As winter enters its final phase, here is a quick look at the food combinations that help you stay cozy.
In the north, sesame seed or til is available freely, and til ladoos, til rewari, etc., are a staple. These sweet snacks usually use jaggery, or sometimes honey, instead of refined sugar. Til is a great source of calcium and iron, and in combination with jaggery, provides large amounts of energy that help in keeping the body warm. Many patients ask me if these winter sweets are unhealthy or fattening. Appetites increase during the cold season, and instead of indulging in cakes, jalebis or mithai, I’d rather opt for nutrient-packed and naturally sweet til or peanut (another staple) ladoos and chikkis.
Pumpkin and sesame seeds, both widely available, and nuts like almonds are great for the digestive system and help to warm the body no matter how you choose to use them. Just roast the nuts and seeds, add a pinch of salt, and it makes for a delicious snack that can be carried around anywhere you go.
The sarson ka saag (mustard greens) and makki ki roti (corn-flour bread) combination is an unbeatable one for winter. This is a scientific, medically correct combination—sarson is abundant in the winter, and its pungency, enhanced with spices, ginger, and garlic, is a perfect combination of “thermogenic” foods, that is, foods that increase body warmth. Sarson, like all leafy greens, is packed with vitamins and minerals, and is a great source of dietary fibre. It is cooked with either mustard oil, which is a healthy, heart-friendly oil, or with ghee. Ghee, despite its high calorific value, is a great winter warmer. It lubricates the joints (which stiffen in the cold) and helps with digestion.
This is then eaten with makki ki roti, which is a complex carbohydrate, providing sustainable energy for the entire day, something that’s needed in the winters, when you tend to feel tired and sluggish. The body uses this energy as fuel to keep warm. Wholegrains are also rich in vitamin B; this helps the thyroid gland, which helps to regulate body temperature, to function optimally.
These food combinations have been handed down for generations, so our grandparents did indeed get it right!
Cinnamon, ginger and pepper are warming spices that should be used liberally during winter. Cinnamon gives beverages a wonderful taste and is commonly used in coffee and tea. I often recommend using it in oats as its inherent sweet taste reduces the need for sugar.
Have a cold? Add an extra sprinkle of pepper and ginger to your soup, or make ginger and pepper tea by boiling both in water.
A quick aside—if you’ve ever felt a sharp seasonal change in food cravings, or you’ve felt low as the weather turned colder and darker, it could be due to seasonal affective disorder (SAD). This condition is characterized by increased anxiety, sleeping for longer than normal, problems with concentration and laziness.
Comfort foods are generally high in fat and carbs and are a natural pick for anyone feeling low as they increase serotonin production and make you feel good. Consult a doctor if you have these symptoms, to get some advice on how to deal with winter-time blues, instead of heading to the kitchen. Also get your vitamin D levels tested. Improvement in blood levels of this “sunshine” vitamin is associated with a decrease in depressive symptoms. Once you know what your vitamin D level is, it is very easily corrected with supplements. I would caution against taking these supplements without getting the Vitamin D levels checked, as excess of the vitamin can lead to toxicity.
Winter foods, even though they tend to be high-calorie, should not stop us from enjoying them. Just keep a check on portion sizes, and keep the exercise regimen going.
Vishakha Shivdasani is a Mumbai-based medical doctor with a fellowship in nutrition. She specializes in controlling diabetes, cholesterol and obesity.