Oh, the weather outside is frightful—but what you put in your mouth shouldn't be. Especially since research shows that what you eat during the winter months can help you survive some of Mother Nature's cruelest whims. It turns out that the real comfort food when the thermometer dips isn't hot toddies, Mallomars, or mac and cheese, but nutritious options—like soup, salmon, and lots and lots of water—that trick your body into thinking it's July. Whether you're dealing with dry skin or bad moods, we've got five successful winter-eating strategies to leave you feeling your best and stay healthy—even when the weather is at its worst.
1. Drink fat-free milk to ward off the sniffles.
When snow is on the ground, you're more likely to hit the gym (or the couch) than brave icy pavement. But less time outside means less sunlight, which is a key source of immunity-boosting vitamin D. Even if you do head out for a 15-minute stroll, sun exposure in northern cities like Boston and Minneapolis from November through February is too paltry to deliver enough of the vitamin, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Fat-free milk is an easy, low-calorie fix for the sun deprived. "You need about 200 IUs (international units) of vitamin D a day, and fortified milk can provide you with that easily," says Cindy Cassell, Ph.D., R.D., owner of Cincinnati-based Nutrition Access. Around 99 percent of the milk in the United States has been spiked with vitamin D, so down one 8-ounce glass a day to shield against coughing coworkers.
2. Eat oily fish and almonds to keep skin soft.
Low temps outside and blasting heat inside lead to dry, flaky skin. While lotion is a great remedy, changing your diet can prevent parching in the first place. The best way to keep your outer layer lubricated is to increase your intake of healthy fats in your winter diet. "Fat is a nutrient that protects all cells, including your skin cells," says Kristine Clark, Ph.D., R.D., director of sports nutrition at Pennsylvania State University. If you consume too little fat, your skin becomes brittle. Add omega-3 fatty acids to your diet by eating fish like salmon a few times a week to keep skin soft.
Score your dose of vitamin E, another powerful skin protector, by snacking on almonds or pumpkin or sunflower seeds. "A lack of vitamin E can influence the quality and texture of your skin," Clark says. Without it, your skin is at greater risk of damage from free radicals. "If there is plenty of vitamin E in the membranes of cells exposed to free radicals, vitamin E will take the brunt of the attack and protect the fatty acid that surrounds all the intricate workings inside each cell," she says.
3. Banish winter blues with a bowl of oatmeal.
When the days get shorter, so does your brain's supply of the feel-good chemical serotonin, says Judith Wurtman, Ph.D., visiting scientist at MIT and author of The Serotonin Power Diet (Rodale, January 2007). "That blah feeling we get in the winter is related to a lack of serotonin, which is linked to lack of sunlight," she says.
Since serotonin can be found in food, you might think you can just eat your way to happiness by munching on chow high in the stuff. Unfortunately, it's not that easy; your brain needs to manufacture its own serotonin for you to get that euphoric effect. Eating the right foods in the right amounts will cause that chemical chain reaction in your body. "As winter progresses and your moods get frailer, if you eat carbs in a calorie-controlled way, your brain can restore its serotonin to what it was in the summer," Wurtman says.
She recommends eating a carb-based, 150- to 200 calorie, low-fat snack in the late afternoon (when moods tend to be at their lowest). Make it something with substance—try a satisfying instant oatmeal like Quaker Oats Oatmeal Crunch. A small sweet potato, whole-grain toast, an English muffin with a bit of jam, or a snack-size bag of pretzels are other healthy carbohydrate sources. Large amounts of protein can interfere with serotonin production, so avoid eating protein-heavy foods for a couple of hours before your carb-rich snack.
4. Fight the urge to binge by slurping soup.
That sudden need for chocolate chip cookies that hits you on freezing days isn't just psychological: Cold weather can actually trigger hunger, says Nancy Duncan, author of Nancy Duncan's Sports Nutrition Handbook. Your brain knows that eating raises your body temperature and warms you up, so it sends out signals encouraging you to eat. To keep yourself from autodialing the pizza joint every time you start to shiver, keep your pantry stocked with low-calorie, high-density foods that fill you up faster.
"Water is the biggest influence of calorie density, so when you eat fruits and vegetables and broth-based soups—things packed with water—you'll feel more satisfied," says Barbara Rolls, Ph.D., professor of nutritional sciences at Pennsylvania State University and author of The Volumetrics Eating Plan. Water-rich foods like melon, mushrooms, and oatmeal stay there longer, Rolls says. There's a mental component too: Your brain takes note that a large bowl of soup looks like more food than a small doughnut—even if they contain equal calories.
5. Drink water when you work out, even if you're not thirsty.
You'll win major fitness points for strapping on earmuffs and running in subzero temperatures, but beware: Exercising in the cold can trick your whole system. You still sweat, but the drier air zaps perspiration away before you even notice. "I see this in athletes a lot," says Ann Grandjean, Ed.D., executive director of the Center for Human Nutrition. "They don't realize they're sweating unless they actually see it." That can quickly lead to dehydration.
Take care to replace the fluid you're losing. Weigh yourself before and after a workout, Grandjean says. For every pound you lose, drink 2 cups of fluid. (Any weight loss that happens within a few hours is all water.) Water and sports drinks are your best bets, but "you should drink what you like," she says, even if that's tea-caffeinated beverages hydrate just as well as noncaffeinated ones.
© 2012 Rodale Inc. All rights reserved.