When it was recently suggested that I do a story on foods that help us get through the winter doldrums, I immediately wiped my greasy fingers on my paper towel napkin, adjusted the waistband on my sweatpants, set aside the 1/10 that remained of the artichoke dip I had decided was my dinner, and wondered, “Why did I just eat that? What compelled me to make a rich, gooey, fat-laden dip for a meal?”
Well, it was what I had been craving for days, warm and creamy, garlicky, full of Parmesan cheese. . . . And I hadn’t intended for it to be the whole meal, I just couldn’t eat anything else afterward.
The foods we crave at this time of year and the foods we should be eating are not necessarily in sync, but they can be. It’s nice to spend more time in the kitchen, warming it up with simmering stews, hearty soups, casseroles, and gratins. When I began to research which foods were the best for your health and well-being, there were some predictable “superfoods” — walnuts, blueberries, leafy greens, etc. — but also some surprises. Who knew pumpkin seeds could be bad? Well, they’re only bad if they’ve been coated with something called potassium bromate, a preservative which blocks iodine from being absorbed by the thyroid, so read the label.
We all know vegetable shortening is a no-no, but who knew that pastured lard is a better substitute? The main fat in pastured lard is oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat. Stearic acid, the main saturated fat in lard, is not linked to an increase in heart disease, nor does it impact cholesterol levels. Even pastured butter is recommended over margarine.
Agave nectar is another no-no. Who knew? It’s billed as natural and healthy because it doesn’t raise blood sugar. However, the excess fructose increases risk of metabolic syndrome, increasing the chance of brain shrinkage and mood instability. Best to use just a little bit of maple syrup or local honey as a sweetener.
Let’s just run down the bad foods first, the ones you might be tempted to turn to on a cold, dark, gloomy day. Number one, basically anything you can buy at a gas station or 7-Eleven — potato chips, pork rinds, sodas, bagels. Holiday hams and hot dogs, any processed meats with nitrates are bad, as are triple shot espresso drinks, white chocolate, fast food fries, too much alcohol, and cupcakes! Who knew a cheerful little round of cake slathered in butter cream could be so bad?
Sweet potatoes are good for you but not if you pile on the butter and swirl in the brown sugar and top with mini marshmallows. Dark chocolate is very good for you in small doses, say one ounce per day of 63 to 70 percent cocoa. Chocolate contains mood-boosting theobromine and phenylethylamine which helps reduce stress hormone levels.
Walnuts are good because they are full of alpha-linolenic acid (A.L.A.), a form of omega-3 fat. Flaxseed and chia seeds are also in this category.
Greek yogurt is good because the protein can raise levels of mood-improving neurotransmitters like dopamine and norepinephrine. Quinoa, brown rice, oats, and whole wheat pastas are nutrient-rich carbohydrates. I am a firm believer in low-fat, not low-carb diets and studies have shown that those on a low-carb diet for a year experience more depression than those on a low-fat, complex carbohydrate-rich diet.
Low-fat milk is good because it provides vitamin D. Extra virgin olive oil is good as part of the Mediterranean diet, which is known for an abundance of fish, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. Collard greens, spinach, and Swiss chard are some of the rock stars of good-for-you in winter foods, full of B vitamin folate. Folate can also be found in broccoli, liver, and beans. Turkey is good because it contains tryptophan, an amino acid that the body uses to create mood regulating serotonin and melatonin. It can also be found in pineapple, asparagus, and lobster. Who knew?
Soy and soybean products such as tofu are great for you, as are salmon and trout, which have two omega-3 fats, EPA and DHA.
Some of the more surprising foods are blue potatoes, mussels, cherry tomatoes, and coconut. Blue potatoes are excellent because they have anthocyanins, powerful antioxidants and iodine, much like blueberries, eggplant, and black beans. Mussels are excellent because they are full of zinc, iodine, and selenium, the protein highest in naturally occurring vitamin B-12. Cherry tomatoes are loaded with lycopene, an antioxidant found mostly in the skin. Coconuts are full of medium-chain triglycerides, which keep the brain healthy and fuel better moods. Use coconut unsweetened in yogurt or in a smoothie.
I have no idea what a medium-chain triglyceride is but the more research you do, the more you will find the same foods mentioned again and again.
So once again, here are the top healthy foods to combat the winter doldrums: Greek yogurt, quinoa, brown rice, low-fat milk, soy products, dark leafy greens, turkey, walnuts, oatmeal, dark chocolate, eggs, honey, coconut, blue potatoes, bananas, sweet potatoes, salmon, papaya, and honey.
Dr. Oz recently trumpeted barramundi fish as a “superfood we all must eat now!” His claims that it is a vegetarian fish (it is not) and that it has higher omega-3 levels than salmon (it does not) led the head of Australis Aquaculture to correct his mistakes. If you don’t mind buying fish flown from Australia (locavores cringe here!), then by all means, jump on the barramundi bandwagon.
So to eat well and eat healthily this winter, you could be as extravagant as supping on lobster and asparagus with darling little blue fingerling potatoes and papaya for dessert. Or you can keep it simple and cheap with mussels, brown rice, lentils, spinach salad, and an apple crisp. I’m just glad my artichoke dip didn’t turn up on the bad list.