As the long, light evenings of summer fade and we begin to head into autumn, chilly days and unpredictable weather can bring with them a variety of bugs and colds, often leaving us feeling run down, zapped of energy and, at times, overcome by the winter blues.
At this time of year, comfort foods and sugary treats always seem to be around us, and the chillier weather can make the gym feel like the last place you want to be. But this autumn and winter, boosting your immune defences is more pertinent, and the good news is that with a healthy, balanced diet, you can put yourself in the best possible position to fight off whatever might come your way – and beating those cravings while boosting your energy levels is easier than you think.
Here, we take a look at how to overhaul your diet for the new season ahead to ensure you’re at peak performance and optimum immunity throughout.
Focus on healthier carbs
The shorter days and reduced exposure to daylight in autumn and winter can lead to a drop in serotonin levels, which can lead to the low mood and lethargy that are commonly associated with the winter blues. Not only that, but it can also send cravings skyrocketing as you seek out that much needed dopamine hit, with sugary foods like cakes and biscuits and refined carbs such as pasta and bread often the first things we want to reach for.
But you don’t have to give into unhealthy food choices to feel better – in fact, they will likely cause your energy levels to crash and ultimately, leave you feeling a whole lot worse. According to research, introducing complex carbohydrates like brown rice, quinoa and wholemeal bread into your diet instead can actually boost serotonin levels, as well as giving you a more sustainable form of slow-release energy throughout the day.
Try to include plenty of nuts, seeds and wholegrains in your diet, and add vegetables like sweet potatoes, yams and butternut squash in place of refined breads and pastas – you’ll get an added fibre hit to improve your digestion by doing so, too.
Consider adding zinc supplements and vitamins C, D to your diet
In today’s fast-paced, busy way of life, getting all of the nutrients you need into your diet daily can be challenging, but supplementing with some of the essentials will ensure that you have all bases covered. In particular, the likes of zinc and vitamin supplements like vitamin C, D can help meet the challenges of staying healthy in the winter.
Vitamin C, found naturally in a variety of different fruits and vegetables, is vital when it comes to boosting your immunity, while vitamin D, which our bodies are usually able to synthesise from exposure to the sun’s rays during warmer months, is essential to keep energy levels high. The latter can be found in dairy products like milk, cheese and yoghurt, but often, this isn’t enough to meet our needs, so supplementing with a daily spray for fast absorption is a good way to increase your levels during the winter.
Zinc, naturally found in eggs, dairy, cereals, and fish, can also improve immunity and ward off infections.
More natural supplements your immune system needs to perform:
Selenium is known to have a powerful effect on the immune system, and is effective in helping to prevent infections as well as supporting healthy thyroid function. Your daily dose of selenium can be found in animal foods like seafood, poultry, meat and liver, and cottage cheese – or just two brazil nuts a day will do the job.
The compounds found in fulvic acid can help to boost the ability of ‘good bacteria’ in the gut to repopulate and develop a healthy ‘microbiome’ environment – something that is essential for all-round health. We need a healthy digestive tract to build immunity, regulate appetite, help control hormone production, reduce stress, and even help to regulate mental wellness. Other fulvic benefits and uses include cognitive and skin protective abilities, increased detoxification, and higher intakes of electrolytes (energy).
Reduce processed foods and eat mostly whole foods
While there’s no direct evidence showing that contracting the flu or a cold is related to our eating habits, an absence of essential vitamins and minerals in lieu of unhealthy, processed foods has been shown to lower our defences.
As Paul Pitchford explains in Healing with Whole Foods, dried foods, seaweed and steamed winter greens can help to fortify our kidneys to ensure they remain at peak performance. Cooking foods at a lower temperature with less water is also important. If your top choices of fruits, vegetables and other whole foods are out of season, frozen versions are also an option as opposed to canned.
Frozen greens and fruits are usually less processed and often include less sugar – but try embracing in-season fruits and vegetables like oranges, tangerines, pomegranates, broccoli and brussels sprouts for optimal nutrient intake.
How does food impact our mood?
Ever heard the expression ‘you are what you eat’? When it comes to our mood, this rings particularly true, and failing to nourish your body with what it needs will send you straight down into the grip of those dreaded winter blues.
Studies show that certain foods may affect mood-modifying brain compounds called neurotransmitters, which are made from the foods we eat and are presented in higher amounts after meals than before them. Including protein sources and carbs with meals and snacks can help you to feel satisfied both during and after the meal as well as boosting those all important happy chemicals in the brain. Proteins, particularly those that are low in fat, are not only healthy but are also easier to digest than high-fat meats like sausages or salami – so choose foods such as chicken, fish, lean beef or pork, tofu, low fat dairy and seafood.
During the winter months, it’s particularly important to stay hydrated – so make sure you add more water into your diet to avoid dehydration. While some believe that we require less fluids during the winter months, this isn’t strictly the case. Our bodies are made up of 70 percent water, and it’s vital to maintain these levels at all times – if not, then you’ll start to feel sluggish, tired and lethargic, and headaches and migraines may also begin to creep in.
While it gets darker and colder, your caffeine fix may seem even more inviting because it gives you that instant energy hit you tend to crave, particularly in the mornings and during the mid-afternoon slump. But too much caffeine can be dehydrating, so limit yourself to one or two cups of coffee a day and top up with plenty of water and herbal teas.
Moderation is key, practice it
Instead of skipping your favourite snacks and desserts all together, opt for moderation instead. Denying yourself completely is likely to lead to cravings and ultimately, binges – so swap out your favourite treats for lighter or lower sugar alternatives and enjoy them sparingly.
To keep energy levels high and cravings at a minimum, try to aim for three meals a day, or even six smaller ones, as this will help to balance your blood sugar. Having a regular meal schedule can also stimulate your metabolism and prevent hunger from setting in, so there’ll be less temptation to reach for that box of luxury chocolates and a bottle of wine when you get home in the evening.