Eating Healthy Season By Season

If you’ve never swooned over asparagus or gone gaga over a tomato, then you’ve probably never waited all year for the season’s first crop. Building your diet around foods as they become abundant locally can get you excited about good-for-you ingredients and nudge you — painlessly! — toward a healthier diet. “I’ve seen seasonal eating help people fall in love with cooking and look forward to eating their fruits and veggies, instead of feeling obligated to do so,” says New York-based nutritionist Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD.

How does eating seasonally improve your diet? For starters, in-season produce is much more flavorful than fruits and vegetables shipped from across the country — or the world — so you’re more likely to choose them over processed and less nutritious options. The taste can be a revelation. Take spinach, for example: Because sugar doesn’t freeze, the spinach plant produces extra sugar to protect itself against the cold. Which means a fresh winter spinach salad can be pretty sweet and truly delicious.

Eating with the seasons also brings variety to your diet — and that helps you get the full complement of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that nature offers. Rather than start every morning with, say, half a grapefruit (a winter fruit), you might switch to pomegranates in late fall and blueberries in summer. One study found that women who ate a diet rich in fruits and vegetables from 18 different plant families (including cruciferous vegetables from the Brassicaceae family, such as cabbage, cauliflower and brussels sprouts) had significantly less damage to their genetic material than women who limited themselves to five plant families. This probably reflects the tens of thousands of years that our genes evolved in concert with the environment as our ancestors gathered food from a wide variety of sources. This diverse array of nutrients from the plants we eat (phytonutrients) work together like a symphony to support our body and the way it works in an optimal way.

In-season fruits and veggies are harvested just as they’ve developed abundant nutrients. In contrast, fruits and veggies transported from far away are picked before they’re ripe and nutritionally mature. This allows the produce to survive days or weeks in a truck, but it doesn’t do your body any favors. To go back to spinach again — eating it in season provides up to three times more vitamin C than eating it out of season.