There is a certain symmetry and sense of alignment that comes with eating with the seasons.
Before our modern age of industrial farming and high-speed transportation gave us the capacity to import foods and goods from all over the world, human beings were reliant on their local fields and farms to sustain them – or simply on what could be hunted and gathered from their environment. Over tens of thousands of years, our bodies adapted to be in tune with the cycles of the harvests, with each season’s foods seeming to provide us with exactly what we need.
When we eat in synchronization with the seasons, we promote a natural balance and harmony in the body that works to optimize our health. Let’s break it down:
In the fall and winter, as the weather turns cold and dry, our bodies naturally seek warming and insulating foods. We gravitate to foods like hearty soups and stews, loaded up with seasonal vegetables. We tend to crave more carbohydrates, fats, and animal protein, as our bodies seek to store energy and prepare us for “hibernation”. As the days shorten, our activity levels drop and our access to sunlight becomes more limited. This may trigger a decline in our stores of Vitamin D, which can negatively impact our blood pressure, cholesterol, and mood. But nature has a solution for all that.
Nuts and seeds, which are readily available and can be stored during the winter months, provide us the healthy fats we need to help insulate us from the cold and strengthen our nervous systems. Heavy warming vegetables such as winter squash, potatoes, and root vegetables are in abundance, providing readily available carbohydrates as well as the vitamins and minerals necessary to help boost our serotonin levels and regulate our blood pressure and cholesterol. The antidote to most of the season’s negative effects can therefore be found right in the food that is naturally available.
In the spring, the weather turns milder and wetter, as we begin to thaw out from winter’s grip. Melting ice and rainy days bring a new dampness to the air, along with plenty of mud on the ground. It is similar with our bodies. Our sinuses tend to congest and our noses start to run. We welcome spring flowers, but the release of all that pollen into the air can trigger seasonal allergies, inflammation, and colds. But, again, nature has provided us with the perfect solutions.
Lighter vegetables like sprouts, leafy greens, and asparagus appear in the spring, and have properties that serve to counteract mucus production and boost our metabolisms, helping us shed any excess fat that may have accumulated over the sedentary winter months. Bitter roots and greens such as echinacea, chicory, dandelion, and burdock root also help to break up mucus and detoxify the liver in a natural “spring cleaning” effect of sorts. The bitter roots, along with spring vegetables like asparagus, celery, and watercress, also serve as natural diuretics, which help us let go of any excess water we may be collecting in our tissues. In addition, the chlorophyll contained in the green seedlings and sprouts that appear in spring can help detoxify our blood and promote good gut bacteria, all of which works to strengthen our immune system. Add to that the antiviral and antibacterial properties found in garlic, onions, and chives, which contain the immune-boosting compound allicin, and you should be well defended from seasonal colds and flu. Last, but not least, spring vegetables serve to stimulate our metabolisms for efficient fat burning throughout the spring and summer months, naturally setting us up for a more active lifestyle.
In the summer, the weather heats up, the days are longer, and the air gets heavy. Our bodies naturally crave lighter, cooling foods to help us regulate our body temperature and maintain good hydration. And because we tend to be more active in summer, we also need foods that give us energy.
In summer, there is a bounty of fresh fruits available that deliver energy in the form of fructose. Cooling summer vegetables with energizing properties are also in abundance, such as cucumbers, celery, broccoli, and bell peppers. Many summer fruits and vegetables, such as cucumbers, peaches, and melons, have excellent hydrating properties as well, along with an abundance of Vitamins C and E, which help to protect our skin from sun damage. As usual, nature has it all figured out for us. And as the summer months advance, heavier, more nutritionally dense vegetables begin to appear, preparing our bodies for the impending cold and the cycle beginning again.
When we choose to tune in to what nature has provided, eating in sync with the seasons, we are choosing health — pure and simple. It really is a perfect system.
Ahh, Spring. After this long, cold winter, I’m sure that many of us are now happily turning our thoughts to Spring.
