A Dietitian’s Guide to Surviving Winter

As the temperature drops, people’s motivation to eat well, exercise and take care of themselves seems to waiver. Keeping our bodies well nourished during the cooler months is essential for protecting against some of the negative side effects winter has on the body including low mood, unnecessary weight gain and a compromised immune system. If you find yourself opting for the snooze button in the morning instead of the gym, or struggling to eat well in the colder months here are our top tips for keeping you fit and healthy.


Eat for immunity

Your immune system relies on a balanced and varied diet that provides all the essential vitamins and minerals it needs to protect you from lurking colds and flus looking to find a weakness in your defences. Our immune cells (our defence system!) need a good supply of vitamin C to perform their function optimally, while many antioxidants, such as Vitamin E, selenium and zinc are also important in keeping your immune system strong. Protein and vitamin A are needed to maintain strong skin and other physical barriers (such as the lining in your gut) in the body that prevent unwanted bugs from getting in. To increase your intake of these protective nutrients, stock up on a colourful variety of plant foods, including citrus fruits, red capsicum, spinach and other leafy greens, sweet potato, broccoli, mushrooms, nuts (such as almonds and brazil nuts), seeds, whole grains and legumes.


Choose mood-boosting fats

If you find that the greyer months leave you feeling down and lacklustre, make an effort to increase your brain and mood friendly omega 3 fatty acids. Also known for their positive benefits on heart health and joint pain, omega 3s have been shown to be an effective therapy in depression, bipolar disorder, and a whole host of other mood disorders due to their role in brain cell structure and signalling. While the body can create other types of fats from scratch, it can’t make omega 3s, meaning we need to get them from the food we eat or supplements. Great sources of brain friendly omega 3s include cold water fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines and tuna, walnuts, linseeds, pepitas, chia, seaweed (such as nori sheets) and oysters. As fish is one of the richest sources, it is recommended that we include 2-3 serves of fish weekly! Don’t eat fish? Boost your intake with a good quality fish oil supplement that provides 500-1000mg combined EHA and DHA omega 3s daily. Find more information on mood food  here


Keep moving  (humans aren’t designed to hibernate!)

Much of the ‘kilo creep’ experienced over the Winter months is often attributed to choosing more comfort foods, but we also need to think about our activity levels! Very often over Winter our motivation drops, the chilly mornings leave us staying in bed, and shorter days put a halt on the healthy habits we developed over Summer. Exercise is not only good for weight maintenance, but helps maintain your fitness levels, improves your mood, can provide stress relief and can be a great way to increase your social interactions (if you find yourself becoming more of a hermit as the days shorten!).

If you find it difficult to find the motivation to move when it’s cold out, try the following ideas:

  1. Be accountable: Sign up for a winter sport, buy a season pass to a boot camp or yoga class, sign up to a gym with a buddy, or commit to a fun run in Spring to motivate your Winter activity
  2. Be well equipped: Feel like it’s too cold/wet/dark out there? Make sure you have the right gear for the conditions. Investing in breathable warm layers, a rain proof jacket or reflective gear can make all the difference when it comes to being comfortable and confident when the not-so-warm-and-sunny days kick in.
  3. Buddy up: Schedule in a weekly walk or yoga session with your friend and that way you’ll have someone keeping you accountable when the motivation is low. You can also kill two birds with one stone and get your daily exercise and social catch up in one hit!
  4. Make friends with the great outdoors: Rather than spending free days on the couch,  get out there! Head for your favourite walking track, park, beach or cycle route to connect to nature through ‘green exercise’. Exercising in a natural environment has been shown to improve mood and self esteem, with the benefits being greater with water present (hello beach walk!). Don’t know where to start? Find your nearest National Park at https://www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/visit-a-park


Don’t let your vitamin D drop!

Vitamin D is available in some foods such as fatty fish, cheese and egg yolks, but the majority of our vitamin D is actually from exposure of our skin to sunlight! Vitamin D plays a vital role in the body including building and maintaining strong bones, boosting the immune system and regulating muscle function. A deficiency can lead to lethargy and fatigue, reduced wound healing and a decline in bone density. In seasons where the days are shorter and we spend more time indoors, vitamin D levels are likely to fall, sometimes to well below recommended levels. In fact 1 in 3 Australians have sub-optimal levels of vitamin D People who spend more time indoors, such as those working long daytime hours or the elderly are at highest risk. During June and July 2-3 hours per week of sun exposure is recommended for Aussies living in the bottom half of the country, while those in QLD, NT and the northern half of WA should get adequate vitamin D from just a few minutes per day. If your vitamin D levels are low  (<75mmol) or your exposure to sunlight is limited  including a vitamin D supplement is a great idea. Not sure if you need a supplement? Talk to your doctor or dietitian.


Focus on well-being time, not just down time

While the cold or rainy days might leave us spending more time indoors than usual, why not make use of the down time to create some healthy wellbeing habits? Instead of reaching for the TV remote, or trawling your way through an unholy amount of social media, turn off your notifications and turn your thoughts to spending time with good quality friends, starting some mindfulness activities, taking up a new (tech-free) hobby or simply reading a book. Reducing screen time and choosing to allow time to relax and enjoy life can help to reduce your heart rate and blood pressure, improve sleep cycles, reduce spikes of cortisol (stress hormone) levels and even help to moderate weight.

If you’re not sure where to start try the following ideas:

  1. Have a laugh with some friends: A good laugh is well known for its positive effect on our mental health – releasing endorphins, reducing stress and helping ease anger and distressing emotions
  2. Turn off your screens before bed: Avoiding TV, smart phone screens or working on the laptop 60 minutes before bed allows your brain time to unwind, and reduces your exposure to body-clock-altering blue light as your prepare for sleep. Instead, choose to finish off your day with an activity such as reading, puzzles (crosswords, sudokus, find-a-words or any other brain games) or quietly chatting over a cuppa with a loved one
  3. Schedule in some chill-out time with your four legged friend: Studies have shown that by petting a dog for 15 minutes, humans increase their ‘feel good’ hormones like dopamine, B-endorphine, and oxytocin, and decreases stress-inducing cortisol levels
Nicole Saliba