Here we explain how if you eat the right foods you’ll find there’s nothing inevitable about winter illness, and we suggest some meal ideas and foods to keep you flu free and riding throughout the colder months
It’s time to batten down the hatches, as the months of wind, rain, sleet and snow head our way. Yep, whether you like it or not, winter is here and unfortunately, so are the bugs, germs and infections of flu season.
Cue the obsessive health nuts with their flu masks, rubber gloves and disinfectant spray, panicking and giving every person who dares sniffle near them an evil ‘don’t get near me or touch me’ look.
However, it needn’t be like this, providing you follow correct practical advice. In fact, we should be able to get through these darker months relatively unscathed and one of the best ways to keep strong throughout the winter is through our diet.
So that’s why we’ve taken a look at some of the best foods and nutritional tips to help keep your immune system fighting fit, kill any unwanted germs, and hopefully, allow you to keep riding until the end of the winter.
Avoiding the unavoidable
Now, you would think, what with such freezing temperatures, that the likelihood of catching a cold is far greater.
However, did you know that there is no evidence to suggest that cold weather, or a change in temperature, will lead to a cold?
A significant study published in the American Journal of Hygiene in 1958, proved that you couldn’t catch a cold from getting cold. Researcher H F Dowling subjected 400 volunteers to viruses that cause colds in different temperature environments.
Some wore heavily insulated clothes, while some subjects were in their underwear, where temperatures fluctuated from 80°F (26.6°C) to 60°F (15.5°C).
Their results showed that regardless of temperature or the amount of clothing, all groups had the same level of infection.
Many people get this wrong. The only reason why you wouldn’t want to go out on a cold, damp day, is that it may feel unpleasant, not because you increase the chances of catching a cold.
Flu and common colds are caused by viruses, and not directly by cold weather — people catch these bugs more often in the winter because they are exposed to each other more in the winter than the summer, and are thus more likely to spread germs to one another.
Eat right, ride right
Myths and facts
Whenever you catch a cold, many people will strenuously recommend you take on as much vitamin C as you can. But did you know that taking vitamin C hasn’t been proven to be more effective in treating cold symptoms than any other product?
In 2007, Dr. Hasmukh Joshi, the then vice-chair of the Royal College of GPs, reviewed 30 trials involving 11,000 people and concluded that the regular ingestion of vitamin C has no effect on common cold incidence in the ordinary population. However, a daily dose did slightly reduce the length and severity of colds.
“Studies found that vitamin C offers a very, very limited benefit,” says Dr. Joshi. “I wouldn’t recommend it.”
Echinacea is another element which people often use when they catch a cold, but don’t necessarily know if it works or not.
The root, seeds and other parts of the plant are regularly used in herbal remedies with the belief that it will help people protect them against colds and infections. But once again, the studies are inconclusive.
A review of trials involving echinacea showed that, compared with people who didn’t take echinacea, those who did were about 30 per cent less likely to get a cold.
However, it is worth noting that the study had varying results and used different preparations of echinacea. The results also showed that echinacea did not reduce the length of a cold when taken on its own.
“There is a belief that echinacea aids the immune system, but a survey of studies in 2005 showed it did not,” says Dr. Joshi. “I wouldn’t say that it helps, but if people believe it, they can take it. There’s no harm in it.”
Zinc is another popular supplement choice, and there is some evidence that taking zinc lozenges as soon as a cold starts to appear may reduce its duration.
However, there is still very little solid evidence highlighting the positive effects.
Fruit and vegetables are the primary food resources that keep our immune system in peak condition. This is because they contain many minerals and vitamins as well as antioxidants that work to help our body fight infections and grow strong.
Supplements or dietary aids are all very well and a wise choice to give you that extra boost when your body isn’t quite up to scratch.
However, there is no substitute for real food for the prevention of colds and flu because you get the whole nutritional package.
For example, eating an orange is far better for you than just taking vitamin C on its own, because the orange also offers you a combination of other nutrients such as magnesium, potassium, folate and antioxidant-rich flavonoids.
A contributing factor to why many people tend to get ill during the winter is likely to be the fact that they don’t eat enough fruit and vegetables around this time of year.
When the rain is falling, and the fire is on, we tend to indulge in stodgy, warm foods that make us feel good, when in fact they are only temporarily filling us up.
A fruit salad doesn’t seem too tantalising when it’s freezing cold outside, does it?
But no matter what time of year it is, everyone needs at least five servings of fruit and vegetables every day to get the adequate vitamins, minerals, fibre and antioxidants.
Now, that doesn’t mean we should just feast on fruit and veg, as there are many other healthy foods and food groups that supply us nutrients and support our immune system.
