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COVID-19: DHSS Insights

Healthy eating for the season: Getting enough vitamin D, fruits and veggies during the cold dark months

November 9, 2020 — As the Alaska weather turns colder and the days grow darker, it’s natural for people to change what they eat. We tend toward warm soups, comforting casseroles, maybe more carbohydrate-rich breads, and, of course, holiday treats. 

In addition to the natural changes that come at this time of year, we also have a pandemic to consider. Healthy eating is more important than ever when we need to be at our healthiest. Getting enough vitamin D, adding some nutrient-rich foods to your meals, and making a few changes can go a long way to staying healthy this winter.

Make sure you get enough vitamin D.

Vitamin D is important for strong bones and contributes to overall good health. Now there may be another reason to be sure you’re getting your vitamin D: the COVID-19 virus. 

“Research shows there are lots of detrimental health effects of having low vitamin D levels, a decreased immune response to viruses being one of them,” said Coleman Cutchins, Clinical Pharmacist with the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. Cutchins emphasizes that research shows that for people with low vitamin D levels, getting more vitamin D can help improve health outcomes.

“If your vitamin D levels are adequate, taking more hasn’t proven to be beneficial,” he said.

Vitamin D is called the “sunshine vitamin” because our bodies make vitamin D when sunlight contacts the skin. With less sunlight in the winter, we should be getting vitamin D from other sources. Lucky for Alaskans, some of the foods with the most vitamin D are plentiful here. Traditional diets have protected Alaska Native people during the long, dark winter. Salmon — fresh, canned or smoked — is an excellent source of vitamin D. Marine mammals, fish oil and seal oil contain large amounts of vitamin D. Other foods that contain vitamin D include tuna fish, egg yolks, and some mushrooms. Vitamin D has also been added to many foods. Look for the words “vitamin D fortified” on packages of milk, soymilk, yogurt, orange juice, oatmeal, and ready-to-eat cereals.

Some people may not be able to eat enough of these foods to get their vitamin D level up to a healthy range.

“During Alaska winters, many people may need to take a vitamin D supplement along with eating a healthy diet,” said Diane Peck, Registered Dietitian with Alaska’s Physical Activity and Nutrition program.

The national Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) is the best guideline for the amount of vitamin D most people should get on a daily basis. That amount varies by age and can be found on this National Institutes of Health website.

“Consistently taking a vitamin D supplement that meets the RDA will help most Alaskans maintain healthy levels of vitamin D,” Cutchins said.

Vitamin D can stay in the body for a long time and getting too much can have negative effects. Cutchins encourages people to work with their doctor or health care team to determine if they should be tested for vitamin D deficiency.

“Taking more than the RDA won’t help most people and could do harm,” Cutchins said “Talk with your health care provider about the amount of daily vitamin D that’s right for you.”

Learn more about vitamin D and the recommended amounts in the National Institute of Health's Vitamin D fact sheet.

It's important to note that an Alaska Vitamin D Workgroup recommends supplementing vitamin D above the national recommendations for Alaska infants and pregnant women.

Add more fruits and vegetables.

Stay healthy this winter with antioxidants, which are nutrients that can protect the heart and lungs, strengthen the immune system, and repair damage to the body’s cells. The best way to get these nutrients is to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables.

“Eating healthy foods is the best option for getting the vitamins and minerals we need,” Peck said. “Healthy foods provide so many more nutrients and other benefits that aren’t found in supplements. Research has shown that consuming some ingredients in supplements, or taking too much of some nutrients in supplements, can actually be harmful to your health.”

All forms of fruits and vegetables provide healthful benefits – fresh, frozen, canned and dried. Serve fruit as a dessert instead of sugary foods. Add extra frozen vegetables or last night’s leftover vegetables to homemade or canned soup. Canned pumpkin – 100% pumpkin, not pumpkin pie filling – is loaded with vitamin A. Add a few spoonfuls to soups, chili or a fruit smoothie. Butternut squash, another vegetable high in vitamin A, can now be found already peeled and cubed in the frozen food section of many grocery stores.

Oranges, grapefruit, tangerines and other citrus fruits are high in vitamin C, a very important nutrient for helping the body stay healthy. Vitamin C also is found in strawberries (frozen are the best kind this time of year), canned pineapple with no added sugar, and canned tomatoes.

Choose healthy drinks. 

Making one swap every day can have a big impact on your health. Switch out those sugary drinks, and choose water or low-fat white milk instead. Sugary drinks are the leading source of added sugars in the daily diets for kids and adults. Sugar-added beverages include soda; sports, energy and vitamin drinks; powdered and fruit drinks; as well as sweetened coffee and tea. Sugary drinks can increase your risk of serious health problems, like cavities, type 2 diabetes, and unhealthy weight gain. Just one sugary drink often has more sugar than you should have in a one day.

As the temperature turns colder, try some of these low-sugar drinks to warm up. Brew a cup of hot peppermint tea. Make a quick, low-sugar, hot spiced cider using a chai tea bag instead of a bottle of pre-made chai drink with added sugar. Then add hot water and a splash of 100% apple juice. Instead of hot cocoa, add a dash of cinnamon, turmeric or nutmeg to a cup of warm low-fat milk.