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December 7, 2011

The Best Cold-Weather Comfort Foods

Eat your way to more energy, better skin, and a stronger immune system this winter.


Photo Credit: Levi Brown

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The latest science suggests that it's not just the chilly, dark days of winter that make us feel (and look) so miserable, it's our diet. Eat right, and avoid the beauty and health hazards of the season. Here, the latest strategies:


Indoor heating; long, hot sudsy showers: These winter standbys will warm you, but they'll also suck you dry. Keep moisture contained by eating whole-grain bread and rice. A recent French study reported that women who ingested lipids from whole grains had reduced dryness and redness. These lipids (ceramides) help "cement" skin cells, says Alan Logan, coauthor of The Clear Skin Diet.

Try extra helpings of Swiss chard, and enjoy your egg yolks. Both contain biotin, which promotes production of fatty acids — a must-have for smooth skin. As a dietitian at Foodtrainers in New York City, Lauren Slayton tells her clients: "An egg a day keeps dry skin away."


Parched conditions wreak havoc on skin, disrupting exfoliation and triggering "low-grade inflammation," says Dr. Nicolas Perricone, NYC dermatologist and author of Forever Young. That's why eczema, acne, and psoriasis can flare up. He prescribes three 3.5-ounce servings of cold-water fish weekly — salmon, anchovies, halibut, arctic char (wild, if possible) — which contain EPA, a soothing omega-3 fatty acid. He also likes watercress, which releases detoxifying enzymes and boosts antioxidant defense systems. Joy Bauer, New York City dietitian and author of Joy Bauer's Food Cures, also recommends walnuts, ground flaxseeds, and chia seeds, which boast ALA, an omega-3 that converts to EPA.


Dr. Barbara Reed, a dermatologist in Denver, sheds light on goggle face — those ridiculous tan lines you get around the eyes after hitting the slopes: Turns out, ultraviolet radiation increases 2 percent for every 1,000-foot rise in elevation, so ski and board with sunscreen. Perricone believes you can build on that protection every day with two to three cups of green tea, a square of dark chocolate (at least 70 percent cocoa), and foods containing lycopene — like tomatoes, pink grapefruit, and watermelon. Studies out of the University of Düsseldorf in Germany report that these foods prevent and slightly reduce damage from sun exposure.


We know that ample vitamin D is essential for strong bones; it helps with absorption of calcium and phosphorous. But now science is starting to confirm its link to your mood: A University of Queensland, Australia, review study reports that vitamin D affects dopamine, a brain chemical linked with reward recognition. Besides taking supplements (about 1,000 IU daily), look for vitamin-D-enriched foods, such as fortified milk, orange juice, yogurt, and, more recently, UVB-enhanced mushrooms, a new innovation.

DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid also found in cold-water fish, can help, too, says Dr. David Mischoulon, director of research at Massachusetts General Hospital's Depression Clinical and Research Program in Boston. These compounds stabilize the cell membrane, fine-tuning its messaging systems. A recent Ohio State University study suggests that omega-3s act as de-stressors: Test-takers receiving supplements showed a 20 percent reduction in anxiety symptoms compared with a placebo group.

Finally, researchers are exploring folate, a vitamin found in spinach, asparagus, black-eyed peas, beans, and fortified cereals. Certain forms of folate supplements (such as the "prescription food" Deplin) may cross the blood-brain barrier, Mischoulon says, providing a boost to antidepressants.


It's dark. It's cold. It's holiday-shopping crunch time. Of course your energy is sapped! Spot-treat with gum. Chewing enhances blood flow to the brain, perking it up, almost like caffeine but without the crash. Maximize the effect with minty flavors — or reach for a minty drink. According to a study out of Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia, subjects drinking 50 milliliters of peppermint-infused water rated their performance on a treadmill session higher — and experienced a mood boost — than those on a placebo. You may even actually perform better if you inhale it: The scent of mint seems to change brain activity, preventing a plunge in arousal levels that would typically occur after a stress test.

For a sustained effect, eat a balanced 500-calorie breakfast. "Women tend to undereat by day and overeat at night," says Nancy Clark, author of Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook. Stabilize blood sugar — and energy — by pairing lean protein (eggs, yogurt, tofu, nuts) with high-fiber carbohydrates (whole-grain waffles, multigrain toast, fresh fruit, oats).


Germs spread with abandon in winter because we're cooped up indoors. So Bauer suggests eating at least 75 milligrams of vitamin C (from papaya, red bell peppers, oranges, Brussels sprouts, cantaloupe), which stimulates the growth and activity of infection-fighting white blood cells. To bolster your immune system further, heap on beta carotene (from leafy greens such as spinach, romaine lettuce, broccoli, and kale, and orange-colored produce such as sweet potatoes, carrots, and winter squash). It helps to play offense, too: Onions are loaded with quercetin, an antioxidant that slows viral activity and replication.

And what about chicken soup? It appears that Mom's remedy keeps white blood cells, which can cause inflammation, from migrating into the nose and throat and causing congestion. It's the nutrients in the colorful mix of veggies — in concert with the chicken and hot liquid — that does the trick. The memories it conjures of cozy winters gone by can't hurt, either.

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