and vegies pasta bake, Beef ragu with gnocchi, Boscaiola bake.
Snack on yoghurt
Yoghurt contains tryptophan, an amino acid that is needed to make serotonin. Yoghurt also contains carbohydrates, which help make tryptophan more available to the brain, as well as calcium, which makes the brain more efficient at using tryptophan. Furthermore, according to a study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, choosing a yoghurt containing probiotics can boost mood in people who are already suffering low mood. Try a dollop with our delicious Apple and almond galette, and enjoy the added benefit of an antioxidant-rich apple dessert.
Get your vitamin D
Australian research has found that vitamin D can significantly enhance mood in healthy individuals given a concentrated dose of 400–800 IU (International Units). To boost your own mood, make sure you’re getting your dose of ‘the sunshine vitamin’. During winter aim for 30 minutes in the sun on most days with 15 per cent of your skin uncovered by clothes. If you’re not getting enough sunshine, look for vitamin D-fortified foods like Anlene milk. Good sources of vitamin D include salmon, tuna and table spread.
Eat Brazil nuts
Bad day? Eat Brazil nuts – just one or two will give you your daily intake of the mineral selenium, which is believed to boost mood. Five studies have reported that a low selenium intake is associated with poorer mood, but researchers believe you may need to be selenium-deficient in the first place to benefit, as a large-scale study in 2006 found selenium supplementation had no effect on mood and quality of life in the elderly. Of course, even if Brazil nuts don’t give you back your pep, they’re still a nutritious, high-fibre snack packed full of vital nutrients.
Winter woe # 3: Stomach bug
Winter stomach bugs cause unpleasant, non-fatal infections that last only a few days, but are extremely contagious and easily spread. You might seem fine and then, without warning, experience severe vomiting and, possibly, diarrhoea. The continuous loss of fluid can lead to extreme dehydration.
Drink sports drinks
Drinks such as Gatorade help restore fluid and electrolytes quickly, while supplying you with some much-needed carbohydrates for energy. Although it’s specially formulated to help rehydrate and replace electrolytes in athletes, it can also benefit people, especially kids, with stomach bugs. (Sick kids suffering from vomiting, diarrhoea and fever can dehydrate very quickly.) Cases of severe diarrhoea and vomiting require expert advice, so consult your doctor.
Try dry crackers
With an upset stomach, it’s best to eat easily digested foods such as dry crackers or toast. Crackers, dry or with a little Vegemite, are the second-most recommended treatment for nausea and vomiting (second to eating small, frequent meals). They’re bland foods, which are easily digested by the body and well tolerated. When you can keep down dry crackers, other foods such as cereal, rice and fruit can be brought back into the diet, but avoid fatty and spicy foods – as you might have guessed, they can be unsettling to the stomach.
Winter woe # 4: Coughs and chest infections
A tight chest, wheezing and constant coughing are all signs of a chest infection. Two common chest infections, bronchitis and pneumonia, are most common during the cooler months and can be caused by either a virus or bacteria. Young children, the elderly, smokers and people who are already ill are most at risk of developing chest infections.
Cook with colour
Specifically, yellow and orange vegies such as carrots, pumpkin and squash. These vegetables are all great sources of the antioxidant beta-carotene, which breaks down in the body to form vitamin A. Vitamin A helps the proteins that regulate cell-to-cell communication, which is the foundation of the immune system. Research also suggests that vitamin A may help keep the respiratory system healthy, which is particularly helpful when you have a cold or the flu.
Sip on chicken soup
In 2000, US researchers discovered why chicken soup really is a remedy for the common cold. The study found that in addition to providing nutrition and hydration, chicken soup contains anti-inflammatory properties that could help ease chest infections. It doesn’t matter whether it is bought or homemade, it will still have therapeutic benefits. Just make sure you serve it hot, as heated fluids are superior to cold fluids when you’re aiming to remove mucus from the upper respiratory tract.
Get your vitamin D
Make sure you get enough vitamin D – reasearch has found it reduces the likelihood of respiratory infections. A recent US study of 19,000 adults and adolescents found healthy people with the lowest vitamin D levels were about 40 per cent more likely to have a recent respiratory infection than those with higher vitamin D levels. The risk is even higher for people with chronic respiratory disorders such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, so make sunshine a priority in your day and eat foods high in vitamin D, such as tuna, salmon and table spread.
Apart from being iron-rich, lamb is also a great source of zinc which is important for the production of immune cells. Zinc also ensures the proper function of leukocytes, white blood cells that protect the body against infection and foreign materials. For this reason zinc supplementation has been considered as a means of reducing respiratory tract infections, although the medical world remains divided: research released this year has found no benefits of zinc supplementation when 15mg of zinc was given daily to US Air Force Academy Cadets. Researchers now believe that higher doses may be required in order to see any proper benefit. But don’t go too high: zinc dosage greater than 40mg a day can cause stomach upsets and even vomiting.
