Can Seasonal Eating Actually Make You Healthier and Happier? Doctors Weigh In
I first heard the phrase “seasonal eating” years ago. I don’t remember from who or from what, but I do remember being struck by the simplicity of it. It just made sense to me. Eat the fruits and vegetables that are in season and hold off on those that are not. Not only is this seasonal eating thing supposed to provide you with the exact nutrients your body needs throughout specific times of the year, but it’s also a guide to eating the freshest, tastiest produce—what a concept!
I found myself thinking about this lifestyle habit when I moved from Los Angeles to Michigan. At the time, I was dreading the inevitable winter ahead of me—short days, freezing temperatures, and lots of snow. It would be my first winter in recent memory without easy access to crunchy salads, flavorful tacos, fresh seafood, and all the avocados my heart could desire. Basically, I was grieving my L.A. way of eating and wondering what I could replace it with once I arrived in Michigan. That’s where my mind sparked the words “seasonal eating” in metaphorical marquee letters. This, I thought, will be the perfect opportunity to try seasonal eating for real. I just needed a little guidance, so I reached out to some experts to find out what seasonal eating is and how to determine exactly what's in season. Here's what they had to say.
What is seasonal eating?
In simplistic terms, eating seasonally means consuming the fruits and vegetables that are ripe and in their prime growing season and holding off on those that aren’t. For someone in the Midwest, like me, this means eating blueberries and peaches in late summer, apples in fall, and dark leafy greens in the winter. Essentially, it’s all about letting the seasons guide your diet.
We can credit Ayurveda and, more specifically, the Ayurvedic concept of Ritucharya for the idea of seasonal eating. Ritu, which means "season," and charya, which means "regime," is a preventative medicine technique that involves changing one’s diet and behavior in response to changes in the environment. It’s thought to keep the body in tune with the seasons, helping it maintain perfect homeostasis throughout the year.
Do nutritionists believe in seasonal eating?
According to board-certified holistic nutritionist and personal trainer Jennifer Hanway, there is real merit in the practice of seasonal eating. “Whilst it would be challenging to conduct a scientific study purely on seasonal eating, we can use examples from both traditional and modern nutrition practices to underline the benefits of eating seasonal produce,” she explains. “For example, in Ayurvedic medicine, it is recommended to eat warm, moist foods, such as stews and soups made with root vegetables, to counteract the cold, drying effects of winter (Vata season). We do know that in the summer we need more hydration, and seasonal water-rich fruits and vegetables, such as watermelon and cucumber, can boost our fluid intake.”
Anna Mitsios—naturopath, nutritionist, and founder of Edible Beauty—agrees. “Whilst there is no scientific evidence to back the nutritional benefit of eating seasonally, nature seems to have an in-built intelligence in providing us with fruits and vegetables rich in required vitamins at specific times of the year. For instance, in winter, we are provided with an abundance of citrus fruits that are rich in vitamin C, helping us to ward off colds and flus. We are also provided with an abundance of winter comfort foods to warm us. In summer, we are provided with stone fruits abundant in beta carotene to provide extra protection from UV sensitivity along with water-rich foods for hydration and carbohydrate-rich sweet fruits for the extra energy required for our summer activities.”
The idea that the body requires different levels of nutrients throughout different times of the year certainly holds true, at least when it comes to micronutrients, aka a "major group of nutrients your body needs," according to Healthline. “Seasonal produce can provide particular micronutrients that we might need more of at that time of year,” Hanway tells HelloGiggles. “For example, orange foods, such as pumpkin and sweet potato, that are grown in the winter contain an antioxidant called beta carotene that converts to vitamin A in the body. Vitamin A is essential for healthy eyesight, which can be helpful in the darker winter months!”
Should you only eat seasonal foods?
While there are benefits to eating seasonally, Amy Shapiro, MS, RD, and CDN, cautions against following seasonal produce as an absolute rule, saying that its benefits “depend on your diet and how diversified it is." She explains, "I think it is important to eat what is in season and what is the freshest when possible. However, given our access to all foods at all times these days, it isn't necessary.” Instead, Shapiro recommends eating a varied and colorful diet year-round to “allow for a wide variety of nutrients on a regular basis.” As she puts it, “If frozen blueberries make their way into a New Yorker’s smoothie in February, in my mind, that is just as great as fresh blueberries in their yogurt during the summer.”
“I don't believe it has to be all or nothing,” Shapiro continues. “Produce provides fiber, vitamins, minerals; it is low in calories, high in water, and important to consume anytime. It assists with digestion, prevents diseases and illnesses, helps to decrease the prevalence of obesity. I would rather my clients eat produce than to focus on seasonality and to limit their plates and palates.”
How do I know what’s in season?
There are many resources for finding what kind of produce is in season in your area, but the best resource might just be your local farmer’s market. After all, as Hanway says, “Seasonal eating and shopping locally go hand in hand, especially here in the U.S. due to the variation in climates in each state." For example, in Massachusetts, where Hanway lives, there will be an abundance of apples, beets, and dark leafy greens because of the fall season. "However, in more temperate climates such as California, they are still growing cucumbers, grapes, and kiwis," she adds.
Plus, shopping locally is what makes seasonal eating eco-friendly. Because you’re not constantly purchasing produce that was grown in and transported from other areas of the country (or the world), you’re being more sustainable, whether you realize it or not.
“Seasonal eating doesn’t mean you have to eat locally, but it is easier to eat seasonally if you are visiting local farmer's markets,” Mitsios explains. “Local produce tends to be more nutrient-dense, as small farms tend to rotate their crops, which prevents soil from becoming nutrient-depleted. This is great for the soil and for the crops grown on the soil. Furthermore, local farmers are generally more eco-conscious and use fewer chemicals despite not being labeled organic."
So, what’s the verdict?
Experts seem to agree that seasonal eating shouldn’t necessarily be followed strictly. Instead, it’s better to view it more as a helpful guide, pointing you towards nutrient-dense foods. “I think the best approach would be a happy medium, maybe aiming for at least 50 to 60% seasonal produce, then filling in the gaps with your favorite non-seasonal items,” Hanway says.
Mitsios’s advice is similar. “Eating seasonally 100% of the time can be challenging if you are living in a large city or certain parts of the world. Don’t be hard on yourself if you are not able to eat seasonally 100% of the time. You can always mix up seasonal produce with other produce or get into the habit of fermenting summer foods for consumption in the colder months!”