Top Tips for a Healthy Winter

The end of Chanukah heralds the long stretch of winter. With colder, shorter days, it can be difficult to maintain health routines, when all you want is to stay inside and eat comfort food.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is the onset of depression in the winter months when there is less natural sunlight. Between 4 and 20 percent of people experience a form of SAD in the fall-winter months, with changes in appetite, trouble sleeping, irritability and anxiety, fatigue, loss of interest in things generally enjoyed, feelings of hopelessness, and headaches or other physical problems.1 Treatment for SAD includes light therapy, behavioral therapy and/or medication. Diet also plays a role in our mood, and adding or removing specific foods can affect how we feel. Eating a lot of sodium, calories and saturated fat are related to causing negative mood,2 while chewing gum is associated with fewer cognitive problems, and increased alertness without affecting heart rate.3 Deficiencies of specific nutrients play a big role in mood. Vitamin D deficiency, from lack of sunlight, is associated with an 8 to 14 percent increase in depression. Many foods are fortified with Vitamin D (including dairy products, some mushrooms, eggs and juices), and it is present in many fish including salmon, herring, and tuna, though supplementation is generally recommended. There is some evidence that omega-3 intake is associated with, and may alleviate, depressive symptoms.4,5 Good sources of omega-3 are salmon, herring (cooked), mackerel, walnuts, flax-seed (oil or ground) and chia seeds. In multiple studies where low levels of zinc were corrected with supplementation, there was noted improvement in mood and cognition, as well as improving depressive symptoms and emotional functioning.6 Zinc is found in meats, beans and seeds, anchovies, some dairy foods and wheat germ, bran cereal and cooked wild rice. Low levels of serotonin in the body are expressed with low mood, difficulty sleeping, lack of joy and feeling disconnected. To improve serotonin levels, try to avoid alcohol, and increase intake of fish, fruit, eggs, avocado, wheat germ, cheese and lean poultry. With low levels of dopamine, you may lack drive, motivation, and/or enthusiasm, while craving stimulants. Avoid coffee, tea, caffeinated drinks or pills, and have regular, balanced meals, fruits and vegetables high in vitamin C (some examples are peppers, cabbage, broccoli, papaya, strawberries, citrus), wheat germ and yeast spread.7

Cold weather seems to bring on the craving for comfort foods. These are personal foods that conjure up feelings of warmth and childhood that generally are made up of carbohydrates and fat (mac and cheese or mashed potatoes, anyone?). However, in relation to emotions, comfort foods were found to not improve mood any more than any other food!8 It’s important to eat well during the winter (regardless of activity), as it’s stable levels of nutrients that keeps us soothed with fewer mood fluctuations. Another important way to stabilize ourselves is by staying active and social. Activity can be tricky when it’s cold and snowy, but it can be done! Getting outside for even a few minutes can improve immunity and protect against some infections. When getting outdoors just isn’t possible, you can still stay active indoors. Try an at-home exercise class, take up a new hobby, or find an indoor activity you enjoy and that makes you feel good. Seek out an indoor facility (such as a shopping mall), and go for a walk with a friend or family member. Just as importantly, make sure to connect with others over the winter months. Social isolation is a risk factor for mortality, even without other health issues.9 Arrange a coffee date with a friend often or schedule weekly phone calls.

The long winter needn’t be a time of ill-health. By eating well, staying active and social, the winter months can be well spent, health-filled enjoyable months.

  1. Seasonal Affective Disorder (2017). Accessed from familydoctor.org
    2.Hendy, M. (2012). Which comes first in mood-relationships, foods or moods? Appetite 58(2) 771–775
    3.Allen, A.P. & Smith, A.P. (2015). Chewing gum: cognitive performance, mood, well-being, and associated physiology. BioMed Research International
    4.Giles, G.E., Mahoney, C.R. & Kanarek, R.B. (2013). Omega-3 fatty acids influence mood in healthy and depressed individuals. Nutrition Reviews 71(11) 727–741
    5.Hegarty, B.D. & Parker, G.B. (2011). Marine omega-3 fatty acids and mood disorders — linking the sea and the soul. ‘Food for thought’ I. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica 124(1) 42–51
    6.Lomagno, K.A., Hu, F., Ridell, L.J., Booth, A.O., Szymlek-Gay, E.A., Nowson, C.A. et.al (2014). Increasing iron and zinc in [younger] women and its effects on mood and cognition: a systematic review. Nutrients 6(11) 5117–5141
    7.Feeding Minds: The impact of food on mental health. Accessed from mentalhealth.org.nz
    8.Wagner, H.S., Ahlstrom, B., Redden, J.P., Vickers, Z. & Mann, T. (2014). The myth of comfort food. Health Psychology 33(12) 1552–1557
    9.Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T.B., Baker, M., Harris, T. & Stephenson, D. (2015). Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: a meta-analytic review. Perspectives on Psychological Science 10(2) 227–237

Bracha Kopstick is a Registered Dietitian in Toronto and owner of BeeKay Nutrition. She takes the “diet” out of dietitian, and wants you to take it out of your life! As a nutrition expert, Bracha promotes eating home-prepared foods more often and taking time to enjoy what you eat without any associated guilt. She is available for in-person and on-line counseling. Contact her at Bracha@beekaynutrition.com