Winter woe # 5: Feeling lethargic
An aching body, sheer fatigue and drowsiness are all signs of lethargy. While at times there can be more serious reasons behind fatigue, lethargy linked to the common cold can soon be alleviated with sleep, stress reduction, rest and good nutrition.
Eat thiamin-rich foods
Thiamin, a B vitamin, helps to break down carbohydrates into usable energy, helping you power through the day with a spring in your step. Inadequate thiamin can cause overall lassitude, a loss of appetite and feelings of numbness and weakness. Boost your daily intake by adding two spoonfuls of thiamin-rich wheatgerm to your morning cereal.
Eat 3–4 serves of red meat a week
Did you know that getting adequate iron prevents not only anaemia but also feelings of lethargy? Or that iron boosts immunity? Eating iron-rich red meat is also a great way to get a dose of amino acid tyrosine, which boosts the levels of brain chemicals dopamine and norepinephrine. These can help you feel more alert and focused. Boost your iron intake by adding our healthy Steak Diane to your weekly menu.
Get enough vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 is an important vitamin that works closely with other B vitamins to regulate the formation of red blood cells and to help iron function better in the body. If you are not getting enough of it, you’ll know about it – inadequate vitamin B12 is linked to fatigue, shortness of breath and numbness and tingling in toes and fingers. Vitamin B12 also helps synthesise the coenzyme S-adenosylmethionine, a compound involved in immune function and mood, so eat up on foods such as skinless chicken for a healthier winter.
Winter woe # 6: Dry skin and lips
With chilling winds and extreme temperature changes, it’s no wonder many of us develop dry skin and chapped lips in winter. Low humidity draws moisture from our skin, disrupting our skin’s delicate water balance and subsequently preventing it from functioning at its best.
Drink plenty of water
Our skin acts as a tough but flexible protective barrier against the extremes, provided it is well-hydrated; but if its water content falls below 10 per cent, it becomes dry, less flexible and increasingly prone to damage. You can help prevent your skin from drying out this winter by drinking hot soups (try Moroccan quinoa and vegetable soup), water and tea, and eating a range of fluid-rich fruit and vegetables. Having plump skin is a sign that the lipid structure of our cells is maintained, which is vital to the skin’s water-retaining properties and the prevention of tight skin.
Omega-3 fats are good for yet another reason – they’re important for healthy skin-cell structure. The stronger your skin cells, the better your skin holds in moisture, which has the extra bonus of keeping skin looking plump. There are plenty of great sources of omega-3s, such as oily fish, so start by tantalising your taste buds with our Baked salmon with beetroot tzatziki.
Get daily vitamin C
Vitamin C may help to reduce skin dryness and wrinkling. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that increasing vitamin C intake by 30 per cent resulted in a 7 per cent reduction in the likelihood of skin dryness and an 11 per cent reduction in wrinkling. So start eating those oranges right now!
The omega-6 fat, linoleic acid, is a component of sebum – an oily substance produced by glands in the skin to lubricate and protect it. It does this by blocking harmful substances from entering the skin while at the same time allowing water to leave. According to a 2007 US study, higher intake of linoleic acid is associated with reduced dryness of the skin and less skin shrinkage. Good sources of linoleic acid include sunflower seeds, safflower and sunflower oil.
Winter woe # 7: Winter weight gain
Cold weather tends to move life inside – around the dining table, onto the sofa and underneath the blankets. We use the lower temperature as a justification for our inactivity, and illogically think we need more food for fuel, despite our reduced movement. Loose trackie-pants mask our growing waistline, with the average person gaining 0.5–1kg during winter. But weight gain during winter doesn’t have to be inevitable.
Enjoy a skinny hot chocolate
A mug of skinny hot chocolate kills two birds with one stone – you’ll crush sweet cravings and get a dose of skim milk. According to researchers from the University of Tennessee, skim milk has it all: calcium to increase fat breakdown in fat cells; magnesium and phosphorus to enhance calcium’s effects; and protein to preserve muscle mass during weight loss. Enjoy your hot, skim milk drink as you curl up in front of the heater.
Fill up with salad
Eating 150g–300g of salad before a meal can reduce your kilojoule intake by up to 17 per cent, depending on the type of salad and dressing. It does this by creating distention in the stomach, which enhances feelings of satiety and reduces overall kilojoule intake. If you don’t like eating salads in winter, low-kilojoule vegies such as zucchini and broccoli will do the trick, too.