What to Eat to Stay Healthy in Winter in Far Northern Latitudes
By Bare Health Nutritionist
Nuri Adams-Davies, BA(Hons), BANT, CNHC
You may wonder why on earth a site like Healthy World NUTRITION would post a blog about reclaiming motivation as its inaugural blog. Well, here at HWN, food is a big part of what we talk about for a healthy life, but not all of it. A sizeable part of eating comes from habit, season, emotions, finance, and food addictions (which I’ll revisit in a separate blog post). In short, low motivation can inspire poor eating - especially during times (or months) that are bleak, cold, dark, and where we just don’t want to leave the house. Or even get out of bed!
Now, what do I mean by “Far Northern Latitudes?” I liberally consider these to be places located on latitudes above 50 degrees - which includes the entire UK, Canada, Japan, and most of Russia (or longer in places like Finland, Scandinavia, Northern Russia and Alaska). Most people would agree that winter in these places can be pretty harsh, and people who live in these climates have a sense of needing to batten down the hatches - to prepare for winter well in advance. Back in the day, that meant making sure you and your animals had easy access to enough food and fuel for warmth for several months. Also making sure your house or homestead was prepared to withstand severe weather conditions and your affairs were in order so you and your family could stay at home if stranded.
These days there’s less of a need to stockpile food and firewood, and we don’t spend as much time outside in day-to-day life. Our issues are a bit different; we struggle with more pollution (of our air, water and soil), an overabundance of convenience foods and generally more individual stresses from life than people did pre-WWI, and especially pre-industrial revolution. These things affect us year-round, but feel more profound during winter. And why is that?
Health challenges may seem more acute during winter for a number of reasons - and here are a few. For starters it’s just plain colder. And in regions that are more damp, the cold can feel like it goes all the way to the bone. During the colder months the hours are shorter - in some cases, much shorter. In countries above the 50th parallel of latitude, humans can’t synthesise vitamin D for at least six months of the year - and vitamin D is crucial for several body processes that encourage optimum health. For more on that, see my vitamin D blog coming soon, link will be here. Lack of light may cause humans to produce more melatonin, making us feel more tired. In some holistic circles, people validate being more tired in wintertime by recognising that it is a time of extended rest. The earth produces fewer crops in preparation for the spring and summer (and is said to be ‘resting’), and many animals hibernate. From this perspective, it makes sense that we naturally need more down time to recover from the previous year, and in preparation for the new year ahead. If we don’t get that time to reset ourselves, the lack of rest can make us more prone to illness.
Another thing to consider is how we eat during winter. For most winter celebrations, it’s customary to eat loads of sugary foods - candies, cakes, cookies, hot chocolate, and more alcohol (almost all alcohols have loads of sugar). These foods give people a lift: quick energy from serotonin and increased stress hormones that keeps them going, pushing to achieve or be brilliant at a party. But then more sugar is needed to keep on going. Increased sugar intake taxes the adrenals, encourages overgrowth of yeasts and opportunistic bacteria (such as harmful gut bugs), challenges immunity, steals nutrients during its metabolism and poses a threat to serotonin regulation. For more information, check back to read my blog on sugar - which I’ll link here — coming very soon. Other common offenders are wheat, processed foods, and in some cases, dairy.
The good news is that with a bit of education about which foods are generally helpful in winter, as well as work on changing habits, people can help themselves stay upbeat and healthy during the long, dull times in winter.
I cannot overemphasise the importance of seasonal fresh foods - especially vegetables, meats and fish. Possibly not surprisingly, the foods in all countries of these northern latitudes are very similar. Some common foods are swede, onions, garlic, shallots, leeks, chard, beetroot, cabbages (green, red and white), asparagus, peas, carrots and winter lettuces. The green leafy veg like chard, cabbage and lettuces are chock full of vitamin K. In fact, nearly all of these winter vegetables are highest in vitamin K than in any other nutrient, by a large margin. Vitamin K is widely known for two main benefits: 1, it’s a blood thickener/clotter (which keeps us from bleeding to death when we cut ourselves), and 2, vitamin K is instrumental in feeding and nurturing beneficial bacteria - including those that help utilise nutrients, such as vitamin D (which is scarce in the winter). Here are some other benefits from vitamin K:
supports healthy hormone balancing - including blood sugar balancing AND fertility hormones supports bone and muscle health (due to it’s effects on calcium)Nervous system healthSome research has shown vitamin K to provide significant protection from cancers. tissue health and repair (the vitamin of youth ??)
These seasonal veg also contain significant amounts of B-vitamins (which help the body naturally balance out stress levels during a time of increased stress), and vitamin C, which is good for tissue repair and immunity.
OK, this is the part where we’re going to talk about winter meats. As much as I love and appreciate vegetables, there’s just no substitute for good thick gamey meat or bone broth in wintertime. Some seasonal meats in the UK are pheasant, duck, rabbit and turkey (it’s common to eat lamb, beef and chicken as well, but they aren’t considered winter foods). These gamey meats have similar nutritional content: all are a *great* source of Amino Acids, especially tryptophan - which helps us make serotonin (which, you probably already know helps us feel good and sleep better). They are also a good source of B-vitamins (menitoned above), Zinc, which is known for its immune-boosting effects, and Phosphorus - which helps our bodies detox and strengthen.
And finally, let’s touch on fish. Some healthy winter fish found in far northern places are monkfish, cod fish, herring, flounder and scallops. These are all high in B12 (involved in energy production and cardiovascular health), zinc (mentioned above), iodine and selenium (thyroid and adrenal health), and essential amino acids. There are smaller amounts of other vitamins, minerals and nutrients - like omega fats - but the ones listed are the main nutrients.
A word on eggs: the raw yolks are a moderately good source of omega-3 fatty acid, but eating seasonally for winter discourages eating eggs because hens naturally produce fewer eggs in winter, when they too are resting and saving their body’s stores of vitamins and minerals.
It’s important to note that there are many many more vitamins and minerals in all the foods I mentioned in this article. But the nutrients I wrote about were highest in most of these winter foods. Some people may wonder why they couldn’t just supplement instead? It’s a valid thought, however, very - very- few supplements are made from minimally processed foodstuffs. The more processing a food goes through, even to become a supplement, the more nutrients - and enzymes - it loses. And a lot of research shows that without the intact enzymes, the body may not be able to utilise the isolated vitamin or mineral as well. In that respect, fresh foods are far superior to most supplements.
These are the winter foods which most healthy people in places like the UK, Scandinavia, Russia, Japan, Alaska and Canada should focus on. For people in poor health or who have serious health challenges, adjustments may need to be made. I’d love to chat with you more about this, for a bespoke eating plan that supports your health, please email me, Nuri, atHealthy World Nutrition.
And to see what foods are currently in season near you, check out The Seasonal Food Guide.