The promise of milder temperatures, longer days, flowers coming into bloom, and of course, seasonal produce, gives us much to look forward to. For me, there is nothing quite like the taste of the season’s first tender asparagus and leafy greens, or the sweet berries and peaches that appear at the Farmer’s Market soon thereafter. The flavors and freshness of the fruits and vegetables that are locally grown and in season are unlike anything else that we find in our supermarkets all year round. One has only to think of the contrast between the tasteless tomatoes we find at our grocery stores in winter and the flavorful, vine-ripe tomatoes that come from our summer gardens to make the point. Seasonal eating is the way to go.
When we eat with the seasons, we are making a choice that reaps multiple benefits:
First, to our Health: Fruits and vegetables that are picked at the peak of freshness and are locally grown not only taste better, but they have higher nutritional value than produce that is shipped to us from across the country or from other parts of the world. The concentration of antioxidants is higher, the vitamin and mineral content is more potent, and our bodies seem to assimilate them better. Eating the variety of foods that are available each season also affords us the opportunity to diversify our diets and experiment with produce that we might not otherwise try. And diversity in our diets adds significant health benefits. According to Rachel Meltzer Warren, MS, one study that looked at the health benefits accruing to women who routinely ate a diet rich in colorful fruits and vegetables from 18 different plant families showed that they had “significantly less damage to their genetic material than women who limited themselves to five plant families.” Variety, therefore, does more than just make food more interesting. It actually protects our health.
Second, to the Local Farmer: When you buy seasonal, locally grown foods, you are helping to support the regional farmers who depend on these crops for their livelihoods. In so doing, you are helping to keep your farmers in business while boosting your local economy. Locally grown foods also tend to be less expensive than the foods you purchase elsewhere, so they are often a more economical choice. And if you choose to take the extra step and buy organic, you are helping to support that important agricultural sector as well. It’s important to remember that as consumers, we have the power to “vote with our wallets” to support healthier farming trends. Supporting the organic farming community is money well spent in terms of the quality and purity of the food available to us. Last, but not least, I would argue that getting to know your local farmers helps better connect you with the food on your plates by recognizing who grew it for you and appreciating what they have provided.
Third, to the Environment: There are many environmental benefits that come from eating seasonal and local. Most obvious is that we reduce the number of miles that our food must travel before it reaches our plates, thereby reducing the fossil fuel expenditures and attendant greenhouse gas emissions involved in its transport. But locally grown organic foods have other environmental benefits as well, most notably avoiding the use of toxic chemicals and pesticides that can leach into our soil and poison our ground water. Buying local also helps promote our soil sustainability, since farmers must regularly rotate their crops to improve soil fertility and crop yields, which naturally enriches the soil and amplifies the nutrient density of the foods that they grow. And since most conventionally grown foods produced on industrial farms come from depleted soil, this is a huge plus, both for our health and for the planet.
So, what’s in season, and when? Here is a general guide for the Mid-Atlantic:
- Winter: From December – February, look for apples, carrots, cauliflower, celery root, chard, chicory, collard greens, herbs, kale, leeks, mushrooms, onions, parsnips, spinach, sweet potatoes, turnips, and winter squash.
- Spring: From March – May, look for apples, asparagus, beets, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, chard, cherries, collard greens, fennel, garlic, herbs, kale, leeks, lettuce, mushrooms, nettles, onions, radishes, scallions, spinach, strawberries, sweet potatoes, and turnips.
- Summer: From June – August, look for apples, arugula, beets, blackberries, blueberries, broccoli, beans, cabbage, carrots, chard, cherries, collard greens, corn, cucumbers, eggplant, garlic, grapes, herbs, kale, leeks, lettuce, melons, mushrooms, nectarines, onions, peaches, peas, peppers, potatoes, radishes, raspberries, scallions, shallots, spinach, strawberries, summer squash, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes.
- Fall: From September – November, look for apples, arugula, beets, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, chard, chicory, collard greens, cucumbers, escarole, fennel, grapes, green beans, herbs, kale, kohlrabi, leeks, lettuce, mushrooms, nectarines, okra, onions, parsnips, peaches, pears, potatoes, pumpkins, radicchio, radishes, raspberries, scallions, shallots, spinach, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, turnips, winter squash, and zucchini.
