Beat the winter blahs with these heart healthy food suggestions from Emily Gelsomin, a Mass General nutritionist.

The dead of winter in New England can be a dull and, at times, colorless endeavor. It may feel like the same is true for our food options, as well. But winter can actually be an ideal time to reinvigorate a stale diet by cooking up dishes that use a variety of seasonal vegetables.

Tap into area resources and take advantage of proximity to reinvent a drab routine.

Tap into area resources and take advantage of proximity to reinvent a drab routine. One source is the Boston Public Market, a year-round indoor market offering food from local producers. Located at 100 Hanover Street, by Haymarket station, it is a 15 to 20 minute walk from Mass General.

The American Heart Association recommends getting at least 150 minutes of exercise per week to support cardiovascular health—and walking counts—meaning a trip to the market from the hospital and back will take you 20% of the way toward this goal, while you pick up supplies for dinner.

Focus on Winter Vegetables

You can also find a variety of local winter vegetables to help keep your heart healthy. Take for instance, yellow, orange, and red-pigmented squashes like the apricot-tinted butternut squash or the flame-colored kuri variety. These hues indicate the presence of carotenoids, such as lutein, zeaxanthin, carotene and lycopene, which studies suggest may help reduce cardiovascular disease risk. The gourds are typically inexpensive and loaded with additional nutrients like vitamin A and C, which help sustain a healthy immune system, among other benefits.

Root vegetables, like turnips, can be stored in cool, dry spots.
Root vegetables, like turnips, can be stored in cool, dry spots.

Winter squash is easy to cook too. It can be split in half or quartered—if large—with the seeds scooped out and the skin left on. Once prepped, roast them with a little oil at 425 degrees Fahrenheit until the flesh is tender. Their thick skins help preserve the vegetables during winter and easily peel off after cooking. (If squash is not your thing, carrots also keep well in colder months and contain many of the same benefits. Carrots can be roasted too, just peel them first.)

Cruciferous vegetables are cold-weather hardy, as well, and include broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, radishes, turnips, and even greens like watercress and arugula. This class of vegetables is particularly noteworthy to help protect against cell damage and reduce inflammation, both of which are disease instigators. Many varieties are also rich in carotenoids, as well as vitamin C, vitamin K, and folate and are a good source of fiber, meaning cardiac benefits are only the beginning of their protective attributes. Robust greens in the cruciferous group are often grown in greenhouses over the New England winter while root vegetables, like turnips, can be stored in cool, dry spots.

Diets high in potassium-rich fruits and vegetables, such as citrus fruits and dark leafy greens, may help lower blood pressure.

Aim for Four Cups Daily

Fear not if local vegetables are unlikely to make a regular appearance at your dinner table. Eating more fruits and vegetables, in general, can lower your risk of heart disease. These plants contain potassium, which helps your heart beat. The mineral also helps blood vessels relax and can counteract some negative effects of sodium. Though our bodies need more potassium than sodium, the typical American diet provides just the opposite and can put our hearts at risk over time.

Diets high in potassium-rich fruits and vegetables, such as citrus fruits and dark leafy greens, may help lower blood pressure. Eating more produce will also increase your fiber and may lower cholesterol and decrease risk of heart disease. (Potassium supplements do not have as many health benefits: avoid taking them unless prescribed by your doctor, as they may cause significant interactions with certain blood pressure medications.)

For most people, the gold standard for fruit and vegetable intake is to aim to eat at least four cups a day, but increasing your intake at even a lower level will have benefits. Their vibrant colors also help dress up a colorless winter landscape. Now, if only they could counteract snow …

Emily Gelsomin, RD, LDN
Emily Gelsomin, RD, LDN

Emily Gelsomin, MLA, RD, LDN, is a senior clinical nutrition specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital. As a registered dietitian, she counsels on medical nutrition therapy on an outpatient basis and works extensively with Be Fit, the hospital’s employee wellness program.

Jointly sponsored by The Clubs at Charles River Park and MGH Nutrition and Food Services, the 10-week program focuses on helping participants “Be Fit and Eat Right.” Every ten weeks, employees from different departments within the hospital compete with each other as they make a commitment to Be Fit. Through the creation of a social environment at the workplace, participants are supported to make progress in personal lifestyle changes with the help of a unique support system that includes a dedicated nutritionist and personal trainer.

Be Fit strives to create a milieu of wellness that extends beyond the 10-week curriculum by offering features to those who are not part of the intensive program. This includes the creation of Choose Well, Eat Well, a rating system designed to help both employees and patients increase awareness of healthy choices at retail eateries within the hospital. It also includes a monthly e-mail with a timely nutrition tip.