Eat your way out of winter blues

IF you’re one of those repentant souls trying to stick to a punishing detox regime of lemon water and cabbage throughout January, think again. Experts say that spring is the time to stick to salads and fruit, not winter, when it is crucial to eat the right foods to fend off low moods and a weakened immune system. That doesn’t mean cold weather is an excuse to chow down on burgers and lasagna, but it does mean that leaves and seeds are not enough to keep you going.

Lisa Miles, of the British Nutrition Foundation, says that stocking up on tryptophan, an amino acid that can be converted into serotonin (the happy-making chemical) is key. Animal proteins are an excellent source, so make sure you’re getting your lean meat, poultry, fish and dairy in to help combat any seasonal depression. Carbohydrates, including simple ones like pasta and rice, are also helpful in promoting the uptake of tryptophan and help release serotonin from the cells. And the mineral magnesium reduces stress so make sure you’re topped up there: leafy greens are the richest source.

If you don’t fancy salads just now, there’s a good reason – your body doesn’t want them. Nutritionist Charlotte Fraser advises against eating uncooked food, particularly salads, late in the day during the winter because they are “cold and damp” and this translates into a cold and damp feeling both physically and physiologically. Also, the kidneys are highly sensitive to cold, and the chillier the food, the harder they have to work. In winter, a warming, veg-filled stew for dinner will help your kidneys more than a stir-fry or raw greens.

To warm up “cool” foods, Fraser recommends adding spices including cayenne and black pepper. A little ginger will warm up carrot juice, she says, while nutmeg can pep up mashed potato – nutmeg is used in traditional medicine to boost the immune system too, while garlic and ginger help remove excess mucus.

Other foods that combat that feeling of damp and cold include radish, pumpkin, horseradish, mushroom, parsley, alfalfa and mackerel, while the ultimate winter warmers include buckwheat, cinnamon, cloves, dill, fennel seeds, trout and turnips.

Be sure to drink up your green and jasmine tea; these are excellent brews for cleansing the kidneys. You’ll want to forget ice cubes in your drinks, too – “the body absorbs water at room temperature most readily so cut out cold drinks,” advises Fraser.

If you do suffer from SAD (seasonal affective disorder), you need to be eating plenty of essential fatty acids as found in oily fish, walnuts and flaxseeds – the Omega-3 content of these fats have been shown to have antidepressant properties. Fraser stresses that Omega-3 needs to be taken over a sustained period to have a positive effect.

Zinc is also proven to boost the immune system and is thought to have a positive effect on state of mind. You can buy tablets containing zinc, and it’s found in shellfish, pumpkin seeds and eggs.

And finally, for the hard part: cutting down on booze. Alcohol is the single most powerful depressant and enemy of your immune system, so while you can spend this January tucking into healthy warming stews and vegetable-rich bowls of pasta, you should keep those bottles of warming reds corked for the most part.