Eating for Optimal Health – Winter
Updated: Dec 3, 2019
The traditional health science of ayurveda teaches us that we should adjust our diets according to our personal constitutions, the seasons, and our stage of life. In this article, we will discuss how making small changes to the foods you are eating can help you weather the winter months without gaining weight and with less likelihood of depression. During the winter months, nature is dormant. We are naturally less active as we “hibernate” through the winter months indoors. In the fall, the elements of air and space are dominant, but in the winter the elements of earth and water increase. These elemental changes are also a part of our individual experiences. The fast-changing pace, characteristic of fall, transitions to the slow-moving pace of winter. Have you ever felt like winter would never end?
One of the gifts of ayurveda is that it not only describes this process, but it also gives us a roadmap of how to adjust to these changes and minimize the impacts on our body’s systems. One of the primary tools of ayurveda is the foods we choose to eat. By making small changes to our diets, we can greatly improve our physical and mental well-being. Since winter is associated with earth and water, we need to minimize foods that have high composition of these elements and instead emphasize foods with air and fire as their primary elements. So how do we know the elemental composition of the foods we eat? It’s easier than you think!
Air/Fire Dominant Foods: Light, dry, warm, spicy
Examples include veggies, fruits, non-wheat grains, spices
Earth/Water Dominant Foods: Heavy, dense, oily
Examples include nuts, added oils, meat, sugar
Through dietary adjustments, we can balance the earth/water increases that are naturally occurring in the winter allowing us to maintain an optimal level of health. Increases in the earth element are also associated with weight gain. Following an ayurvedic diet can help avoid unwanted weight gain during the winter. During the fall, we need to add more oil and heavier foods to our diet to counter the excess air and space, but as winter approaches it is necessary to lighten up the diet. For example, while a thick hearty soup or stew with some added fat content is appropriate in the fall, a broth-based veggie soup with barley is more therapeutic in the chill of winter. Our digestion tends to be slower in the winter, so it is still recommended to focus the diet on cooked foods versus raw. The cooking process is essentially a pre-digestion or breaking down of the foods which makes it easier on our digestion system. Anyone with poor digestion and nearly all of us in the winter need to emphasize cooks foods in our diet. Another side effect of this slow digestion is that you may find you can skip a meal or snack without adverse effect.
Another factor to consider is that three of our major cultural holidays fall during the early winter months. This tends to cause us to indulge in rich foods that may lead to imbalances that stick with us all winter long. Moderation during the holidays can create a much more healthful winter. Avoid overindulging in sweets, heavy foods, and alcohol. Instead, choose a small amount of a wide variety of foods, increase your exercise and expand your social activities. Already indulged? It’s never too late to start making more healthy choices. You can also check out our post on Detox to help recover from some of those holiday indulgences.
Resist the natural tendency to “hibernate” during the winter, instead use these months to pursue new interests. Take a class or start a new hobby. Spend time with friends and family. Winter months are perfect for experimenting with new recipes – emphasize vegetables and non-wheat grains like quinoa, barley or rye. Incorporate spices such as ginger, cinnamon, clove and black pepper. Best of all, try a new spice that you’ve never had before!
Through a basic understanding of the principles of ayurveda, you can learn to make seasonal adjustments to your diet and lifestyle that support optimal health and wellness. Subtle changes in what you’re choosing to eat can have big impacts on how you feel on a daily basis. So the next time you start to feel those winter blahs setting in, break out a cookbook and try a new recipe. Then call a friend to come enjoy it with you.
To get you started, here’s one of my favorite winter soups. The variety of veggies and spice make it interesting, while the barley has a drying, heating effect that is beneficial in the wintertime.
3/4 c barley
8 c veggie stock
1 T olive oil
1 c chopped onion
1/2 c chopped celery
1/2 c chopped carrots
1 c chopped greens (kale, spinach)
2 c chopped or whole tomatoes
1 c sliced mushrooms
1 T garlic
1 t oregano
1 t basil
1 t black pepper
Salt to taste
Heat the oil and garlic in a pan. Add veggies and saute lightly. Add broth, barley and spices. Simmer 30 minutes or until all veggies and barley is done. Call a friend – and enjoy a healthy winter soup, some tea, and great company.
Oh, yeah – and adding some yoga won’t hurt either! 😉
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