By Michael W. Hauf
Michael Hauf with fresh autumn produce.
With the end of the summer season also comes the end of our bountiful supply of fresh local produce. How will we survive without juicy fruits and veggies from our trusted local farmers markets and farm stands? Avocados from Mexico. Lettuce from Spain. Pomegranates from Israel. Since the inception of global trade, we are now able to keep our produce shelves stocked year-round with all of our favorite fruits and vegetables. Are these fruits and veggies from all over the world the best options for our health, our environment, or our wallet? Eating seasonally might be the better option.
“Whoever wishes to investigate medicine properly should proceed thus: in the first place to consider the seasons of the year.” – Hippocrates, Father of Medicine.
What signals the Indian long-eared hedgehog to wake from hibernation? What initiates the courtship ritual of the male sage-grouse? Are yearly hormonal cycles limited to the entire animal kingdom other than humans? If so, what’s the reason I gain a little extra adipose tissue every winter? Maybe it’s the pumpkin pie. Maybe it’s in my DNA.
The truth is, humans also undergo cyclical hormonal changes throughout the year. These hormonal changes have an effect on our body’s nutrient demands. Traditionally, humans would have to eat whatever they had available at that time of year. That meant fresh juicy fruits and vegetables in the summer like cucumbers, peaches and tomatoes. The autumn brings apples and figs. Chestnuts, kale and root vegetable are abound in the winter, and avocados and strawberries in the spring. Meat availability also was cyclical. Hunting seasons began when fish and animals had completed their reproductive cycles and were the most nutrient dense for human consumption. Animals like deer were hunted in the spring after months of eating nutrient-rich grasses, not after they’d been depleted by a cold winter.
This cyclical change in nutrient availability probably had something to do with creating the metabolic cycle that still exists in humans. Around late summer/early fall, along with all other vertebrate brains, the human brain tells our bodies to create more insulin resistance. This allows us to go for longer periods of time with smaller amounts of food. It’s a survival mechanism to help us make it through the harsh winters. It also helps us store fat. Then, what we should do is cycle back to an insulin-sensitive state when our cyclical dopamine input increases in late winter/early spring. Coincidentally, what foods are shown to increase dopamine? You guessed it, the foods that are naturally available late winter/early spring – dairy, meats, eggs, nuts, avocados. The world is a wondrous place. However, many people stay in hibernation mode year-round because their dopamine doesn’t increase. This can be caused by stress, lack of sleep, excessive sugar intake and other lifestyle and dietary influences.
Aside from the fact that our bodies are biologically programmed to cycle through different foods throughout the year, the foods that are imported from far-off lands aren’t as healthy as local foods anyway. “Food miles” are the distance it takes for your food to get from wherever it’s grown to your table. The second your food is picked, it starts to lose nutrient density. Therefore, the farther your food travels, the less nutritious it is. Also, when growers know the produce will be traveling a long distance, it is often picked early, thereby further harming its nutrient potential – not to mention the environmental impact of processing, packaging, transporting and storing the produce. When you are buying imported produce, you are paying for the aforementioned factors as opposed to paying for the nutrition. Research shows that the fruits (and vegetables) of the farmers’ labors are often more nutritionally dense. Eating local can help to ensure you are getting nutrient-dense fruits and veggies to help prevent cold and flu in the winter as well. Supporting local farms isn’t only good for your health, it’s good for the environment and local commerce.
“They don’t grow flaxseed in the tropics,” said John Bagnulo, a nutritionist, farmer and assistant professor who holds a Ph.D. in human nutrition and food science. “But what they do grow is coconuts, the nutrients of which provide a ton of protection against intense UV light. Eating foods from where you live is adaptive. You’re adapting to your environment.”
So, when it’s summertime and you’re craving that juicy watermelon and refreshing cucumber, there is a reason for it. When it’s snowing outside and you just want to enjoy a bowl of chili and some roasted root vegetables, do it. Go local and support your local farmer. Don’t hibernate year-round. Maybe if we embrace seasonal eating, it will be easier to get rid of that extra layer most of us put on in the winter. Whether it’s the pumpkin pie or not, eating seasonally will help me shift back into fat-burning mode in the spring to help me get ready for beach season and summer’s abundance.
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