Baby, it’s cold outside! And I am looking for ways to warm up! That means staying indoors a lot more, drinking loads of herbal tea, and eating foods that heat me up from the inside out. (This is the one time of year that I hesitate to have my smoothie for breakfast as I end up feeling colder afterward.)
Although we feel like swimsuit season is a long way away and perhaps a few more pounds are good for insulation, there’s no need to go crazy on carb-loaded comfort foods or to ignore nutrition altogether.
So let’s talk about how to eat during winter to stay (at least mostly) on our journey to optimal health and well-being…
Traditional Chinese Medicine
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the element is Water and symbolizes the beginning and the end of life. Babies develop within amniotic fluid; we use water to cleanse us on the inside and the outside to continue life; and water is often used in rituals that symbolize renewal such as baptisms. On the other side, water can be an agent of death and destruction as a flood, hurricane and snow storm. And a bit less traumatic, people cross the river Styx on their way to death, according to Greek mythology.
Rather unsurprisingly, the climate associated with Winter is Cold. In this season, we are encouraged to rest, rejuvenate and reserve our energy for the Spring. We got rid of the things that no longer serve us during the Autumn, so we can spend this season hibernating with only those things that are necessary and beneficial.
The taste of the season is salt. As I mentioned in my blog post about sodium and chloride (aka, salt), sodium’s primary role in the body is fluid retention. By ensuring we have sufficient sodium in our bodies, our bodies stay hydrated and hydration is important for temperature control.
Foods of the season are salty such as sea salt and seaweed. They also like to grow in damp conditions like mushrooms or grow horizontally representing waves like squash, melons and grapes. (I’m not sure that wine is also in this category, but we’ll go with that too. Ha!) Finally, Winter foods are blue, black or purple which represents the darkness of the season and include black beans, blueberries, eggplant, purple potatoes and wild rice.
Feed Your Body for the Fight
Not only is the climate cold, but it’s also cold and flu season, so we need to give our bodies all the nutrients it needs to fight off these harmful microorganisms. The best way to do that is to get plenty of nutrients and antioxidants that boost your immune system. Eat a wide variety of colorful veggies using slow cooking methods like roasting to put heat and nutrients into your body.
As well, a varied diet can give you the vitamins and minerals your immune system needs to keep fighting the good fight. These include:
- Vitamin A: keeps the lining of the eyes, lungs and gut in tact so microbes can’t get in
- Vitamin D: supports an appropriate immune response (i.e., not too much and not too little)
- Vitamin E: a fat-soluble antioxidant that prevents free radicals from weakening the immune system
- Vitamin C: cleans up free radicals generated by immune cells as they devour microbes
- B vitamins (B6, folate, B12): necessary for the creation of proteins, from which all human cells are made
- Selenium: antioxidant that boosts glutathione function, which helps the liver clean out toxins and destroyed microbes
- Zinc: necessary for the creation of new cells, especially important when your body needs to ramp up immune cell production
- Copper: prevents damage to immune system cells by free radicals
- Iron: component of enzymes which are involved in the destruction of microbes
You don’t need to take supplements to get all of these wonderful nutrients. You just need to eat real food, as processed food will have had many of the nutrients stripped out during processing.
Also, remember that sugar prevents your immune system from responding to foreign invaders. So, while I get that sweet comfort foods are all the rage when it’s cold outside, I encourage you to not go overboard. By getting loads of nutrients that support your immune system and limiting those foods that hinder its ability to respond, you may just avoid getting a cold or flu this season.
What’s in Season
Two notes before getting into all the foods that are in season for winter:
- This list does not include things that are considered, from a farming perspective, to be in season year round like apples, bananas, carrots and celery.
- True seasonality varies by location, so check with your farmers’ market or on-line local publications (like this one for the US from Epicurious) to get the most accurate list.
Vegetables and herbs:
|Broccoli||Brussels sprouts||Butternut squash||Cabbage|
|Cilantro||Collard greens||Delicata squash||Dill|
|Red currants||Tamarillo||Tangerines||Ugli fruit|
Winter is a great time for shellfish. In fact, my sister-in-law (who lives in California) has a Christmas tradition of eating Dungeness crab for Christmas Eve dinner. That is a ritual I can definitely get behind! In addition to crab, you can also get clams, mussels, oysters and scallops this time of year.
There are not many fish that are in season specifically in winter. The few ocean dwellers that are available are Dover sole – Pacific (in December), onaga, opakapaka and tuna – big eye.
Of course, you can continue to get year round fish like amberjack (yellowtail kingfish), American shad, arctic char, black drum, catfish, crappie, hiramasa (sashimi grade yellowtail kingfish), ono (wahoo), opah (moonfish), sunfish, swordfish, tilapia and yellow perch.
Land animals in season for winter are those that foraged during the summer and fall. These include duck, goose, partridge, quail, rabbit, venison and beef. With produce being less abundant in the winter, it’s nice to know plenty of calories can be had from animal proteins which can be converted to fat or carbohydrates as needed.
Eggs are at their lowest natural production in the winter because, just like us, the chickens are using their energy to stay warm rather than producing eggs. Remember if you are looking for eggs from pastured chickens, they may not be so readily available at this time of year. Never fear though! There are plenty of other ways to get protein from all the land animals and shellfish that are in season, plus there are plenty of plant-based sources of protein.
—Chef’s Resource Inc. Fresh Fish Availability Chart. Accessed on December 17, 2015. http://www.chefs-resources.com/Fresh-Fish-Availability
— Eat the Seasons. Accessed on December 17, 2015. http://www.eattheseasons.com/december.php
— Maggini S, Wintergerst ES, Beveridge S, Hornig DH. Selected vitamins and trace elements support immune function by strengthening epithelial barriers and cellular and humoral immune responses. British Journal of Nutrition. 2007;98(S1):S29-35.
— New York State Department of Conservation. Statewide angling regulations. In Outdoor Activities. Accessed on December 17, 2015. http://www.dec.ny.gov/outdoor/31421.html
— Orange County Herb Society. Seasonal Guide to Herb Gardening. Accessed on December 17, 2015. http://www.ocherbsoc.org/seasons.html
— Produce for Better Health Foundation. What’s Fruits & Vegetables are in Season During Winter? Accessed on December 17, 2015.http://www.fruitsandveggiesmorematters.org/whats-in-season-winter
— Reichstein G. Wood Becomes Water: Chinese Medicine in Everyday Life. New York, NY: Kodansha International; 1998.
— Salatan J. Seasonal Eating Supports Local Farmers. Mother Earth News. 2007. Accessed December 17, 2015. http://www.motherearthnews.com/real-food/seasonal-eating-zmaz07aszgoe.aspx?PageId=1
— United States Department of Agriculture. Seasonal produce guide. In SNAP-Ed Connection. Accessed December 17, 2015. http://snap.nal.usda.gov/nutrition-through-seasons/seasonal-produce