Do Our Nutritional Needs Change as We Move Into Fall and Winter? Short Answer: You Bet

Photo: Stocksy/Cameron Whitman
Just when you've finally nailed the most nutrient-rich summer meal routine for your bodily needs, we come in and tell you that your warm weather dish rotation might be worth a second glance now that it’s fall. Apologies in advance! But as the saying goes, knowledge is power. And what's better than eating with the seasons, anyway?

Simply stated, your nutritional needs do change from summer to fall, and all year-round. “There are a few reasons that nutritional needs change from season to season, and much of it is centered around the weather,” say Lyssie Lakatos, RDN, CDN, CFT and Tammy Lakatos, RDN, CDN, CFT, The Nutrition Twins and founders of 21-Day Body Reboot. “First, in the summer months, we are outside in the warmer weather more often, exposing our skin to the sun. The sun is stronger and more direct in the summertime, so our bodies are able to convert the sunlight into vitamin D. Also, our bodies are programmed to focus on thermoregulation, which means maintaining proper body temperature. So when it’s cold out, we may need more food since our bodies require more energy to heat ourselves up. We also lose a lot of electrolytes through sweat in the summertime, so it may be important to replenish electrolytes in the summer.”

Experts In This Article

In addition, as the days are shorter and colder in the fall, we tend to get less fresh air. “Many of us are spending more time indoors, which often puts us in closer contact with other people, especially in poorly-ventilated spaces with folks who may be carrying germs. This means that we may need to take extra steps to protect ourselves from getting sick, like eating more immune-boosting nutrients,” say The Nutrition Twins. “More time indoors can also lead to greater exposure to air pollutants, which can cause inflammation, respiratory diseases, heart disease, cancer and other illnesses, so we need extra nutrients in cooler weather to protect against these.” This is because the EPA has stated that the levels of indoor air pollutants are often two to five times higher than outdoor levels. In some cases, these levels can exceed 100 times that of outdoor levels of the same pollutants.

Changes in weather may also impact the way we eat, particularly for those who focus on eating ingredients that are in season. “What produce is in season and available in grocery stores changes throughout the year,” says Mia Syn, MS, RD. “We also tend to crave heartier meals in colder months to stay warm.” (And it's always smart to listen to your body.)

All of this being said, what should we load up on now that the weather has cooled down? Read on to how your winter nutritional needs differ from warmer seasons.

How RDs recommend tailoring your winter nutritional needs for the season

1. Focus on vitamin D-rich foods.

“It’s critical to get enough vitamin D because your body can’t absorb calcium without it, which can lead to weak bones,” say The Nutrition Twins. “Researchers now know that it’s important to get enough vitamin D to protect against osteoporosis, some cancers, Alzheimer’s disease, autoimmune disease, infection and more.” If you’re not eating foods in the winter months that are good sources of vitamin D—like fatty fish, eggs, liver and fortified dairy products, orange juice, soy milk and cereals—The Nutrition Twins suggest getting your vitamin D levels tested and taking a supplement if needed.

2. Omega-3 fatty acids can help stave off winter skin issues.

“Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to lower blood pressure, reduce triglycerides, slow the development of plaque in the arteries and reduce the likelihood of a heart attack and stroke," say The Nutrition Twins. "And when it comes to the colder months that can cause skin to get flaky, itchy and dry, getting adequate omega-3 fatty acids can be very helpful. Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids help to fight inflammation, regulate the skin's oil production, improve balanced hydration, soothe skin irritation, and can help soften dry skin.” Good food sources of omega-3s are mackerel, salmon, herring, sardines, flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts.

3. Vitamin C is key to fight off colds and the flu.

Bolster your immune system with vitamin C. “Although the literature has been mixed on whether vitamin C appears to protect against getting sick, some research shows it has been shown to reduce the severity and duration of colds,” say The Nutrition Twins. “Vitamin C is also a potent antioxidant that mops up free radicals, preventing them from damaging cells and causing inflammation, helping to make the body stronger and more resilient overall.” Vitamin C-rich foods include oranges, grapefruits, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, and brussels sprouts.

4. Remember to include plant-based protein and fiber in your comfort food rotation.

Syn tells us that some studies suggest that colder weather coupled with the holiday season can cause many to eating more meat-heavy, rich dishes that provide us warmth. While delicious, this pivot can cause some digestive discomfort and constipation for those who are replacing fresh produce with meat-centric meals, or for anyone with a sensitive stomach. “To avoid digestive upset, continue to focus on incorporating plant-based protein and fiber into meals and snacks,” says Syn. This combination will help keep energy levels steady and keep your gut microbiome well-balanced. “It can be as simple as wrapping apple slices with oven roasted turkey—I love Applegate Naturals because it’s free of artificial ingredients or preservatives—or adding beans to a homemade soup or salad." You can also make super delicious, comforting soups and stews using lentils, chickpeas, and veggies instead of beef to up your protein and fiber intake.

5. Don’t forget to hydrate—yes, even when it's icy outside.

Contrary to popular belief, you need just as much water in the colder months, if not more, than in the summer. “While we tend to lose more water through sweat in the summer, in cold climates fluid loss can be just as high due in part to lower humidity, increased losses in urine and less obvious signs of dehydration,” says Syn. So chug away (lemon tea is a great choice for cozy evenings, BTW). You can also opt for foods particularly high in water, like fruit, vegetables, and yogurt.

6. Make sure you’re meeting your vitamin K2 needs.

Vitamin K2 is a nutrient that many of us don’t get enough of since it’s found naturally in only a handful of foods, such as fermented foods like natto,” says Syn. “If you’re taking a vitamin D supplement, it’s important to supplement with vitamin K2 as well, since they depend on one another to support heart and bone health. K2 helps to regulate the transport and distribution of calcium in the body.”

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