Staying Happy & Fit in Winter

The winter solstice has been known as a rebirth for thousands of years and a time of celebration so I always give gratitude for this beautiful time of the year. Each season has a purpose.  We are rejuvenated in spring, relax and have fun in the summer, replenish our energy in the fall and recharge our bodies in the winter by resting and enjoying more indoor activities.  Even my friends who live in warmer climates say they tend to slow down in the “winter months.”  Nothing is better than an old movie and a hot bowl of soup on a Saturday afternoon when it’s cold, rainy or gray outside!  However many people feel the opposite and the shorter days and absence of light make them dread the winter.  Some suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD which is a form of depression that mostly occurs in the fall and winter months when there is less sunlight. It can bring on feelings of depression, anxiety or a general lack of interest in doing anything. It can be from other causes as well so it’s important to talk to your doctor.

One of the ways to combat SAD is to load your diet with nutrient rich foods that raise your serotonin aka “the happy hormone” since lower levels have been shown to cause depression.
Here is a short list of foods and tips that can help beat those winter blues:
  • Beans such as chickpea, lentil, kidney, black beans and split peas.
  • Seeds such as pumpkin, sunflower, sesame and flax.
  • Nuts such as almonds, walnuts, pecans, pistachios, cashews and peanuts or peanut butter.
  • Root vegetables such as squash, beets, sweet potatoes and winter squashes.
  • Also include leafy green vegetables such as kale and spinach that provide b vitamins which also helps your mood.
  • Replace white flour, bread and pasta with quinoa, brown rice, buckwheat or millet.
  • Be very mindful of how much sugar you are eating.  It will give you a temporary high but then depletes your serotonin.
  • Adequate vitamin D levels are also important and since lack of sunlight can affect vitamin D levels, you may want to take some good quality cod liver oil during the winter months.
It’s hard to talk about healthy nutrition without including exercise. Food has a big impact on our mood but so does exercise so it’s important to keep moving. Engage in something fun, and even new, like dancing, yoga or bowling.  You can even join the gym for the winter months to keep moving.  My husband and I sometimes walk in the mall before the stores open. 
During the holidays  it can be challenging to say no to all the great treats but overindulging is not good for mind or body.  Have a healthy snack before you go to a party so you are not so hungry or cut some calories each day of the week leading up to the party.  That doesn’t mean you can go crazy at the party but it won’t be tragic if you have a little extra.  I love good quality dark chocolate, and will have it, but only one square.  Even if I want more I wait about fifteen minutes and the desire goes away.  It’s a conscious effort but it’s worth it.  When eating healthy becomes a part of your life you won’t want or need to over eat.  It becomes easier to say no to unhealthy food and snacks because your body no longer craves them.

During these cold winter months try to get together with people you love and share meals.  Having a potluck is so much fun without all the work for one person.  In addition, you get to taste different cuisines and ethnic foods. Try a vegetarian or vegan pot luck or have everyone come over and cook together. For desserts see who can come up with the healthiest, tastiest dessert!
I love a good stew in the winter so I am sharing my recipe below. It’s healthy, delicious and won’t pack on the pounds. I always suggest all ingredients be organic but if that is not possible try to buy local or from the farmers market.

Warming Vegetarian Winter Stew

2 tablespoons coconut oil

½ teaspoon turmeric (Curcuma long)
½ teaspoon ground cumin (Cuminum cyminum)
½ cup of red onions (Allium cepa) 
1 small butternut squash diced
2 medium carrots diced
7 shitake mushrooms without stems cubed  (Lentinula edodes)
6 ounce can of tomato paste
1-2 cups broth (I like mushroom or vegetable)
1 bunch green/red swiss chard chopped fine
4 cloves garlic chopped (Allium sativum)
1 cup chick peas
1 cup red kidney beans
1 ½ cup of peas (canned or frozen)
You can serve over brown rice or quinoa for a heartier stew
Your favorite cheese grated (optional)
In a large deep pot, on low heat, add the coconut oil, turmeric and cumin and sauté the spices for about a minute.  Then add the onions and sauté for another minute until they are transparent.  Raise the heat to medium and add the carrots, squash and mushrooms and sauté for about 5 minutes.  Add the small can of tomato paste with the broth.  Start with one cup and add more as needed.  I like my stew thicker so I add less.  Cover and simmer on low for 25 minutes.  Check to make sure the squash and carrot are soft.  Then add the garlic, swiss chard, chick peas, kidney beans and peas and continue to cook another 5 minutes (even if the peas are frozen). You can serve this over brown rice or quinoa and top with your favorite cheese (which is optional).

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