Nutrition Column – Staying Healthy During the Winter Months

The cold and flu season is in full swing and is shaping up to be one of the worst ever. If you are in a higher risk category (over age 65, very young, pregnant, immune compromised), it’s important that you talk with your health-care provider about getting a flu shot if you haven’t received one already. However, all of us can reduce our chances of getting and spreading colds and the flu by following some simple practices.

Wash your hands often. When it comes to warding off a cold or the flu, one of the most important things to do is to wash your hands frequently and thoroughly. We tend to associate hand washing with preventing food borne illness, but it’s also a good way to reduce your risk of receiving and spreading cold and flu germs.

While hand washing seems like such a simple practice, it’s not something children (or adults) intuitively know to do. It is a practice, however, that can be taught with far-reaching results. For example, in a study completed at Purdue University, illnesses and symptoms of infectious diseases were followed in two daycare centers for 11 weeks to establish a baseline, then the teachers in one center received an educational program and training materials on hand washing. In the 11 weeks that followed, children in the center that had received the training had a significantly lower incidence of colds and flu than the children in the center that did not receive the training and continued to use usual care methods.

Health professionals recommend you wet your hands with warm water, apply soap and rub your hands together for 20 seconds, cleaning up to your elbows if possible. Next, rinse thoroughly to remove all soap residues, dry with a single-use paper towel and use the towel to turn off the faucet and open the bathroom door.

Keep your body properly hydrated. Staying hydrated is important both in flushing out potential toxins and in helping get through a cold or the flu. Unfortunately, unlike the summer months when the hot sun makes a tall glass of water or iced tea sound refreshing, it’s easy to overlook the importance of drinking plenty of fluids when it’s cold outside. Particularly in high, dry climates such as Colorado’s, dehydration can pose as much risk in the dead of winter as it can in the middle of July. Common symptoms of dehydration include fatigue, headache, dry nasal passages, dry, cracked lips, and overall discomfort. However, by the time you become aware of these symptoms, dehydration has long set in. To avoid dehydration any time of the year, drink at least 6 to 8 cups of liquid daily, part of which can come from water, fruits, vegetables, fruit juices, milk, coffee and tea.

Make healthy food choices.  In general, people tend to eat more during the winter, which ultimately can lead to unwanted weight gain. Following basic nutrition advice to eat a balanced diet containing plenty of whole grains, fruits and vegetables and less sweets and high-fat snack foods can help prevent this weight gain and also ensure that your diet is high in those disease-fighting antioxidants.  

Stay active. When it’s cold and snowy outside, a jog around the block or bicycling to work doesn’t sound very tempting. However, regular exercise will help keep your immune system strong. There are plenty of alternative ways to keep you active during the colder months. If you prefer to stay inside where it is warmer, check out your local recreation center. Some community recreation centers have indoor basketball courts, indoor tracks, indoor swimming pools and weight rooms that are available to the public for a nominal fee. For those who choose to venture out into the cold, try cross-county skiing, snowshoeing or skating for something fun and different to do.  

By washing your hands, drinking plenty of fluids, eating nutritiously and staying active, you will have a better chance of staying healthy this winter.

by Pat Kendall, Ph.D., R.D., Food Science and Human Nutrition Specialist, Colorado State University, Cooperative Extension