How to avoid wintertime colds and flus is one of the questions I’m asked most often. So, with winter approaching (though with temperatures hovering around the 60-degree mark NYC these days it doesn’t exactly feel like mid-December!) I thought it would be a good time to share a few of my favorite cold-weather wellness strategies and the essentials of my winter kitchen apothecary. Here are my 6 basic principles for increasing immunity, energy, and overall well-being this time of year, along with a collection of simple, go-to recipes to put these ingredients to use in everyday meals.
Eat the (winter) rainbow :: Summer’s endless parade of colorful vegetables and fruits makes it effortless to ‘eat the rainbow,’ as we are always reminded to do. Winter is another story — comfort foods abound, often arriving in a more subdued palette of browns, beiges, tans, and creams (and often with gravy on top). These types of foods offer much-needed warmth and nourishment this time of year, but in excess they can make us feel heavy and sluggish, and are often a source of wintertime weight gain. That’s why it’s so important to balance things out by eating plenty of colorful vegetables at every meal.
I like to focus on 3 particularly nutrient-packed groups of veggies this time of year: dark leafy greens; yellow, gold and orange starchy vegetables; and purple and red vegetables and roots. Even if you make no other changes in your eating style, by simply increasing the amounts of these foods in your daily meals you’ll fuel your body with a wide spectrum of vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants, and other phytonutrients that are vital for winter well-being. Aim for at least 2 servings from each group every day.
Dark leafy greens include collards, kale, chard, spinach, green cabbage, broccoli rabe, and mustard greens, parsley, and I’ll include broccoli and cauliflower in this group, too, although we typically eat the flowers rather than leaves of these plants. The dark leafies are packed with vitamins and minerals, have an alkalizing effect on the body that increases resistance to illness, and are the perfect antidote to heavy comfort foods, sugar, and holiday overindulgence.
Cooking can destroy certain vitamins in leafy greens, such as vitamin C, but makes minerals like iron and calcium more absorbable — so to get the best of both worlds aim to eat both raw and cooked dark leafies every day (those with thyroid issues should favor cooked). Eat dark leafies with a healthy fat, such as extra-virgin olive oil, to increase absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, and with a vitamin-C-rich food (such as lemon) and garlic and/or onion to boost mineral absorption.
The orange, yellow and gold group includes sweet potatoes and winter squash like butternut, delicata, acorn, spaghetti and kabocha. Don’t fear the high carbohydrate content of these starchy vegetables: they are nutrient dense (especially high in vitamin A, which supports good vision), rich in antioxidants, and supply ample amounts of complex carbohydrates and fiber, which help us feel satisfied and energized for hours after a meal.
The red-and-purple family includes vegetables like purple cabbage, red onions, beets, and purple cauliflower. A red or purple hue is an easy visual cue that a vegetable or fruit contains high amounts of cell-protective antioxidants. Make a quick slaw with shaved purple cabbage, apple, and jalapeño; enjoy roasted purple cauliflower and red onion as a side dish; steam or roast beets and store in the fridge as a convenient and nutritious addition to salads and grain bowls.
Sweat it out with pungent herbs and spices :: Add more warming and invigorating herbs and spices to meals on a daily basis, such as garlic, ginger, turmeric, and chile peppers. I use these ingredients year-round but really amp up the amount and frequency during winter.
Individually, these foods have powerful antimicrobial, antiinflammatory, and detoxifying effects. Used together, they act synergistically to clear clogged nasal passages, directly inhibit illness-causing bacteria and viruses, boost immune-system function, improve circulation and digestion, and act as natural painkillers. Not bad for simple ingredients you can pick up at the local grocery or farmer’s market without an Rx! Add generous amounts to soups, curries, cooked greens, stir-fries, even scrambled eggs.
Keep up the hydration :: In summer it’s easy and intuitive to hydrate frequently — it’s hot outside, we feel thirsty and drink plenty of fluids. During the winter, with chilly temperatures and lower activity levels, we may forget to hydrate adequately, and this can lead to fatigue, headaches, lowered immunity, and general sluggishness. We may also overindulge in hot drinks like coffee and black tea in an effort to energize and stay warm, but paradoxically these caffeinated beverages can worsen dehydration and make us feel even worse.
Nourish your microbiome :: Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last couple of years, you’ve probably heard the buzz about the microbiome, that complex collective of microorganisms (mostly bacteria, but also viruses, fungi, and in some folks, parasites) that live in and on our bodies. The gut microbiome in particular has attracted a ton of attention lately, and imbalances in this delicate ecosystem have been linked not only with GI conditions like inflammatory bowel disease and colon cancer but also autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis, and even acne. Our gut flora maintain an intimate association with our immune system — 80% of our immune tissue resides in the walls of our GI tract — and keeping the balance in favor of the good guys is even more important during winter, when the immune system is dealing with added stressors.
Probiotics are the beneficial bacteria themselves, which we can take by way of supplements or, as our ancestors did, in the form of cultured and fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt, kefir, kvass, kombucha, miso paste. Fermented vegetables in particular offer a one-two punch in that they provide both probiotics and prebiotics, in the form of plant fiber, and are a supremely health-supportive addition to winter meals. Add 1 to 2 tablespoons of sauerkraut or kimchi to a bowl of soup, mix into a salad or grain bowl, or simply enjoy solo as a snack.