Foods such as lean meats, fish, low fat dairy, wholegrains, poultry, nuts and seeds all help contribute to a healthy diet.
Protein, in particular, is extremely important for a healthy immune system, because it supplies the body with amino acids (the building blocks of protein) and helps rebuild muscle damage, as well as contributing to recovery, energy, mood and brain function.
Weed out the bad stuff
Clearly, it’s easy for us to sit here and tell you what to eat and what not to, but how do you go about putting what we preach into practice?
Nutritionist Lynn Clay believes you should try looking at your diet from another angle. Instead of searching for the miracle, wonder food, look at your current diet and rid yourself of the sugary content that may have a detrimental effect on not only your health, but your waistline too.
“The first step to supporting your immune system is to remove items from your diet that could be burdening it,” says Clay. “Look at your shopping list. Are there things you could go without?”
We’re not telling you to discard all of your sweet snacks — you’ll need the psychological lift that they supply on occasion — but why not cut out half of them?
The same can be applied to your processed foods. Instead of sugary cereals, opt for wholegrain cereals or porridge.
Eating whole fruit and drinking water rather than fruit juice will also help lower your sugar intake.
“Don’t make the mistake of thinking that swapping white for brown sugar is going to have a huge effect on your health or waistline either,” warns Clay.
“Brown sugar is just as short on protein and vitamins as the white stuff, simply providing slightly higher levels of a few minerals. In short, you are better cutting it out.”
Our top tip: make sure you read the back of food labels to ensure you know what it is that you are eating, as there are many forms of sugar and salt hidden among other names.
Where possible, cooking from fresh is always the better, healthier option.
Filling the basket
Once you have given your shopping a bit of a spring clean, the next step is to include foods that are full of protective ingredients.
“The best place to start is your fruit and vegetables,” explains Clay.
“Each meal and snack should contain at least one food that can be classed as fruit, vegetable or salad to keep your vitamin and mineral intake topped up.”
Lunchtime can be a tricky time of the day to eat a good meal. Working in an office isn’t exactly the ideal place to prepare a healthy lunch.
If you can, try to eat a salad or at least, a meal with salad ingredients in it such a lycopene-rich tomatoes or iron-rich spinach.
According to Clay, dinnertime is where we can really go for it on the vegetable front. When choosing vegetables, go for variety, and ones with strong colours, which will provide a range of vitamins and minerals that your body needs.
“By drip-feeding your body with nutrients, it will not only benefit from a superior vitamin and mineral status, but the fibre content of these foods will support good bowel health and fill you up on relatively few calories,” explains Clay.
If you ride, make sure you eat
Our immunity is not only affected by our vitamin and mineral status. The presence of tissue damage and/or inflammation or the depletion of particular macronutrients during exercise could also be a contributing factor.
The winter isn’t going to be enough to stop us from riding, but if we haven’t fuelled ourselves correctly or efficiently, infections could occur, which could lead to days or even weeks off the bike.
Training on low carbohydrate stores has been linked with an increased release of the stress hormone, cortisol, as well as an increase in the immune system’s inflammatory response and a decrease on the production of protective immune markers.
If our immune system is low, and a bug is doing the rounds, we are susceptible to catching it. This is why we must make sure we eat adequately, not only before exercise, but during and after, too. Remember, food doesn’t only serve to fuel us; it also protects us.
The same can be said for a poor protein intake. Research suggests that a lack of protein has been shown to negatively affect our immune system. After exercise, our body is in a state of trauma.
Muscles are damaged, stress hormones are released, and our body’s immune system is lowered. It’s important to take on proteins to repair muscle damage, and sugar to elevate blood sugar levels.
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Meal ideas to keep you cold free and riding through the winter
Thai-style chicken, shiitake and tenderstem broccoli with noodles and coconut broth
This is an incredibly quick, no-hassle meal yet it seems on serving as if you have made quite an effort. It’s also a complete meal in a bowl so there’s little washing up.
