Although humans don’t hibernate in the same way as hedgehogs or bears, for example, who shut down their digestive systems and slow their heart rates for months at a time, our bodies do have different needs in winter. Cold weather, less light and increased vulnerability to viruses and bacteria means a few subtle dietary and lifestyle changes are in order.
Winter worry: overeating
During the cold season, you find yourself feasting on large quantities of food (otherwise known as bingeing) and that leads to weight gain. Don’t worry too much, it’s natural.
“Changes in the chemicals in your brain during winter increase your body’s desire for carbohydrates and bigger quantities of food too,” says registered nutritionist Carina Norris. “While a clever strategy in times where feast and famine were common, it can result in a growing waistline for today’s human as our food supply is constant.”
Spring into action: “Give into your body’s desire for carbs but proceed with caution, and watch your portion sizes,” says Norris. “A baked potato is a better option than pasta, for example, because although they’re both carb-heavy, potatoes with their skins on are a good source of vitamins as well as an excellent source of fibre, which fills you up.”
Discover our superb soup recipes
Winter worry: craving stews and hot puddings
Surely you need more calories when it’s cold? “Not necessarily,” says Norris. “You don’t burn significantly more calories being cold unless your body temperature drops to such an extent that you begin to shiver.”
Being chilly does make you desire steaming hot plates of food for two reasons, however: “Eating not only fuels energy, it also causes your body to produce heat during the digestive process,” says Norris. “It takes a while, about 30-60 minutes after eating, but at this stage your body generates approximately 10% more heat than before – the simple act of eating hot food works on your body like an internal hot water bottle.”
Spring into action: Don’t ignore your body’s desire for hot food, but provide it with slow-release carbs so the warming effect lasts for longer. “Porridge is an excellent option in the morning” says Norris. “Not only is it hot and filling, the oats will stoke up a fiery furnace inside you as your digestive system slowly processes them. It’ll keep you going far longer.”
Find delicious twists on traditional porridge recipes in our breakfast recipes section
Winter worry: dehydration
“Dehydration is a common cause of winter headaches,” says Norris. “Cold blunts your body’s thirst mechanism and so even though your body releases moisture through your breath as well as sweat, you don’t realise you need to drink more fluid.” Keeping your air passages moistened also helps prevent viruses and bacteria taking hold, so drinking plenty is as important in winter as it is in summer.
Spring into action: Drink herbal and fruit teas instead of tea or coffee, which are not as hydrating as non-caffeinated drinks.
Winter worry: snacking
Coming in from the bitter cold, you put the kettle on to make a hand-warming mug of hot chocolate. The biscuits find their way on to the table, and suddenly, just 15 minutes later, you’re 500 calories fuller. “Snacking on sweet foods when you’re low on energy is tempting but it creates a no-win situation,” says Norris. “You’ll feel good for a short time, but then your energy levels will plummet, leaving you reaching for yet more biscuits.”
Spring into action: Prepare large quantities of vegetable soups, and keep them ready in the fridge or freezer for whenever you feel a snack attack coming on. “Soup is an ideal winter dish as it’s hot, full of liquid to ensure you remain hydrated and it retains the nutrients from the vegetables in the water,” says Norris. Add whole chicken pieces (including the bone) when you make the soup and you’re on to a real winner. Studies have found that a substance in chicken bones is extremely beneficial for boosting the immune system and it tastes great too. Browse our selection of soups and stews for ideas.
Read our strategies for preventing dehydration
Winter worry: shaking off a cold
You can’t seem to shake off a cold, so you stuff yourself full of powders, sprays and pills in an attempt to shift it. “Medication can help relieve the symptoms of a cold but it can’t fight the virus itself,” says Norris. “Your body needs to beat the virus, and to do that, it needs to be supplied with the right nutrients.”
Spring into action: Zinc has been shown to shorten the life of colds but many people don’t get enough of it in their normal daily diets. Good sources include pumpkin seeds, turkey, beef, lamb and lentils.
How to eat right to fight that cold
Winter worry: getting enough vitamins
Spending more time in enclosed spaces makes us more vulnerable to viruses such as colds and flu. But there’s no need to pay out for vitamin supplements. “Many people don’t realise that nature provides naturally high-vitamin foods for us during winter in the form of vegetables,” says Norris.
“For example, potatoes are an excellent source of the C-vit, as well as fibre; and pumpkin or sweet potatoes are packed full of vitamin C and beta-carotene, which the body converts into vitamin A, and bioflavonoids that help keep your body fighting fit; and cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, Brussels sprouts and broccoli contain glucosinolates, which help reduce your cancer risk.”
Spring into action: Bake or roast a variety of winter vegetables and serve with meat or fish for a delicious, cold-combating dinner. To up the anti-cold count further, bake whole cloves of garlic too – just 25 minutes will turn each clove into an unctuous, lip-smacking nibble. And as an added bonus, it doesn’t taste as strong (or leave your breath as smelly) but has proven anti-viral properties.
Visit our vitamins and minerals section
Winter worry: the urge to hibernate
When the nights draw in, you spend more time inside; and the more time you spend inside, the longer you want to stay there. “This is a natural response to fewer daylight hours in winter,” says Norris. “Our pineal gland responds to lack of light by producing melatonin, the sleep hormone, making us feel dozy and ready for rest.”
Spring into action: If your body simply requires an extra 30 minutes in bed each day, don’t fight it: “Your immune system needs sunlight to function optimally,” says Norris. “But an extra half hour of sleep a night can counter this effect.”
And to combat your overwhelming urge to hibernate like a hedgehog all day, head outside in the morning when the sun is at its brightest (even under cloud cover). “Your pineal gland will respond to light by halting its production of melatonin, and you’ll feel as though you’ve been given an energy boost for the rest of the day,” says Norris.
Keep moving and stay fit through autumn and winter