Winter brings with it a certain set of characteristics — long, cold nights and stillness in the air. Everywhere you look, the world around you — people, animals, and even plants — is withdrawing from the hustle and bustle of summer and embracing a cold season of considerably more dormancy and restfulness. Just as animals go into a deep slumber and conserve their natural energy, the season encourages you to look within, pause and redirect your own energy.
The ancient science of Ayurvedahas long emphasized following the principles of Ritucharya (seasonal regimens) with regard to diet and lifestyle to help your body acclimatize to the seasonal variations and live the healthiest possible version of your life. Winter too, owing to its peculiar characteristics, is the perfect opportunity for the body to recharge, reset and regain lost energy and health. Let us delve deeper into how this state of balance can be achieved through simple changes to our diet.
To begin, what does winter do to your body?
Ayurveda describes the earlier part of the winter season as Hemanta ritu while the latter part is known as Shishira ritu. It predominantly recognizes winter as a Kapha season, albeit with a strong influence of Vata. Thus, balancing both Kapha and Vata is exceptionally important for good health.
During this period, we tend to feel colder and our bodies become dry — our skin gets dry, as do our sinuses and even our joints. This results in the irritation of our mucus membranes, thereby prompting them to secrete more mucus. This, in turn, becomes a breeding ground for colds, flu, and bacteria.
It is believed that winter considerably decreases your immunity. However, Ayurveda considers this to be quite the contrary — winter can in fact be the season that helps strengthen your bala (immunity).
As the environment around you cools down during winter, your internal Vata is accentuated which in turn makes your agni (digestive fire) stronger. As a result, people feel more hungry and digest more which nourishes the body without the formation of ama (toxins). The digestive fire becomes potent as the cold climate obstructs it from flowing outward.
Ayurveda further emphasizes that not feeding this digestive fire with nutritionally rich foods for the season has the potential to affect the nutritive fluids of the body, which then leads to autolysis wherein it consumes tissues of the body instead.
The connection between diet and immunity
As ritusandhi (seasonal change) occurs, our body and its elements undergo a series of changes. For instance, think of all the animals that hibernate to conserve their body heat and energy. As human beings, we too, need to focus on conserving and increasing our body heat during these cold months.
To promote good health and well-being, the science of Ayurveda propagates specific guidelines on dinacharya (daily routine) and ritucharya (seasonal routine) with the help of diet and lifestyle recommendations. As we know, a strong digestive fire enhances our appetite, which in turn, helps our body absorb nutrients in the foods we consume. Thus, consuming a winter-specific diet that warms the body and kindles our agni is directly correlated with building our immunity whilst nourishing our mind and body.
Foods to consume in winter
Ayurveda recommends consuming dense, higher-fat foods in winter to insulate the body. Typically, foods consist of six distinct tastes, namely Madhura (sweet), Lavana (salty), Katu (pungent), Amla (sour), Tikta (bitter), and Kashaya (astringent). Although our foods should have a balance of all these tastes, a winter-specific diet favors the sweet, sour, and salty tastes more. Home-cooked nutritious foods keep the digestive fire burning and immunity strong. These, in particular, include:
- Underground veggies: Vegetables that grow underneath the ground all summer such as squashes, beetroots, carrots, potatoes, and sweet potatoes are heavy and dense, thus with the capacity to pacify excess Vata. Moreover, these nutrient-dense foods further support winter nutrition as they are also rich in fiber, minerals, vitamin A, and vitamin C, and packed with antioxidants.
- Fatty foods: A diet with higher fat content can insulate the body along with giving it the nutrients needed to repair, rebuild, and rejuvenate itself. For instance, migrating cold-water fish such as salmon are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Also, adding a dollop of ghee to cooked pulses and vegetables helps enhance the taste of food and is more beneficial for the body during this season.
