Chances are, you’ve never worn that comfy, cozy wool cardigan to the beach in the summer, or those metallic flip-flops to a Christmas party. You adjust your wardrobe with the seasons — your diet should be no different, especially because adjusting your diet in this way can benefit your body’s health. As seasonal shifts affect your body, the foods you eat can help you accommodate — or counteract — the changes.
As the weather turns cold, our activity levels tend to drop off and we burn fewer calories. That can lead to weight gain. Extra weight and other winter-related factors, such as declines in levels of vitamin D (the sunshine vitamin), have been associated with increases in blood pressure and cholesterol. Researchers have also noticed that in the cold months, our brains produce less serotonin, a “feel-good” chemical. This may be one reason we often feel so darn depressed in winter and try to cheer up by eating cookies and other high-carbohydrate snacks. Your body knows what it needs (even if your brain doesn’t always make the best choices): As it happens, carbohydrates trigger serotonin production.
Your winter challenge: Eat healthful carbs, such as sweet potatoes and whole-grain pasta, to help your blood pressure, cholesterol and mood. Just stick with smart portions that won’t break the calorie bank. You should also make sure to drink low-fat milk and eat low-fat cheese — both are rich in vitamin D.
Fix it with food: Potatoes, in season in the winter, are loaded with two blood pressure–lowering compounds: the mineral potassium and chemicals called kukoamines. Just remember that one serving of potato shouldn’t resemble a football — it’s around the size of a computer mouse. And stay away from frying or mounds of butter and sour cream. For healthful oven frites, cut a medium potato (try it with a sweet potato for extra health benefits) into thin wedges, drizzle with olive oil and a pinch of salt and roast until golden brown. Another serotonin-boosting choice: winter squash, such as butternut and acorn. It gives you a good carb fix along with a shot of potassium, which boots energy and protects the heart. For a quick meal, poke holes in a medium squash and microwave until soft; cut in half and scoop out seeds. Fill with your favorite greens, such as baby spinach (they’ll wilt from the heat), and sprinkle with a handful of walnuts.
Turning to pills to fight the watery eyes and sniffles of a seasonal allergy? Food may do the trick. Researchers have found that children who ate a Mediterranean diet — centered on produce, whole grains, lean protein and healthy fats like olive oil and nuts — were significantly less likely to have nasal allergies than kids who ate a standard American diet. The reason: The Mediterranean eating style cuts down on inflammation in the body, a main player in allergy symptoms.
Fix it with food: Fresh fruits and vegetables are Mediterranean mainstays — and fresh asparagus is a sign of spring. Try it steamed, with a drizzle of olive oil and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice. Artichokes are another great choice, one of the first spring vegetables to appear in the market after a long winter. They’re delicious just steamed — plop them into a large pot with water and simmer for 20 to 35 minutes, depending on the size of the ’choke. For a Mediterranean flair, tuck slivers of garlic into the leaves, add lemon slices to the water and dip the artichoke meat (including the luscious heart) into olive oil before eating.
Staying hydrated and protected from the sun are key during the dog days — and what you eat has more to do with both than you think. “Food usually accounts for around 20 percent of our fluid intake,” says says Mira Ilic, MS, RD, LD, a nutritionist at the Cleveland Clinic. We need around 11 to 15 cups of fluid per day, according to the Institute of Medicine, including what we get from water-rich foods like peaches and, yes, watermelon. Summer fruits and vegetables are also loaded with vitamins, especially C and E, which protect skin from sun damage. (But sunblock is still a must!) Fish such as salmon and tuna also may protect skin. People who ate around five ounces of fatty fish a week developed 30 percent fewer precancerous lesions, according to a recent study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Researchers say the omega-3s in the fish may act as a shield, protecting skin cells from changes caused by molecules called free radicals.
Fix it with food: Top a piece of fresh grilled fish with cantaloupe-avocado salsa — you’ll get omega-3s from the fish, vitamin C and hydration from the melon (it’s 90 percent water — and in season in summer) and vitamin E from the avocado (April through November is California avocado season).
Marching into autumn with the right foods on your plate can help you stave off the flu (the flu season usually begins in November). Foods rich in quercetin, an antioxidant in onions, grapes and apples, may reduce susceptibility to the flu virus. And foods that contain the antioxidant allicin — such as garlic, onions and chives — also pack antiviral properties. Just be sure to crush garlic and let it sit for five minutes or so before using, or chop and eat raw in a salad to maximize its disease-fighting potential, says Ilic.
Fix it with food: Give your recipe repertoire a health (and flavor) kick by adding extra garlic and onions. And load up on the season’s bounty of freshly picked apples — just don’t peel them. Quercetin is housed primarily in apples’ skin.