Serves: Four to six
Preparation time: 15-20 minutes
Cooking time: 25 minutes
1½ tbsp groundnut oil
6 shallots, peeled and sliced
4 cloves garlic, sliced
100g shiitake mushrooms, sliced
600g butternut squash, deseeded, peeled and cut into cubes
1 tsp ground turmeric
1 or 2 tbsp Thai red curry paste (depending on strength of paste)
400ml tinned coconut milk
250ml chicken stock
350g chicken breast fillet, cut into chunks
200g tenderstem broccoli, halved horizontally
½-1 tsp soft light brown sugar
Juice of half a lime
2 tsp fish sauce, or to taste
400g egg noodles
To finish off:
2 spring onions, chopped diagonally
1 medium red chilli, halved, deseeded and cut into shreds
2 tbsp fresh coriander
Wedges of lime
1 Put the oil into a large saucepan and fry the shallots, garlic, mushrooms and butternut squash until they are golden — it will take about 3 minutes
2 Add the turmeric and curry paste. Stir around the pan and cook for a minute or so until the spices become fragrant
3 Add the coconut milk and the stock and bring to a simmer. Cook for 10 minutes (the squash should feel quite soft) then add the chicken and tenderstem broccoli and cook for another five minutes. The squash should be completely tender and the chicken cooked through. You can add more stock or water if you would like it to be ‘soupier’
4 Season with the sugar, lime and fish sauce and adjust to your taste — you may want to add more lime or even a little more sugar. You want a balance of hot, sour, salty and sweet
5 Cook the noodles according to the instructions on the packet. Once cooked, divide the noodles between four or six bowls, spoon the chicken over them, and top with the spring onion, chilli and coriander. Offer wedges of lime to serve
Nutritional value (per serving): 494kcal, 9g sugar, 6.5g fat, 1.2g saturates, 1.9g salt
Sweetheart soup with shallots, streaky bacon & sage
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 15 minutes
Extra virgin olive oil (approx. 1tbsp)
2 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
1 carrot, trimmed and finely chopped
1 stick of celery, trimmed and finely chopped
1 clove of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
3 slices of streaky bacon or pancetta, sliced into small cubes
1 sweetheart cabbage, trimmed and finely chopped (approx. 900g)
1 tbsp fresh sage leaves, finely chopped
1 litre of vegetable stock
Sea salt and pepper
Fresh shavings of Parmiggiano Reggiano
1 Heat some olive oil in a heavy soup pot, and add the finely chopped shallots, carrot, celery, garlic and bacon. Mix the vegetables well, and season with salt and pepper. Sweat the vegetables until soft, adding a little water to help create steam. Make sure the vegetables do not crisp and burn by adding a little additional water, and stirring
2 When the vegetables are soft, add the cabbage slices and the sage. Mix well. Add the stock, bring the soup to the boil and then lower the heat. Within five minutes the soup will be ready
3 Pour the soup into warm serving bowls and then sprinkle fresh Parmiggiano Reggiano shavings on top
Nutritional value (per serving): 177kcal, 9.7g sugar, 10.5g fat, 4g saturates, 3.5g salt
Foods to try
A 60g serving of almonds carries nearly 50 per cent of the daily recommended amount of vitamin E, which is vital to maintain a healthy immune system. Almonds also contain riboflavin and niacin, which studies have suggested are good for the nervous system.
Many people believe mushrooms do little more than break up a boring meal. In fact, they contain the mineral selenium. Research has shown that low levels of selenium have been linked to an increased risk of developing more severe flu. These mushrooms also contain riboflavin and niacin, which may play a role in a healthy immune system.
Not the most glamorous vegetable out there, but with high levels of glutathione, which may help top up the body’s own stores of this ‘master antioxidant’, it’s something none of us should go without. If you don’t particularly like the flavour of cabbage on its own, you can always add it to soups and stews to give your meals that added nutritional boost.
Not exactly a food, but tea, both green and black, is loaded with polyphenols and flavonoids. It is these antioxidants that seek out cell damaging free radicals and ‘kill’ them. Caffeinated and decaf can work equally well.
Garlic stimulates the production of infection fighting white cells and increases the efficiency of antibody production, boosting immune function. Garlic also offers several antioxidants that may help battle against immune system invaders. While it is undoubtedly good for you, don’t have too much, as you may start to pong.
A great little winter food that really picks you up when you’re feeling down. Sweet potatoes contain the antioxidant beta-carotene, which helps fight off free radicals. It’s also converted in the body into vitamin A, which is linked to slowing the ageing process and may even reduce the risk of some cancers.
Salmon, mackerel and tuna
‘Fatty’ fish are a great way of getting omega 3 fats into your diet. They are essential immune boosters as they work by increasing the activity of phagocytes — the white blood cells whose job it is to ‘eat up’ bacteria. These fats also help strengthen cell membranes, speeding up healing and strengthening resistance to infection in the body. These fats can also be found in flax oil, omega 3 eggs, nuts and seeds.
Although it can be quite tricky to get your hands on, and also expensive, this wonder food is great to help keep your immune system strong. Originating in New Zealand, it provides antioxidants, minerals and vitamins, which fight bacteria as well as being a good source of energy. It’s also been said that one teaspoon can help fight off sore throats. Why not add it to your cup of tea, or plop some onto your porridge in the morning?