Pucker up to low-sugar citrus :: This is the season to keep the fruit bowl piled sky-high with tart citrus fruits. Low in sugar and packed with vitamin C, an essential nutrient for mineral absorption and healthy immune function, lemons and limes are our best friends during the colder months. These fruits have an alkalizing effect on the body, making us less hospitable hosts for cold and flu viruses that might want to come for a visit.
Squeeze half a lemon or lime into a glass of warm water for a refreshing drink and add citrus juice to tea, soup, cooked and raw dark leafies, and homemade salad dressings. Grapefruit is the way to go if you’re looking for a citrusy snack – and be sure to eat some of the white pith, which is high in antioxidants and aids in detoxification.
Give yourself a boost with superfoods and herbs :: I use a variety of tonic herbs (i.e., plants that are safe to use regularly on a long-term basis) and herbal extracts to support winter well-being and improve energy and immunity. As with any supplement or herb, ‘start low and go slow’ is a good rule of thumb. Here’s the round-up.
Adaptogenic herbs: Adaptogens are tonic herbs that when used on a consistent basis support the body in maintaining balance and dealing with stress (for example, extreme temperatures). Two that I use on daily in powdered form are maca (1/2 to 1 teaspoon per day) and ashwagandha (1/4 teaspoon per day), which I add to smoothies and other blended potions. I’ll also add a handful of dried burdock and astragalus root whenever I am making a pot of broth to infuse it with vitamins and trace minerals.
High-potency echinacea extract: I was not a believer in the efficacy of echinacea to prevent and shorten viral illnesses until I tried this high-potency Echinacea Supreme extract. I’ve turned a lot of people on to this stuff and let me tell you — no one has been disappointed. The key with echinacea is consistent use. For best results I take a dose (two droppersful in an ounce of water) at the first sign of illness or if there is a bug going around, and then continue to take a dose every few hours (up to 5 times a day) for several days. I also use echinacea as a general preventative, the same dose 2 to 3 times per week all winter long, or once daily when I am traveling. If you tend to find the flavor of herbal extracts off-putting, Quick Defense capsules are a good alternative; with liquid echinacea extract in addition to elderberry and ginger extracts.
Medicinal mushrooms: winter is a great time to add the immunity-supportive powers of medicinal mushrooms to your wellness arsenal. This reishi extract is my go-to morning boost, and I also like to add cordyceps and chaga mushroom powders to drinks and shakes, and whole, dried shiitake mushrooms when I am making a stock or broth.
Looking for ways to put these principles into action? Check out 3 simple new recipes below and a few of my winter-friendly, whole-food, plant-strong recipes from the blog archives:
Meyer Lemon and Ginger Kudzu
Aduki Miso Soup with Wakame and Shiitake Mushrooms
Herb-Roasted Autumn Roots and Squash with Garlic Tahini Sauce
Yellow Lentil Dal with Preserved Lemon
Spiced Mung Beans with Kabocha Squash and Caramelized Onions
Roasted Roots with Miso Poppy Seed Dressing
Cauliflower Fennel Soup with Ghee-Toasted Seeds
Spiced Butternut and Apple Bisque
Chicken and Leek Soup with Shiitake Mushrooms
Golden Glow Potion
4 cups (1 quart) water
2-inch piece of fresh ginger
2-inch piece of fresh turmeric (or 1/2 teaspoon dried ground turmeric)
2 lemons or limes (or one of each), peeled
Combine water, ginger, turmeric, and lemons/limes in a blender (VitaMix or other high-powered blender works best for this). Process on high speed for 1 minute. Strain mixture using a fine strainer or nut-milk bag to remove pulp.
To serve, gently heat 1 cup of this mixture per person over low heat (do not boil as it may reduce the healing constituents of the herbs and citrus). Pour into mugs and season with raw honey to taste (1-2 teaspoons).
Transfer any leftover ginger/turmeric/citrus mixture to a glass container (eg, mason jar). It will keep, tightly sealed and refrigerated, for up to 5 days. Drink a cup daily!
Spicy Braised Greens
Cooking fat of your choice (I like extra-virgin olive oil, coconut oil, or ghee)
1 clove garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
1-inch piece ginger, peeled and chopped
1/2-inch piece fresh turmeric, peeled and chopped (or ½ teaspoon ground turmeric)
½ teaspoon red chile flakes (or to taste)
1 large bunch dark leafy greens (such as kale, chard, collards, mustard, broccoli rabe, or a braising mix), washed, any tough stems removed, and leaves roughly chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Heat about 2 tablepoons fat in large skillet over medium heat. Add garlic, ginger, turmeric, and chile flakes and stir for 2 to 3 minutes until golden and fragrant. Add a large handful of greens and stir until wilted. Repeat until all greens have been added to the skillet. Season with a pinch of salt (about ½ teaspoon) and a few grinds of black pepper.
Chicken Soup with Winter Vegetables
1 quart chicken broth (can sub vegetable broth)
1 red onion, diced
1 sweet potato, diced
1 celery rib, diced
2 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
2-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
1 jalapeno, chopped (also use the seeds if you like spice!)
4 cups chopped kale (from 5 to 6 large leaves, tough stems removed)
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 dried bay leaf
5 dried shiitake mushrooms
2 cups diced cooked chicken (optional)
wedges of lemon or lime, for serving
In a soup pot combine all ingredients except chicken (if using). Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer, covered, until vegetables are tender, 25 to 30 minutes. Add chicken, if using, and simmer until heated through, about 5 minutes more. Remove bay leaf and mushrooms (if you like, slice the caps and return them to the soup; discard tough stems). Season with salt if needed (you might not need to add any if the broth is salty). Serve with lemon or lime wedges.
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