Eat for energy this winter

Dietitian, Mignon Jordaan, advises us how to eat for energy this winter so the winter-blues will be a thing of the past.

Cold weather can be dreadful but the food that warms you up is often so delightful. If the desperate need for comfort food or the so-called winter-blues binge eating happens, there is a perfect explanation for this, and you’re not alone.

Research1 has shown that people with diabetes tend to have a higher average fasting glucose level and HbA1c value during the winter months. The findings in this study was mainly related to less physical activity and low immunity leading to seasonal infections (less sunlight exposure equals low vitamin D levels equals low immunity).


Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is defined in the 2017 Journal of Global Diabetes and Clinical Metabolism as a seasonal depression and a mood disorder subset in which people that have normal mental health throughout most of the year experience depressive symptoms in the winter.

The typical symptoms to expect when you suffer from SAD are increased appetite, weight gain, declined energy levels, increased sleep desire, loss of interest in usually pleasurable or fulfilling activities, cravings for food items, irritability, and as ruminations of guilt and suicide.

The incidence of SAD in people living with diabetes was found to be high, especially those with diabetic retinopathy. Since diabetic patients may experience similar symptoms of depression, like when blood glucose levels are out of range, it’s important to be aware of symptoms of low mood, cravings and irritability. If symptoms don’t resolve after blood glucose levels normalise, it’s most likely SAD.

The happy hormone (serotonin) is released after a good carbohydrate-rich meal, and tends to be lower during the winter month which leads to more cravings for refined carbohydrates. You would crave a nice warm pizza or warm Malva pudding rather than a whole-wheat chicken wrap.

Avoid rebound hyperglycaemic effect

Many know that a simple carbohydrate, like pizza, will rise your blood glucose levels quickly and lead to a quick drop soon after, making you feel so low in energy and even more hungry for sugar (rebound hyperglycaemic effect).

By changing your mind-set about the type of food and the appropriate portion to keep you satisfied and warm during winter can have a positive impact on your food choices.

Overeating and binge-eating refined carbohydrates can easily be activated by environmental cues, like social gatherings, work functions or habitual hot chocolate every night after dinner, or even just because you’ve been misinformed about a food item that isn’t as nutritious as you might think.

10 ways to be beat low energy winter-blues

The effect of winter blues can be very frustrating and exhausting if you don’t know how to control it. Here are easy tips to minimise low energy.

1. Eat five to six small regular meals

This should be done every two to three hours and should contain a balanced amount of wholegrain starch, lean protein and unsaturated fat to ensure your blood glucose level stay stable for longer. Examples of meals and snacks:

  • Chicken stir fry with brown rice
  • Whole-wheat chicken vegetable pasta
  • Fruit and nuts
  • Whole-wheat crackers with unsweetened peanut butter

2. Make sure you are good to yourself

Have a treat once a week; this needs to be controlled very strictly. Keep it small and have it with a meal to prevent high blood sugar levels.

Recommended snack Teaspoons of sugar Non-recommended snack Teaspoons of sugar
Dark chocolate

(70% or higher)

2 Blocks

½ teaspoon 50g chocolate bar 6 teaspoons
NOMU Skinny hot chocolate

1 Heaped teaspoon with 200ml low-fat milk

3 teaspoons




4 teaspoons original hot chocolate with 200ml low-fat milk 6 ½ teaspoons
Homemade S’mores

2 Gullón Sugar Free Maria biscuits with

1 marshmallow

1 teaspoon 4 Marie Biscuits2 Marshmallows 3 teaspoons
Chickpea chips

½ cup roasted spicy chickpeas tinned in brine/dried with added chilli spices of choice and roasted in oven

0 teaspoons 75g packet jelly babies 7 teaspoons

Comparison of the total teaspoons of sugar in healthy recommended snacks with the total teaspoons of sugar in typical sugary snacks

3. Increase your intake of vitamin D-rich food

Or Buy a vitamin D supplement to prevent vitamin D deficiency and increase your immunity.

Recommended daily allowance (RDA) for vitamin D

Age Male Female
1-13y years 600 IU (15mcg) 600 IU (15mcg)
14-18 years 600 IU (15mcg) 600 IU (15mcg)
19-50 years 600 IU (15mcg) 600 IU (15mcg)
51-70 years 600 IU (15mcg) 600 IU (15mcg)
>70 years

800 IU (20mcg)

800 IU (20mcg)

Food sources rich in vitamin D:

  • Fatty fish like salmon, tuna and mackerel
  • Beef liver, egg yolks and cheese
  • Fortified food like margarine, bread and cereals

4. Be physically active

Moderate physical activity, like brisk walking three to four times a week, will improve energy levels by more sunlight exposure and the release of the ‘good-feeling’ hormone, called dopamine.

5. Increase your fibre intake

Fibre improves the feeling of satiety and improves blood glucose control. Have five fruits and vegetables a day. Include a wide range of vegetables in a warm soup and add fruit to your snacks. This will help you to achieve the fibre recommendation.

6. Make a low-GI carbohydrate part of each meal.

Low-GI food ensures a steady release of sugar in the blood, leading to longer satiety and sustained energy throughout the day. Food sources include:

    • Low-GI seeded or whole-wheat bread
    • Cooled down and re-heated oats, maize meal, Maltabella porridge, potatoes or sweet potatoes
    • Fresh fruit, like apples, pears, strawberries, blueberries and cherries (and many more)
    • Legumes, like sugar or brown beans, hummus, chickpeas and lentils
    • Durum wheat pasta, sorghum, barley, brown rice or quinoa
    • Crackers, like Provita multigrain or whole-wheat

Have a look on for more examples of low-GI food.

7. Boost the 5 HTP-precursor

The 5 HTP-precursor is responsible to convert serotonin in the body. You can boost your dietary intake of L-tryptophan, which the body converts to 5-HTP. Food sources include turkey, chicken, pumpkin seeds, spinach, milk, and bananas. There are minimal human studies to ensure the success for using a 5-HTP dietary supplement and dietary intake will be sufficient.

8. Make sure that vitamin B-rich food is part of your daily intake

This ensures the successful activation of serotonin. Food sources include wholegrain bread and pasta, lean meat and chicken, seeds and nuts, dark leafy vegetables, eggs and legumes.

9. Have a planned cooking-routine

Make sure you make cooking enjoyable during the winter time and include the whole family. Compile your own recipe book, loaded with delicious soups, stews and casseroles with nutritious ingredients. Have a look on Diabetes South Africa’s website at for their amazing diabetic-friendly recipes.

10. Drink six to eight glasses of clean safe water a day

This prevents dehydration and fatigue. During winter, cold water can be difficult to consume so try a warm Rooibos or herbal tea topped with a slice of lemon or mint.

Stay energised this winter by making these 10 steps part of your daily routine and the winter-blues will be a thing of the past.


  1. Gikas, et al


Mignon Jordaan is a registered dietitian. Her heart’s desire is to make a difference in people’s lives with her knowledge of nutrition. Being a Type 1 diabetes patient herself, she can walk the journey of “mindful eating” with her clients.

Header image by FreePik

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