Even during the coldest months, we can up our health ante by eating locally grown, seasonal food.
Eating a diet that follows nature’s rhythms is one of the biggest fads to hit the mainstream since the term “locavore” was coined in 2005. You can find evidence in the explosion of farmers’ markets and farm-to-table restaurants everywhere from California to Maine proudly featuring just-picked produce week after week. But eating this way is far from a passing trend; it’s just good sense, and it’s how everyone ate not so long ago—before heart disease, diabetes and obesity had managed to wheedle their way into every corner of North America.
The benefits of eating locally grown, seasonal food are many—it’s ultimately cheaper and better for small farmers and your community’s economy, and it’s a great way to keep in step with the natural world. Perhaps more compelling, though, eating seasonally is an especially excellent way to boost nutrition.
Most fruits and vegetables reach their nutritional peak around the same time they ought to be harvested—which, conveniently, is also when they taste the best. The redder a red tomato is, for example, the more beta-carotene it contains. Same goes for peppers: As the pepper progresses from green to red, a bell pepper gains 11 times more beta-carotene and 1 1/2 times more vitamin C.
Most foods begin to lose nutrients almost immediately after this point, too. Spinach and green beans lose two-thirds of their vitamin C within a week of harvest, according to the University of California, Davis. Another study revealed that frozen peas retained more nutrients than fresh peas that weren’t eaten quickly after harvest. The USDA’s nutrient retention report (“Table of Nutrient Retention Factors”) actually declares frozen fruit to be more nutritious than fresh fruit in most cases, because the former is typically frozen just after harvest rather than being shipped far away, losing nutrients over several days.
So we know fresh-from-the-source is best. And we also know that papayas sitting on a grocer’s shelf in Idaho in December are far from it. That “fresh” produce you’re buying has traveled days or weeks on its journey from far-away harvest to the store near you. And that often means it’s been harvested before it hit that important nutritional peak, to boot. Take the delicate peach: If picked before it’s ripe, a peach will continue to soften after being plucked, but it’ll never ripen any further. Picking produce before it’s ready to be eaten is a sacrifice farmers must make if their produce is intended for long-distance shipping and extended shelf life. But long-distance shipping isn’t a concern for producers who sell their food to their neighbors. The best way to get superfresh food in winter (if you don’t grow your own cold-hardy garden) is to buy it directly from local producers.
Another nutritional bonus of buying from local farmers is variety. Small-scale farmers don’t have to select crops strictly for traits like durability and yield. They can instead choose crop varieties for any number of desirable traits, from sweetness and vitamin content to funky shape, bright color or resistance to local pests. They are also more likely to offer specialty plants such as broccoli raab and Jerusalem artichokes, because farmers’ market customers are more likely to try niche products and the farmer has the benefit of being right there to explain how to cook it. The farmer’s ability to experiment gives us the opportunity to create a varied diet that changes throughout the year.
Eating a seasonally based diet with lots of variety throughout the year is the “cornerstone of preventive medicine,” says Preston Maring, a doctor at Kaiser Permanente’s Oakland Medical Center in California. Inspired by study after study documenting the benefits of eating an in-season, plant-focused diet—reduced risks of cancer and heart disease, increased longevity, improved cholesterol, improved vascular health, increased bone density and weight loss, to name a few—Maring has actually written prescriptions for patients to buy fresh food from the hospital’s on-site farmers’ market, complete with suggestions about how they can prepare it.
As interest in farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs has risen in recent years, more and more areas are lucky enough to have winter farmers’ markets or CSAs that provide four seasons of food. For example, the West Harlem CSA in New York offers a “Pantry Share” that allows its members to stock up on potatoes, onions, beets, winter squash and many other long-keeping foods just before the holidays. You might also be able to make an arrangement with one of the farmers at your farmers’ market to set up winter purchases after the public market season has ended. Of course, you can also find in-season foods at mainstream grocery stores—the list of winter seasonal foods is more lengthy than you may think. See “Winter Vegetables, Fruits and Herbs” further along in this article.
Eating locally grown, in-season food offers yet another nutritional benefit: Supporting farmers who manage their land sustainably is an investment in more nutritious food for all of us. Modern commercial farming, with its focus on quantity over quality, often at the expense of soil quality, is giving us less and less nutritious food all the time. Modern wheat and barley have 30 to 50 percent less protein than they did in 1938. Newer varieties of corn have lower concentrations of protein, oil and three amino acids. Levels of six minerals have declined in wheat varieties, and today’s broccoli has less calcium than it did in 1950. To learn more about nutrient decline, see the article "The Nutrient Levels In Our Food Are Declining." To do something about it, buy food from producers who nurture the soil and select crop varieties based on flavor and nutrition, rather than yield or shelf life.
The concept of nutrition is more holistic than the sum of the nutrient parts of food. Nurturing a connection to the natural world is good for our bodies and our souls. Herbalist and physician Aviva Jill Romm sees nutrition as “a way of loving and caring for ourselves and others that allows us and those we serve to reach our fullest potential.” Dan Barber, chef-farmer at Blue Hill, a sustainable agriculture restaurant in upstate New York, believes that cooking with seasonal ingredients gives you “the feeling that you are a part of something much greater than a good recipe.”
Our potential for optimal health encompasses more than our day-to-day diets, but eating nutritious, in-season food produced conscientiously is an excellent step toward becoming part of that something bigger than all of us.
Winter may not match summer’s bounty, but don’t knock its seasonal delights—try the dozens listed here.
“Eat locally, spice globally” is a locavore mantra that’s particularly welcome in winter, when many of us turn to warming spices to make meals interesting. You can enjoy the best cuisines from around the world and still rely on local farmers by buying locally grown for the bulk of your purchases and limiting imported goods to flavoring ingredients. Winter’s best spices and herbs include allspice, bay leaf, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, ginger, nutmeg, rosemary, sage, star anise, turmeric and thyme. (To learn more about the wonders of winter spices and how to use them, see A Guide to Buying and Cooking with Winter Spices.)
Using fresh herbs and spices also provides health benefits: If you flavor your meals with nutritious herbs and spices, you’ll be able to rely less on added fats, salt and sugar. Plus, herbs and spices are chock-full of health-promoting compounds that tackle everything from elevated blood sugar levels to high cholesterol and cancer.
Tabitha Alterman is the food and garden editor of Mother Earth Living.
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