Do your nutritional needs change in the winter?

Feeling wiped out? We’re all knackered but there’s a whole festive season to get through. What you eat, however, can boost your energy levels during the winter – even if you’ve got SAD. 

Winter time can be brutal. When it’s cold and dark, it’s harder to exercise and less tempting to fill up with fresh, nutritious foods. All we want is to curl up in a warm duvet and mainline hot toddies until it’s March again.

Given how strong the urge can be to go for comforting grub during the dark months, do our nutritional needs change in the winter from the summer? Why is it that we find ourselves craving more stodgy, warming stews and sweet foods when it’s cold, compared to a hot, sunny day?

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That’s something that nutritionist Tai Ibitoye has been discussing on her Instagram page. In a recent post, she says that many of her clients have been asking how they increase their energy levels during the winter via the food they eat.

“While there are different reasons for having low energy levels during this winter season (ie poor sleep, lack of sunlight, stress, existing medical condition(s)), eating a healthy and varied diet might help to sustain energy levels,” she explains. She suggests packing the following into your daily diet:

  • Starchy, low GI (slow release) carbs like basmati rice, sourdough, kenkey, al dente pasta and porridge
  • Proteins and fats
  • Iron, whether that’s from meat, eggs and fish, or/and pulses, dark green leafy veg, nuts, tofu and fortified cereals
  • B vitamins from B12-fortified yeast extracts, soya yoghurts, red meat, fish and dairy
  • A vitamin D supplement and fortified milk, yoghurts and cereals

So far, so standard. After all, the NHS recommends we take a vitamin D supplement as standard and those of us who are plant-based know that it’s important to seek out fortified foods that have added iron and B vitamins. But should our diets be fundamentally changing in colder months?

“Our nutritional needs do change according to the season and most of it is weather dependent,” explains James Brady, qualified nutrition coach at OriGym Centre of Excellence. “When the sun is at its strongest during summer and we are outdoors a lot, our bodies are able to convert sunlight into vitamin D. However, when it’s cold out, we may need more food because our bodies require more energy to keep us warm.”

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When we spend more time indoors, Brady says that it becomes even more important to eat vitamin-packed fruit and vegetables to counteract the fact that being inside means we could be in closer contact with various germs.

Signe Svanfeldt, nutritionist at Lifesum, agrees that vitamin D is really the crucial nutrient to think about in the winter: “During seasons when our skin isn’t as exposed to sunlight, the need for foods rich in vitamin D increases. Vitamin D is found in eggs, salmon and fortified foods, including milk and plant-based milk. If you exclude many food groups (ie animal proteins), you might be in need of vitamin D supplements during the winter months.” 

Before buying a supplement, however, she flags the importance of chatting with a healthcare professional: “Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin and can be stored in the body – and too large doses of vitamin D in supplement form can be harmful.”

The main change in the winter involves eating more vitamin D, which can be found in mushrooms, milk and fortified foods.

There are several factors to consider when it comes to assessing your energy levels and food intake season-to-season, says Dr Federica Amati, nutritionist and chief nutrition scientist for Indi Supplements. “A key thing to remember is that changing seasons impact our overall sense of happiness and mental wellbeing.

“Changes in temperature and daylight hours can impact our likelihood of getting outside and reduced time outdoors greatly impacts our mental and our digestive health.”

The gut-brain axis, she says,is “incredibly powerful and in constant communication”. When we’re feeling unhappy, our gut may react; what we eat and our overall gut health “directly impacts our mental health”. If you have seasonal affective disorder (SAD) or the winter just makes you feel a bit glum, then it’s worth thinking about how your diet is supporting you.

How to eat to beat winter fatigue

Dr Amati recommends taking a very simple, holistic approach to boosting energy and mood. There’s no magic formula – your best bet is fresh air and plants.

“As days get shorter, making sure that you go outside for some natural light and a brisk walk becomes even more important,” she says. She recommends planning a post-lunch walk every day to boost your mood and help your digestion: “It will also help your body’s ability to metabolise your food in the best way possible, minimising blood glucose spikes and avoiding a 3pm slump.”

She also stresses the importance of plants in our diets, with exciting research showing how plants can act to improve our health and wellbeing in clinically measurable ways. In one study, published in the American Journal of Health Promotion, scientists got nearly 300 employees at a large US insurance firm to either follow a vegan diet for 18 weeks or eat their regular diet. They found that the plant-based group showed “significantly greater”improvements in productivity, emotional wellbeing, fatigue and symptoms of depression and anxiety.

While all fruits and veg are good for us, it’s a good idea to concentrate on eating more dark plants and fruits that contain polyphenols in the winter, as these counteract oxidative stress (think cavolo nero). Dr Amati also suggests trying to get inulin from chicory root, which she says “is proven to support lipid metabolism and a healthy microbiome profile”.

“Eating a combination of these foods every day helps support our body’s immune and anti-inflammatory functions for a long and healthy life and helps support our gut’s ability to produce feel-good serotonin for better overall mood during the winter.”

Do our hydration needs change in the winter?

Something Ibitoye flags in her post was the need to stay hydrated in the winter. We all know how important it is to keep drinking water during hot weather but outside of the gym, it’s easy to think that we don’t need to consume as much at other times of the year.

“Drinking enough liquids is important during any time of the year,” Brady reminds us. “Fluid levels should continually be topped up to ensure our body continues to function correctly. The recommended amount of fluids adults should drink a day is around two litres.”

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While we need to hydrate roughly the same all year round, the reasons for staying hydrated change. Brady explains that during cooler months, we need to hydrate to ensure our body’s defences against colds and flu are functioning efficiently. In the summer, you’ve got to stay hydrated to help the body to cool down and protect against dehydration.

You can become hydrated at any time, says Svanfeldt. “A good way to see if you are properly hydrated is to check the colour of your urine; if it’s dark, you’re most likely in need of some more fluids.”

But that doesn’t mean having to down a bottle of cold water. Brady concludes: “On hotter days, drink plenty of water and during cold periods, drink plenty of warm liquids.”

For more nutrition tips, healthy recipes and workout videos, check out the Strong Women Training Plan library. 

Images: Getty

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