With Daylight Savings Time ending yesterday and the masses turning the clocks ahead one hour, the area will now settle into the dark by 5:30 p.m. or 6 p.m. through the winter months.
Additionally, the local growing and harvesting season of fresh vegetables is over, making the availability of fresh produce difficult.
This could be a major reason as to why many suffer depression in the winter months, with limited ways to get their vitamins naturally and limited amounts of daylight.
“We all know that diet and physical illnesses are linked, but studies are showing there may be a link between diet and mental health as well,” said Heidi McClain, director of dietary at Highlands Hospital in Connellsville. “There may be an advantage to eating a diet high in fruits, vegetables, low fat dairy, and meatless meals in terms of depression versus a diet high in processed foods and high fat animal protein.”
Dr. Krista Boyer, a psychologist with Connellsville Counseling Services, said it’s important to find the different fruits and vegetables that are in season and challenge one’s self to come up with fun, healthy recipes to keep the winter time blues away.
McClain said apples, Brussels sprouts, turnips, squash, and carrots are some items that are in season in the fall and winter months.
Boyer said that with the winter months usually comes the colds and other sicknesses, so the intake of Vitamin C is always a good thing.
“Grapefruits are more in season during the winter months, so I always look forward to eating that in the winter,” Boyer said. “It helps to boost your immune system.”
Due to technology and transportation, McClain said there is access to fresh fruits and vegetables throughout the year, however, some fruits and vegetables that are out of season may not be as flavorful or an affordable option in the colder months.
“The winter months are a great time to turn to canned or frozen fruits and vegetables,” she said. “They are processed quickly after they are harvested and much of the nutritional value is preserved. They are also of consistent quality and a better value.”
McClain added that when choosing canned fruits and vegetables, it’s important to look for fruits that are canned in their own juice and vegetables that are canned with no added salt. Frozen vegetables should not be in creamy or cheesy sauces.
“The longer shelf life of canned and frozen vegetables is also advantageous to those who do not get out often in the winter months and those that find themselves throwing away fresh produce that has gone bad before being used,” McClain said.
Those looking for fresh produce can reference the USDA’s seasonal produce guide to see what produce is in season at the time of shopping.
“When buying fresh produce that is not in season, the flavor may be lacking, so consider marinating vegetables in a low fat dressing or roasting them in the oven, lightly tossed with olive oil and whatever herbs and spices you prefer,” she said.
Vitamin D deficiencies can be common in the winter months without as much sunshine, which is one way to take in the vitamin, but McClain said there are plenty of food options that contain the vitamin.
“Vitamin D occurs naturally in fish such as salmon and tuna, and milk and yogurt are Vitamin D fortified, which means Vitamin D is added during processing, so they are also good sources of Vitamin D,” she said. “If someone does not consume dairy and uses soy milk, almond milk, or lactose-free milk instead, those products are also fortified with Vitamin D.”
Potassium might be a good mineral to get more of, as there’s potential of it helping with depression-like symptoms. But she acknowledged that more research is needed in this area, and it is too soon to link one particular nutrient to depression prevention.
“My advice to anyone who hones in on a single nutrient, such as potassium, is to instead focus on their overall diet,” McClain said. “Eating more fruits and vegetables will provide you with more potassium, but at the same time likely be lower in calories and higher in fiber and antioxidants.”
She added that a lower calorie diet high in fiber and antioxidants may assist not only with mental health, but will help with other chronic disease prevention/management, such as heart disease and diabetes, as well.
“There is a definite link between depression and chronic illness - with this approach, diet may be helping both,” McClain said.
McClain said that generally one half cup of a cooked vegetable or one cup of a raw fruit or vegetable counts as a serving and the USDA’s MyPlate website gives individuals the number of cups of fruits and vegetables one needs on a daily basis, based on age and gender.
“To simplify things, when someone is planning a meal, one fourth of their plate should be protein, one fourth of the plate grains, and the other half vegetables or fruits and vegetables,” she said. “This is the approach I take for most of my patients.”
But McClain said vitamins and minerals consumed in food are preferable over supplements.
“In most circumstances, the body is able to absorb vitamins and minerals in food more easily than those from supplements,” she said. “There are times that supplements are necessary, but the need for them must be assessed on an individual basis by a member of your healthcare team, not from a doctor with a television show. Every individual’s health, diet, and lifestyle is unique to him or her, so the need for a supplement is not one size fits all.”
Good nutrition aside, there’s also the lack of light to deal with.
Boyer said research shows that animals, when they hibernate, have very high levels of melatonin because a lack of light will increase melatonin levels, which makes the animal or individuals want to sleep.
“Back in the day, it was a natural biological process that when the sun went down, people would wind down, but today, in modern society with lights and technology and the pressure to continuously be productive, it’s not feasible to wind down when the sun goes down,” she said.
Those with Seasonal Affective Disorder usually get a light box to try and combat the tiredness.
“While light boxes don’t create Vitamin D, they do slow the production of melatonin in your body,” she said.
Also in the winter months, Boyer added that it’s normal to have carbohydrate cravings in the winter because your body increases its seratonin levels in the brain.
“I suggest if they’re going to eat the chips that they go for the baked chips, or maybe pretzels or popcorn - stay away from the fried choices,” she said.