Remember, it’s in season for a reason. Here’s to your health!
We’ve heard a lot about gut health lately, and with good reason.
Good gut health translates to a strong immune system, a balanced metabolism, the effective breakdown and assimilation of our food, and, according to recent studies, good brain health as well.
But good gut health is wholly dependent on the maintenance of a strong and healthy microbiome, that colony of “good” or friendly bacteria that lives in our gastrointestinal tract, comprising some 300-500 different bacterial species. Keeping that population healthy and viable is the key to making it all work. And in this world of highly processed food, refined carbohydrates, heavy antibiotic use, and environmental toxins, keeping our microbiomes healthy is no easy feat. Now, I know what you’re thinking — you’ve heard all this before and you know what to do. Just make sure to stock up on yogurt, pop a daily probiotic supplement, and you’re good to go, right? Well, not so fast…
It’s true that we need to consume a regular supply of probiotic and fermented foods to keep our gut microbiome well populated with friendly bacteria, especially since our lifestyle and eating habits often work to their detriment. Eating a variety of probiotic-rich foods daily should therefore be part of a healthy diet. Good examples of such foods include: yogurt, kefir, miso, tempeh, kombucha, kimchi, sauerkraut, raw pickles, and raw vinegars. And just for good measure, taking a high quality probiotic supplement is often recommended as well. But we need to continually nourish that good gut bacteria if they are to survive and thrive. Just as with any living organism, our good bacteria will die off if they are not properly fed. That is where prebiotics come in.
Prebiotics are a category of foods that actually feed our good gut bacteria. They are non-digestible, high fiber compounds that are found in certain fruits and vegetables, as well as other plant-based sources. These prebiotic starches, while non-digestible to humans, are highly digestible to our beneficial bacteria, and are essential to maintaining their health. An added plus is that they are resistant to our gastric acid, which allows them to pass through to the intestinal tract intact, where they are then fermented and readily consumed by our hungry microbial population.
The regular consumption of prebiotic foods is important for us all, but particularly so for individuals who suffer from conditions of the digestive tract, such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome, colitis, and Crohn’s disease. But studies have shown that prebiotics offer other health benefits as well. They help to reduce our risk for cardiovascular disease and Type II diabetes by lowering cholesterol levels and regulating our blood sugar; they promote satiety, thereby keeping our weight at a healthy level; and they help to prevent certain types of cancers, most notably colon cancer. They are a fundamental component of a healthy diet.
WHAT FOODS ARE CONSIDERED PREBIOTIC?
Chances are you are already consuming a number of foods that are prebiotic without even realizing it, especially if you eat a high fiber diet. But not all fibers are created equal. The foods that deliver the greatest prebiotic benefit are those that contain fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS), inulin, and resistant starch (RS). So, incorporating those elements into our diet is where our focus should be.
Prebiotic-rich foods include:
- Chicory Root
- Jerusalem Artichokes (Sunchokes)
- Dandelion Greens
- Burdock Root
- Chinese Chives
- Wheat Bran
SO, HOW MUCH SHOULD I EAT?
It is recommended that we consume at least 5 grams of prebiotic fiber a day to maintain optimal gut health. Much of that should be in raw form, to the extent possible, since cooking any fruit or vegetable acts to break down its fibers. But a combination of raw salads and lightly sautéed or steamed prebiotic vegetables should be more than adequate to meet our daily needs.
In terms of “bang for the buck,” chicory root delivers the highest percentage of prebiotic fiber by weight, at nearly 65 percent, while bananas deliver the lowest, with only 1 percent of fiber by weight. The rest of the foods listed above fall somewhere in between those ranges. It doesn’t take much to reach the desired 5-gram goal, but as with any dietary regime, variety is the spice of life. Experiment with including a wide assortment of prebiotic foods in your daily recipes, and you should be well covered.
