A Nutritionist Explains How Seasonal Eating Benefits Your Mental and Physical Health
Choosing local, seasonal produce when you can, can seriously boost your overall wellbeing.
The summer is quickly approaching, which means an abundance of colorful produce will be ready for harvest in different parts of the country. Living in New York, I literally have the date set in my calendar for when the farmers markets finally open back up (June 11, in case you’re wondering). Generally, one of the best ways to find out which local foods are in season where you live is by visiting a farmer's market. You can also check out this helpful seasonal food guide that filters foods by month and state!
In-Season Produce Tastes Better and Contains More Nutrients
Aside from local food tasting better when it’s picked in season, there are a number of nutritional benefits associated with seasonal eating. First, buying local seasonal produce usually means that the food you're eating has traveled a short distance to make it from the farm to your table — which is a good thing. The longer fruits and vegetables spend being transported from farm to table, the greater the loss of important nutrients. Once produce is harvested, it starts to lose its quality unless preserved properly. Zucchini that’s traveled one week to get to your plate will likely taste very different from zucchini that was harvested the day before.
Research also indicates that some produce fares better at preserving its nutritional content during specific seasons. For example, this study observed that the vitamin C content for broccoli was almost twice as high in the fall compared to the spring.
Local farmers have the option of harvesting foods based on taste rather than whether or not they’re going to be able to resist long distance travel. It’s common practice to pick produce before it’s fully ripened and use artificial ripening agents like ethylene to control the quality of the produce when it arrives at stores. Although this hasn’t shown to have significant impacts on nutrition, this study showed that it can negatively impact the sensory characteristics of the produce that was treated.
Seasonal Eating Adds Nutrient Variety to Your Diet (and Your Kid's!)
If you find yourself eating the same set of foods regularly, seasonal eating also promotes nutrient variety during mealtimes. It takes the guesswork out of experimenting with new foods because the foods that are available change regularly. Local produce can serve as a reminder to try out something new and as a result, eat a range of vitamins and minerals. If you have little ones in your life, a trip to the farmers market can be an exciting way to engage children about the benefits of eating local foods. Research has shown that children involved in school gardens are more willing to try new fruits and vegetables and eat them regularly.
Local Foods Can Help You Feel More Connected to What's On Your Plate
Eating locally can help us feel more connected to our food, which can foster a sense of gratitude and mindfulness during mealtimes. It also helps us save money, since food that is in season tends to be more affordable. I especially love that at farmers markets, you get to communicate directly with farmers and ask questions about how the food was grown and harvested. Some farmers even offer visits to their farms, which can be a fun way to connect more deeply with your food!
As great as seasonal eating is, it’s important to note that for people who live in areas with limited food access, a farmers market may not exist at all. You may also have a papaya craving and live in Boston. Food should be flexible and food that is not local still offers a number of health benefits. Look into creative ways to enjoy foods grown locally, while also taking into consideration what your needs are!
As a registered dietitian/nutritionist and Certified Diabetes Educator, Wendy Lopez, MS, RDN, CDCES is passionate about accessible and culturally relevant nutrition education. She is the co-host of the Food Heaven Podcast, and the co-founder of Food Heaven, an online platform that provides resources on cooking, intuitive eating, wellness and inclusion. When not working on creative projects, Wendy also provides nutritional counseling and medication management to patients with diabetes.
*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.