winter blues, spring fling

We’re finally seeing the end of the cold, gloomy tunnel and the friendly sun finally warms our skins in the hopeful manner that only the season of Spring can do.  I had spent many a much colder winter in the chilly lake-effected campus of Notre Dame back in my college years, but the Christmas break was always a lovely escape that included a tropical tan and family & friends back home in Honduras.  This is officially our third Winter in Germany, and granted this has been no Siberia – what with global warming & all – they have taught me a lot about the culture of four-season living as well as the emotional effects these very marked seasons might have on our very sensitive souls.

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Of course, no story of mine comes without the promised culinary strings attached.  Both aspects of our wintery lessons learned have taught me the importance of a weather appropriate diet, both in the produce section as well as in the personal intake.  It’s believed that humans evolved in tropical climates, and only met cold weather as they decided to migrate into the colder regions, where people soon showed appropriate adaption to the climate.  We all know how sensitive we are the cold – think hypothermia!  Interestingly enough, the theory of cold winters proposes that survival in colder climates poses two evolutionarily novel problems that would have required high intelligence to solve: finding food and keeping it warm.  But with no need to go into describing the the extreme conditions of freezing weather, we can talk about the reality of the everyday conditions and concerns associated with the cold and the snow: viruses, influenza, seasonal depression (SAD), ice and falling icicles, snow-blindness…definitely inhumane if you ask me, but yet here we are, smack in the middle of continental-climate Germany.

But not everything is bleak & pale in winter!  There’s a wonderful variety of multinational festivals and holidays celebrated around the world, including Christmas, New Year’s, and Groundhog Day!  Not to mention the many Jewish, Punjabi, and other cultural & historical days of celebration.  There are also many recreational activities & sports including skiing, ice skating and sledding, ice hockey, snowboarding, etc…sigh, even talking about Winter pretending to appreciate it makes me miss my tropical paradise terribly.  It’s somewhat of a confirmed fact then that people born & native to these cold climates have a DNA mutation that directs a larger portion of excess calories to generate body heat and narrower blood vessels; it’s a healthy observation of mine that some people generally handle the cold much better than I do, in more ways than one – no matter how much I love the added accessories for my Winter wardrobe.

The winter blues are very much a thing.  Put simply, it’s a Debbie-downer of a thing.  Luckily they can also be explained scientifically, and that helps with finding ways to fight them.  Vitamin D levels are too low when people do not get enough Ultraviolet-B on their skin.  An alternative to using bright lights in Winter is to take vitamin D supplements.  Certain fatty fish – such as salmon, tuna, sardines, rainbow trout – fish oils, fortified milk & egg yolks are some of the richest sources of Vitamin D.  Physical exercise has shown to be an effective form of depression therapy in general, particularly when in addition to another form of treatment for SAD, and in Winter, trekking out in the cold & building a snowman are sure to help in lifting up your spirits – especially if your snowman lasts a while for daily morning therapy sessions.  The increased hours of darkness also disrupt the brain chemicals that affect mood: serotonin and melatonin.  Oddly enough, aside from the genetic factor associated with SAD, it has been recently suggested that food has a whole lot to do with it, and this is where my story begins.

Appetite is the natural desire to eat food.  Appetitive and consummatory behaviours are the only processes that involve energy intake, whereas all other behaviours affect the release of energy.  In Winter, sometimes our regular levels are either decreased or increased due to our less-than-active bodies, constant indoor activity, and the lack of our beloved (and sometimes under-appreciated BFF) the sun.  As temperatures fall, our winter appetites can spin totally out of control.  Not only is it the cold that drives us to eat more, but the holidays bring an array of delicious goodies to the table – think pie, hot cocoa, eggnog, yams – oh, I could go on endlessly.  Since the days are colder & shorter, and nights are longer & enclosed, and we are usually worn out from the holidays & that end-of-the-year drag…well, many factors add to the intense craving for comfort food.  It is only basic human biology that makes our bodies crave high-calorie, high-carbohydrate foods like stews, potatoes, mac & cheese…

Although there are many yummy recipes & foods that have become our traditional Winter comfort foods, the story behind these recipes evolves from the agricultural history of the seasonality of food, or the times of the year when the harvest or the flavour of a given food is at its peak.  In today’s crazy world, seasonal foods have gained much controversy, especially from those who prefer a low carbon diet that reduces the greenhouse gas emissions resulting from food consumption.  Some of us would be delighted to find out tropical produce at the supermarket in the middle of a snow storm, but truth be told, there is no comfort in thinking about the long trip it had to make to get to my watery mouth.

So, it would seem that in these cold, cold wintery countries, unfortunately, fresh produce must be limited to potatoes and onions!  But I have learned to embrace the many friendly cold-weather favorites that include cabbage & radicchio, Brussel sprouts, cauliflower, kale & collard greens, escarole & chicory, and broccoli.  Bear with me, these are all welcomed options / acquired tastes, loaded with vitamins and minerals that can reduce cholesterol and aid in the fight for cancer.  Squash in all its forms: acorn, butternut, kabocha, and delicata; is loaded with Vitamin A and potassium.  Beets are sweet & earthy, a great source of sugar and vitamins.  And carrots are the ever-so-beloved dietary chips substitute, good thing you can enjoy them all year round!

Three remain.  Three rather special vegetables.  The first is celeriac.  Considered the ugly duckling of winter produce, it honestly looks horrible and makes me run the other way at the supermarket.  Said to be subtly flavored, somewhere between parsley and celery – YUCK – it’s rich in vitamin C & phosphorus.  Apparently it’s good, sautéed.  Other less-than-appealing relatives are turnips & parsnips.  They might look like potatoes, carrots, or onions – take your pick! – but they’re actually related more to cabbage, broccoli, & cauliflower.  Often overlooked in the produce aisle by everyone ON EARTH, they boast amazing nutritional perks.  Fennel is also one of the other stranger vegetables I found here.  A licorice-flavored veggie? Not so sure I want to venture into these three just yet.

Luckily, in today’s globalized world we aren’t limited to eating only these less-than-colorful Winter options and although I will always vouch for choosing local produce, there are great options for supporting sustainability.  When the dark winter days are getting you down, grab a handful of cheery citrus fruits: lemons, oranges, grapefruit, kumquats, blood oranges, limes, & clementines.  Pomegranates are one of the world’s oldest fruits, as well as one of the most nutritious.  Apples are always available here in Germany, and have proven to be an awesome versatile ingredient for many a recipe!  Carambolas, or star fruit are exotic but oddly available in the Winter months.  Quinces are odd relatives of pears & apples, and are much healthier – may actually help ward off the flu.  Persimmons were one of my little one’s first fruits last Winter, with their date-like sweetness and a hint of spice.

Good snacking is also important.  Popcorn, pretzels, shredded wheat squares or low-fat biscotti are good options.  And making dinner your main carb-containing meal is often recommended by experts – even though this goes against dietary specialists.  This is because evening is usually the time when the symptoms of SAD are at their strongest – and so is the urge to gorge on cookies.  Eating healthier carbs, like lentils, brown rice, and potatoes, may help fight that urge.  Soups are always a nutritious choice and tasty comfort food.  What’s most important is to always keep a balanced meal plan, with good sources of the right vitamins and minerals, which will be sure to turn your Winter frown upside down.

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