When the thermometer plunges, you may feel like eating high-fat comfort foods. Dietary habits definitely change seasonally, but winter doesn't mean your healthy diet has to hibernate.
"No matter what time of year it is, there are plenty of options to choose from to maintain a healthy diet," says Melanie R. Polk, R.D., director of nutrition education at the American Institute for Cancer Research in Washington, D.C.
A varied, balanced year-round diet -- one that highlights vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans and de-emphasizes meat and other high-saturated-fat foods -- can reduce your risk for major, chronic diseases such as cancer, heart disease, stroke and high blood pressure.
Still, eating right any time of year can be a challenge. To make the most of your diet's disease-fighting potential this winter and beyond, Ms. Polk recommends the following seasonal strategies.
Although supermarkets offer less fresh produce this time of year, that shouldn't stop you from eating fruits and vegetables -- ideally, 2� to 6� cups per day.
"If you opt not to buy fresh or if what you want isn't available, go to the next best thing, which is frozen," says Ms. Polk. "They're flash-frozen at harvest, and nutrients are locked in. Overall, to prevent disease, get fruits and vegetables however you can."
Fluid is essential during the winter. Increased outdoor physical activity increases perspiration. Plain water is your best choice.
Meat -- especially beef, lamb and pork -- is an excellent source of iron, zinc, B vitamins and protein. But it's also rich in saturated fat, which elevates blood cholesterol to increase cardiovascular-disease risk.
"There's also some evidence a meat-centered diet increases the risk for cancer of the colon, pancreas, breast, prostate and kidney," says Ms. Polk. And if you're eating such a diet, you may be skimping on disease-protective grains, fruits and vegetables.
To sustain yourself on less meat, Ms. Polk suggests crowding at least two-thirds of your plate with plant-based foods -- vegetables, beans and whole grains such as brown rice. Reserve the remaining third for meat, if desired.
Also, to make your wintertime menu healthier, make simple, one-pot dishes such as casseroles, stews and stir-fries by omitting most or all the meat from the traditional recipes.
"For a typical chili recipe, for example, omit at least two-thirds of the meat and use canned, drained, rinsed beans instead," suggests Ms. Polk. "Then add finely chopped winter vegetables, such as celery, onions, carrots, turnips, rutabagas and squash."
Whole grains such as oatmeal and brown rice also are a rich fiber source, which may help protect against heart disease, diabetes, digestive disorders and some cancers.
The USDA's 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend 3 ounces of whole grain daily. To put more whole grains, and consequently more fiber, into your diet, opt for whole-grain cereals such as oatmeal and whole-grain bread for breakfast.
"Getting a healthy dose of fiber in the morning gives you a head start for the day," says Ms. Polk. To choose a whole-grain bread or cereal product, look for "whole grain" as the first ingredient on a product's Nutrition Facts panel.
This winter and beyond, substitute heart-healthy unsaturated fat such as olive oil and canola oil for butter and other saturated fat.
"But limit the amount of the oils you use," says Ms. Polk. Even though they're good for you, these two oils still contain 125 calories per tablespoon, which, if you overdo it, will contribute to weight gain. "That in itself is a risk for disease," says Ms. Polk.
When sauteing, use just enough oil to barely coat the pan's bottom. When making salad dressing, drizzle in just a tablespoon of the finest extra-virgin olive oil, which packs the most flavor.
© 2013 Main Line Health