Health Benefits of Eating Seasonal Foods
Why eating produce based on when and where they bloom is good for you and the planet.
Seasonal eating was the way of the land for centuries. Each change in season offers an array of beautiful, fresh produce from your region and community. And while most of us are used to buying the foods we want when we want them, thanks to super-sized supermarkets, the truth is eating foods based on when they actually bloom provides the type of variety in vitamins and minerals our body wants and needs.
“Non-seasonal fruits and vegetables are typically picked early, before fully ripe, to be placed on trucks and driven across the country to be sold in grocery stores,” explains Maggie O'Mara, Nutritionist and Demonstration Chef at Canyon Ranch Lenox. “Because of this, there are two things of concern. First, they do not taste as good as ripe, fresh fruits and vegetables. To boost the flavor, many people may be tempted to add more salt and sugar to their dishes,” possibly causing spikes in their blood sugar and blood pressure. “Second, since more time passes between [produce] being picked, put on trucks, and then stacked on store shelves, before being eaten (with non-seasonal produce), some may break down a bit and become less nutritious. For instance, bananas, when slightly green, are high in fiber. But when bananas are over-ripe and deep yellow, they become less fibrous and are high in sugar… Nutrients degrade over time with specific fruits and vegetables,” says Maggie.
Health Benefits of Seasonal Produce
The Nutrition Society defines seasonal eating based on local and global offerings. Global seasonality provides a more varied and consistent supply of fresh produce year-round, but its demand has high environmental cost in the country of production. Selecting local season fare on the other hand has dramatically opposite effects, starting with almost no impact in the transportation of food from local farms to local tables.
Local, seasonal food is fresher, tastier, and more nutritious than fruits and vegetables out of season.
“Eating seasonal produce encourages us to have variety in our diets, so we aren’t eating the same things all the time. We all have our go-to healthy items we like to eat year-round, like blueberries,” continues Maggie, “and I’m not discouraging that. I actually freeze fresh blueberries and pull them out of my freezer to put into my oatmeal off season. But I am also mindful of embracing what IS in season as there are so many fruits and vegetables that are nutritious and add to my palate and diet.”
Positives for the Planet
“A perk to eating seasonally is how it develops a deeper awareness and relationship to our food. We are more intentional and aware of what Earth can produce in season. The mental, emotional, and spiritual relationships with that is so important,” says Stephanie Miezin, Director of Nutrition, Canyon Ranch Tucson.
When I go to a farmer’s market and speak with a farmer about what is in season and how this month’s bounty is faring, I often hear stories about the weather, pesky bugs, and how certain produce is juicier, or has a different flavor this year than last. These conversations create connection, have expanded my awareness, compassion, and improved my respect for our growers and for what our planet can yield. It also is just fun, as most farmers will let you taste their many offerings.
That’s how I realized there are more than 500 varieties of avocados, and 20 different types of pluots (half plum half apricots) whose trees bear fruit within three to five years of planting, but take 10 years of care to maturely produce.
“Every region has specialties to explore in their seasonal offerings. For instance, I love the locally grown dates in Tucson. Buying regional and seasonal produce is a great opportunity to see what does grow locally that doesn’t grow elsewhere—and it’s a wonderful way to connect with your community, ranchers, farmers, and helps make your meals more special,” Stephanie adds.
Selecting Foods in Season
Even though we all like to eat strawberries year-round, the best time to eat them fresh differs by the region you live in. If you live in California, strawberries are grown there year-round. But if you reside in southern states, they are in-season only from April until June. Stephanie can buy dates nearly year-round in Tucson, for example, as they require dry, warm climates. Whereas Maggie in the springtime looks forward to fresh radishes and a large bounty of onions, her favorite being “ramps,” from harvests in Lenox, Massachusetts.
Purchasing directly from a local grower shortly after harvest is the best way to ensure you are getting healthy produce that is in-season to your region. And if you do not live near a farmer’s market and are strapped for time, don’t fear. There are plenty of ways to purchase regional, seasonal foods via delivery services that are often affordable. There are likely Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs operating in your area and at restaurants and businesses committed to seasonal, local food. Some farmers and ranchers often combine efforts to deliver weekly or monthly seasonal variety baskets filled with fruit, vegetables, eggs, cheese, meats and even wines, directly to your door.
For more tips on what is in season near you, go to: Seasonalfoodguide.org where you can input state and season to see what regional bounties yield.
Related Recipe: Cream of Onion Soup
Here are some tips for healthy springtime fruits and vegetables that can be found in most regions of the country:
Artichokes: They are high in prebiotic fiber, which fuels a healthy gut.
How to choose: Look for a firm bulb with tightly closed bracts (petals). Discoloration on exterior bracts is usually a harmless symptom of frost damage.
Asparagus: Provide a great source of folate and prebiotic fiber.
How to choose: Look for the thinnest stalks possible; these are the most tender. Steer clear of limp and wilted asparagus.
Chives: Fresh herbs like chives are rich in antioxidants and phytonutrients.
How to choose: For both Chinese and European chives, you’re looking for pert green blades without signs of yellowing, moisture or mildew.
Garlic: This bulbous flowering plant is rich not just in flavor but offers anti-inflammatory and heart-health benefits.
How to choose: Mature garlic heads should have a paper-like skin that covers all the cloves, which ideally are firm and free of mold or bruises. Green garlic has a light green stalk and white bulb at the base with darker green tops.
Leeks: Your immune system, nervous system, and vision all benefit from this high antioxidant cousin of the scallion.
How to choose: Common leeks look like giant scallions and have a mild onion-y, sweet flavor. Look for leeks on the smaller side, 1-2" in stem diameter with very dark greens that have no yellowing or wilted spots.
Ramps: These wild onion species are great for flavor–and fighting health-harming free radicals.
How to choose: Make sure to select ramps without slimy or discolored patches.