The Benefits to Eating in Season
by Clark Zimmerman, LAc.
There are many reasons to eat locally grown food. Food that is grown locally is typically cheaper, fresher and more nutritious. Since locally grown food doesn’t have to be shipped far, it takes less resources to get it to your table. Another benefit to eating locally grown food is that is available during the season that it is grown.
Many traditional asian cultures talk of the importance of eating foods in the season that they are grown; China, Japan and India all mention the positive health effects of this practice. As the world has become more intertwined, people have more access to a wider variety of foods. Getting a banana in Minnesota in February, or a winter squash in Florida in the summer is as easy as going to the grocery store. So, many of us don’t consider the fact that food only used to be available if it was grown and picked close to home. While it is nice to have options with our food, sometimes we are missing some potential health benefits if we are eating food that is shipped from far away places out of season. Food can even contribute to illness or disease if eaten in the wrong season.
In traditional Chinese medicine, we stress the importance of balance. We use the language of yin and yang, and the 5 elements to express this idea of balance. The five elements are wood, fire, earth, metal and water. Each element is related to a specific season: wood to spring, fire to summer, earth to late summer, metal to autumn, and water to winter. Each element is related to a particular taste. For instance, foods that are available in the late summer, such as apples, pears, and winter squash are examples of the sweet flavor. Sweet flavors tend to add extra energy to the body that we store as fat as we start to prepare for the winter. So like a bear getting ready to hibernate, people consume the sweet fruits and vegetables of late summer to naturally signal to the body that it is time to begin to collect resources that will get us through the long lean winter months. Springtime is the season of the liver and gall bladder, or the wood element. The wood element is benefitted by bitter and sour flavors. During the springtime, after a winter of little activity and of consuming more fatty and salty foods, our bodies are ready to clean out the excesses of winter. So spring is the season that a lot of bitter foods are readily available to help us clean and detox the liver and gall bladder. Bitter foods, such as asparagus, arugula, and dandelions all grow during the spring to help the body detox after winter. So nature is a perfectly balanced system that provides foods at the proper time to help us deal with the environment of each season.
If we eat foods out of season, not only are they more expensive and not as fresh, they also have the potential to create an imbalance in the body. For example, if you buy a melon in the wintertime, you are eating a food that is typically available in the heat of summertime. Melons help to cool the body down, which is why we crave them when it is hot. During the winter, when the climate and the body are colder, cooling foods can cause the body to become too cold, which can lead to, aches and pains, poor digestion, and more colds. This is why warming and nourishing foods, such as garlic, onions, and root veggies are more balancing in the wintertime.
Most of this theory is common sense. Our bodies crave foods in their appropriate season to naturally balance the body. If we stick to foods that are grown locally, we are more likely to eat foods that are in season and thus helpful for keeping the body healthy and balanced.