- Protein-rich foods: Adding animal meat such as chicken is both warming in nature and protein-rich — factors needed for structural strength, skin health, and immunity among others. Vegetarians can meet this requirement by consuming more nuts such as almonds and walnuts and supplementing this need with seeds such as flax and sesame, spirulina, yogurt, and eggs.
- Fermented foods: The process of fermentation supports gut microbial immunity while also warming the body at the same time. Consuming foods such as dosas, idlis, fermented cheese, yogurt, and sauerkraut is thus beneficial in this regard. Occasionally consuming wine is also beneficial in this season.
- Fiber-rich foods: Foods which are fibrous in nature are purgative, therefore supporting intestinal health and encouraging the elimination of the heat accumulated within the body during the hot summer months. If this excess heat is not dissipated, it can turn into dryness and constipation. Therefore, adding fiber-rich foods such as wheat, seeds, grains, rye, apples, and rice can help with this process. Legumes are also helpful but must be well cooked, well spiced, and topped with ghee to avoid aggravating Vata and aid digestion.
- Warming spices: Herbs and spices such as cardamom, cumin, oregano, cloves, and turmeric are Vata-reducing and have the capacity to naturally insulate the body. These can be added to food to enhance its taste or even had in the form of steeped teas. In fact, sipping a warming blend of cumin, coriander, and fennel tea throughout the day aids digestion and gives the body much-needed warmth.
- Vitamin D-rich foods: Winter brings with it a scarcity of vitamin D, hence consuming foods rich in this vitamin are beneficial to the body. These include fatty fish, fortified cereals, soy products, eggs, mushrooms, yogurt, cheese, orange juice, and tomatoes.
Foods to avoid in winter
While a healthy diet tells us what foods to consume, we must also remember to avoid certain foods to balance our constitution. Typically, you’d want to avoid consuming foods that are of a similar quality to the surrounding environment and to the way your body is feeling. In winter, this particularly includes:
- Cold salads and raw foods: Such foods are too cold, rough, and airy in nature and will aggravate Vata and create more gas and bloating. Warm salads rich with olive oil and cooked beets for example are instead encouraged this season. On this note, melons are also best avoided this season.
- Heavy foods that are difficult to digest: Heavily processed foods, fried goods, and in general vegetables that are difficult to digest should be avoided
- Coconut: Coconut tends to be very cooling for the body and all forms of it are best avoided this season.
- Dry foods: Foods such as popcorn, chips, and crackers are extremely dry and will only encourage more dryness within the body during the already cold, dry season.
- Cold beverages: Cold water and ice-cold beverages slow down the digestive fire and make the body cool down when it needs to be warmed up. Thus, they are best avoided.
Tips to Remember
- Easily digestible winter foods are great for increasing immunity.
- It is best to eat seasonal, locally-grown produce.
- Sipping on a cup of warm tea after meals aids digestion.
- Ensure mealtimes are maintained, with breakfast and lunch being the heavier of the day’s three main meals. Dinner is best consumed three hours before bedtime.
- Avoid fasting in the winter season as it affects the quality of rasa dhatu causing imbalances in both Kapha and Vata. This can cause flatulence, bloating, body aches, and joint pain.
- Although dairy is best avoided in winter, consuming a glass of hot milk infused with turmeric, pepper powder, nutmeg, and a few drops of ghee can boost immunity and induce good sleep.
- Eat only when you are hungry and not when you are bored.
- Research recommends consuming slightly lesser food than your body’s capacity, thereby keeping room for the movement and proper digestion of food.
READ MORE: Your Winter Wellness Guide: The Ayurveda Way
The age-old science of Ayurveda encourages us to check in with ourselves, inculcate the habit of self-awareness, and consume locally grown, seasonal food as per our individual prakriti. Since winter is predominantly a cold and dry season, all body types benefit from eating warming foods such as soups, grains, steamed vegetables, stews, and khichdis to help insulate the body.
Remember, the food we consume significantly impacts our mood, health, and overall well-being, and when in sync with the environment around us, it can help us live life to the fullest.