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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Seasonal Eating

All hail the arrival of spring! For those of us in Midwestern climes, March brought some relief from this winter's bitter cold and we're now facing down full weeks of 70+ degree weather. For those of us in the Ohio River Valley, spring is also the lead-in to the amazingly humid summer. Walking outside during July and August in Louisville is similar to walking into the ocean and trying to breathe. You can pretty much just swim to your car. Anywho, my local weather is not the point of this post, although I am quite excited about long, warm spring days. The point is that spring brings a change in eating for those of us that follow a seasonal eating pattern.

Why follow a seasonal eating pattern? I choose a seasonal eating pattern for a few reasons. First, as you know from the title of this blog, I look to our ancestral eating patterns for answers to the "what should I eat?" question. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived in a world where food availability was based on the seasons. It may surprise you to learn that there was no global distribution network 50,000 years ago. Even in the tropics where there is no real "winter," plants have definite fruiting and flowering seasons. Certain fruits and vegetables would have only been available during certain seasons. The one mainstay would have been meat, but even it had differing fat levels throughout the year. Second, seasonal eating forces variety. Apples are not a year-round food, nor are pineapples, cucumbers, summer squashes, winter squashes, or most any other plant-based food. Eating seasonally forces you to come up with ways of making delicious meals from the available foods. And as an added bonus, foods that are in season will taste much better. Pick up some strawberries in January and you will understand my point. Finally, I think there are benefits of varying macronutrient intake throughout the year so as not to force the body to rely on a single source of fuel year-round. Most people are heavily carb-focused and their ability to burn fat as a fuel source is drastically inadequate.

Throughout the winter, I've been subsisting on a fairly low carb, moderate protein, high fat diet. Because of the lower carb intake, I focused my workout efforts mainly on improving my strength base with the big lifts (squats, deadlifts, bench and overhead presses, cleans) and improving a few gymnastics skills, such as the planche and front lever rather than on intense metabolically demanding CrossFit workouts. My diet through the winter has consisted of lots of meat (chicken with skin, meat with all its fat) and oils with moderate servings of sweet potatoes, squashes, and other dense carb sources and a few leafy vegetable salads here and there, although they are technically not in-season. That doesn't mean that I don't eat out-of-season foods at times, just that I focus mainly on foods that are in-season. World's Healthiest Foods describes winter foods as "warming," or those that take longer to grow. Root vegetables (like carrots and radishes) and cruciferous vegetables (cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, etc) are winter foods. The ability of cayenne peppers to warm the body make them a good choice in the winter as well.

Spring is an exciting time in the food world. Just look around you when you're outside. Everything that was dead is starting to turn green, soaking up the warmth from the bright sun, as nature begins its yearly renewal. This means that a seasonal eater will be incorporating a great deal of green foods into his/her diet. One of my favorite plant foods, the avocado, comes into season in spring and is wonderful cut up over the top of a salad or steak or mashed up with some onion and garlic to make guacamole. Greens like spinach, romaine, collards, and many others are spring goods. My spring menu will consist of lots of salads, avocados, asparagus, and herbs like parsley and basil, along with some remaining root vegetables like carrots and radishes. A spring menu is a light menu. The end of spring also brings us strawberries and raspberries, along with pineapple.

Moving into summer, we get into all of the delicious fruits that pretty well suck all winter. Along with standard fare like lettuce, cucumbers, avocadoes, celery, and onions, we get to sink our teeth into all of those succulent berries, such as straw, blue, black, and rasp. Peaches, watermelon, canteloupe, honeydew, grapes, peppers, and green beans are just a few of the other plant-based foods that become available to us in the hot months. Because of the heat of summer, you don't want to overeat; light and fresh foods are the way to go during this season, with lots of fish, vegetables, and fruits. If you're eating grassfed meat, you're likely to find it less fatty during spring and summer. Almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, and Brazil nuts come into season during the summer, so be sure to include plenty of these delicious nuts to cover your fat needs. When you plan your summer menu, think of cooling foods like the above fruits and vegetables, but don't forget to include some firey foods like horseradish, ginger, and cayenne. I like to get outside more during the spring and summer months, hanging out on the deck, chit-chatting with neighbors and using the grill to avoid heating the house with the oven.

While spring bursts with green, fall brings us back to brown in preparation for the cold winter awaiting us. We see an explosion of color from the trees before the greenery of spring and summer slowly fades to brown. The moist summer fruits and vegetables yield to the drier, denser fall carbohydrate sources like carrots, radishes, sweet potatoes, yams, and squashes. However, the end of summer and the fall do bring us apples, pears, grapes, and pomegranates, so don't completely neglect the fruit yet. Fall is a time for moving back inside, retreating into the warmth of our homes just as the rest of the living world is doing. My kitchen sees more use as fall progresses into winter, allowing the oven to heat the home and spread the smells of soups and slow-cooked meats.

So there you have it, seasonal eating in a nutshell. Some of the foods that I eat each season may not technically be at the peak of ripeness and perfectly in season, but there is a definite shift towards root vegetables in the cold months with no fruit intake and back to green vegetables and fruits in the warmer months. Eating in season means you can eat locally grown produce. The less distance your food has to travel the better it is for the environment. I'd choose produce from a local small farmer than from an organic farm in California (folks in California, substitute Florida into the previous sentence). Check out your local farmer's markets. Unfortunately my local farmer's market isn't open through the winter, so I end up with organic and/or conventionally grown produce from the supermarket. Such is life. The key is that any produce is better than no produce. These two sites can help you eat seasonally: All Foods Natural and CUESA (more comprehensive). Note that the CUESA site points out when fruits and vegetables are in their natural season and when they are available in the market, which don't always correspond in our modern world.