So, the next time you’re at the Farmer’s Market, be sure to pick up some leeks, asparagus, garlic, and onions, thinking of the prebiotic benefits that will ensue! And while you’re at it, you just might want to throw in some dandelion greens as well. Your gut will thank you for it.
We are what we eat, right? We’ve all heard the saying, but the statement is true. Just think about it.
Everything that we ingest gets absorbed into our bloodstream and serves as the basis for nourishing our cells, building our tissues, boosting our immune system, and maintaining a healthy metabolism. So, it just stands to reason that our food choices can make all the difference when it comes to defining our health. But, unfortunately, making healthy choices has become an increasingly difficult task in today’s world. It seems we are assaulted on all sides by the temptation and convenience of highly processed foods that are largely devoid of nutritional value and saturated with unhealthy fats, refined carbohydrates, and a chemical cocktail of artificial dyes, flavors, and preservatives. In truth, the Standard American Diet (aptly known by its acronym “SAD”) is slowly, but surely, killing us. In the last 30 years, obesity rates in the United States have skyrocketed. Heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and autoimmune diseases are also on the rise, as are neurodegenerative diseases and mood disorders. And much of this can be blamed on our diet.
The multi-million-dollar diet industry certainly capitalizes on this national dysfunction. As more Americans have become obese and disease-ridden, quick-fix diets and self-help books have become all the rage. So many of us are looking for that “silver bullet” panacea that we hope will resolve all our problems. But there are so many conflicting options to choose from. Do we eat low-carb, low-fat, paleo, ketogenic, do intermittent fasting, or follow some other program of pharmaceutical or herbal intervention? It’s enough to make your head spin. It’s true that some of these programs do work for certain individuals, but most often, people try something out for a short period of time, but then resort back to their old eating habits. And in the process, they often regain whatever weight they might have lost, returning to an unhealthy physical state.
SO, WHAT CAN WE DO?
It’s quite simple — we get back to the basics. Author and food expert Michael Pollan probably stated it best when he advised us to, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” What this means is that we need to get back to eating whole foods that look and taste the way nature intended. Or as Pollan puts it, only eat foods your great-grandmother would recognize. That’s it. Our fruits and vegetables should come fresh from the farm, orchard, or garden. Our food animals should be raised without stress and unreasonable confinement, and they should be fed natural diets without added antibiotics, chemicals, or hormones. Similarly, our grains and legumes should be unrefined, and not subjected to genetic alteration and toxic applications of pesticides and herbicides. If we follow these simple guidelines, chances are that our bodies will soon heal themselves, our weight will naturally regulate, and our systems will return to a healthy condition of homeostasis.
SOME BASIC GUIDELINES
Here are some general suggestions for optimizing our diet and health:
- Eat a variety of produce in its natural form, direct from the farm or garden.
- Choose foods that are organic and locally grown, whenever possible.
- Avoid Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s).
- Eliminate refined sugar and flours, as well as excess sodium.
- Eat grass-fed, pasture-raised meats, but keep meat consumption to a minimum.
- Eat fish that are wild caught, opting for smaller varieties that are less susceptible to mercury contamination.
- Include modest amounts of healthy, plant-based fats in your diet, such as those derived from nuts, olives, and avocados.
- Cook your own food and experiment in the kitchen. It’s a wonderfully creative activity, and you’ll have the added benefit of knowing what’s in your food.
- Drink plenty of water to keep your body well hydrated.
This is not to say that you can’t partake in a favorite food indulgence from time to time. In fact, I would encourage that. Occasional treats are part of what makes life enjoyable and keeps you from feeling deprived. But I prefer to follow the “90/10 Rule”, striving to eat clean and healthy 90 percent of the time, with 10 percent left to delicious discretion. No guilt, and no obsession. It’s all about moderation.
The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates famously said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” He believed that correcting imbalances or dis-ease in the body could primarily be accomplished through diet. In truth, I believe that Hippocrates had it right. Achieving good health is not rocket science. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. It’s about getting back to the basics and tuning in to what our bodies have been telling us all along. Let’s return to some ancient wisdom. Let’s get back to our roots — quite literally. We will all be healthier for it.