Healthy Eating in Winter

24/11/2011 00:03 GMT | Updated 23/01/2012 10:12 GMT

Keeping to a healthy diet throughout the winter can be a challenge for many people. The onset of the colder and darker days can lead us to abandon lighter meals in favour of higher fat and calories. Inevitably, these changes can lead to weight gain over the winter months.

What may surprise you however is that according to a study published in 2000 by Jack A. Yanovski and colleagues in the New England Journal of Medicine, the winter weight gain of participants was on average only 1lb (0.48kg). This doesn't sound like a large amount of weight gain and some people would assume that it is nothing to worry about. The most interesting result that came out of the study, for me at least, was that weight gain was not lost subsequently. In other words, winter weight gain was not a seasonal issue that corrected itself come the spring, but was an on-going contributor to long-term gradual weight gain.

This is of concern because we are as a population are becoming increasingly overweight and obese, which contributes to the increased incidence of diseases such as heart disease, most cases of Type 2 diabetes and some cancers. So by managing your weight during winter, you can make long term benefits to your health.

Hearty meals don't have to be higher in calories and as prevention is better than cure, with some smart food choices you can eat healthy, satisfying meals over the winter months.

A basic tenet of healthy eating is to eat regularly. Skipping meals can lead to over compensation at your next meal. Start with breakfast; one of my personal favourites and a perfect winter warmer is porridge. Nutritious, filling and ever so easy to make, porridge is a real treat when it's cold. Prepare it with water and add a little semi-skimmed milk and honey to sweeten. To raise it just above the average, replace the honey with a little cinnamon and apple.

Make the most of winter vegetables. Cabbage, carrots, leeks, celeriac and cauliflower are all in season and although they may not seem as glamorous as their summer relatives, they are perfect for stews, soups and casseroles. Bulking up on the vegetables you use in a meal is one of the easiest ways to add flavour and depth to a meal, without the additional calories, helping to keep you fuller for longer between meals.

For many of us, the fall back comfort food for winter is mashed potato. But mashed potato can pack a mighty calorific punch; as a high Gi starchy veg, it will release its energy quickly into the blood stream. Mash it with butter, milk or cheese and your saturate fat intake, as well as calories, increase.

You can continue to enjoy potatoes as part of a healthy diet, but by reducing the amount you eat and by supplementing them with other seasonal veg, you can reduce both the calories and the Gi of your mash. Celeriac, carrots and cauliflower all make excellent partners in mash and contain fewer calories per weight than a potato. Replacing the higher fat dairy products with skimmed or semi skimmed and you can lower the calories and fat further. Better yet, why not replace the mash entirely? Blanched cauliflower or boiled celeriac make great alternative pie toppings, thereby avoiding the potato, milk and butter of a mash altogether.

Legumes such as beans and lentils are ideal winter foods - hearty, warming, satisfying and very versatile. Nutritionally, they are practically fat free, high in protein and one of the best sources of healthy dietary fibre. And as they are a staple of so many different cuisines from Mexican to Indian, they open a whole world of flavours to spice up the cold evenings.

Speaking of spice, if you want flavour without the fat, adding spices to your meals will really bring them to life. Chillies and curries can make excellent choices to warm your evenings up. A current favourite of mine, Chickpea and lentil curry, combines both my advice on legumes and spices. It has bags of flavour and ticks all the boxes for a healthy, tasty winter warmer.

Sir Rannulph Fiennes, a man who knows a thing or two about coping with colder weather, once said that "There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing." I would like to change that slightly and say there is no such thing as a bad season, only inappropriate food choices.

Managing your weight can be achieved with small adjustments to your diet and controlling your weight during the winter could help reduce long term weight gain. Winter does have its challenges but healthy eating shouldn't be one of them.