Seasonal eating is something that humankind has been doing for centuries. However, recently is it becoming more conscious and spoken about, particularly because of the impact it can have on our environment. The more fuel, energy, or water it takes to deliver food to our tables; the more it costs our environment. Therefore we’re now re-discovering the ways how our (not so distant) ancestors lived and trying to implement the old ways to our modern, technology-driven Westernised world. Naturally, this is not an easy task, especially here in the UK, where the local diet is historically influenced by different cultures, bringing unique imported foods and ingredients.
What is seasonal eating?
To put it simply, seasonal eating means eating foods that are available in that particular season. This includes both produce and products of animal origin. Where the road splits is that you can eat either seasonally from a global perspective, meaning you eat imported strawberries from Spain in April as they are in season there, or from a local perspective, when you wait until they stock them at your local farm shop at the end of June when they are in season in the UK (1). But seasonal eating doesn’t have to restrict you to fresh food only, you can use various preservation methods, from the more traditional ones such as fermentation, drying, smoking, canning, and many others, to the trendy more modern favourites such as freezing or using vacuum sealers.
How can seasons affect our diet?
The changing seasons throughout the year directly affect the availability and quality of our local food, which then reflects in our dietary choices including the variety and nutrient levels. You may think that this would mainly affect our ancestors, but even now in the modern world where we are used to a wide range of food available in the supermarkets all year round, the seasonality may affect its quality linked to the ripeness, but even our food choices may change depending on the season.
Autumn is the main season of harvest and brings us a lot of carbohydrate-rich foods, including fruit and different grains (2), and leading up to Winter, we are more likely to consume such foods including more fat and dairy (3). Our natural satiety levels also change during the seasons, meaning during Autumn and Winter, we tend to eat more due to reduced satiety (4).
With Spring presenting a variety of freshly grown greens and warming weather conditions, our intake of rich foods, as well as cereals, tends to decrease, whilst our vegetable intake increases (2). Again, with the factors including improved satiety in warmer months, higher intake of fibrous foods lower in energy, the raising temperature and therefore ability to spend more time outside in natural daylight, Spring becomes more favourable to reducing our extra energy storage (7), as well as summer for the UK population (8).
Benefits and challenges of seasonal eating
Even though focusing on eating foods that are in season may feel like you are narrowing down your choices, discovering seasonal and local produce can actually help you to increase the variety of food as well as nutrients in your diet by trying something that you wouldn’t usually go for. Eating seasonally within your locality also contributes to reducing the carbon footprint and food waste(1), as well as supporting the local economy.
In terms of our health, the food which has been harvested when the season is at its peak tends to be full of flavour as well as have a wider nutrient spectrum to support your health and wellbeing. Some ways of preserving such foods can even improve the bioavailability of different nutrients such as β-carotene or lycopene in tinned tomatoes (9). Whilst this tends to be the rule in produce, animal products may and may not be affected by seasonality as much in terms of nutrients unless their feed is affected by seasonal availability. For example, in grass-fed cattle where the nutrients from grass consumed can be projected on the quality of the final product, be that either meat or dairy (10).
Sometimes eating locally grown fruit and vegetables may not be so convenient due to our location or it may simply work out to be more expensive. When budgeting is our priority, we can still focus on buying seasonal if not local, as even supermarkets have seasonal offers on produce, as they want to turn it around faster. Buying seasonally or even in bulk and then freezing produce often works out cheaper and ends up being more sustainable in the long-term. Furthermore, eating only what’s in season throughout the whole year in our climate would end up being very restricting and time-consuming, resulting in not a good variety of nutrients to sustain good health (1).
Incorporating seasonality in our dietary choices is a great way to support our health as well as the planet, and it doesn’t have to break the bank or come from a drastic change to our lifestyle. Starting with little changes such as trying out a seasonal recipe, buying some salad at your local market, or learning how to make jam in the summer can bring a great change overall.
What food is in season now?
Food seasonality varies depending on the region where it’s harvested, as well as its climate, which in the UK is affected by the Atlantic. In the spring, we mainly harvest green vegetables including broccoli, leeks, cabbage, lettuce, rocket, spinach, spring onions, etc. The first fruit we harvest here is rhubarb and apples, being joined by apricots, nectarines, grapefruits, and pomegranates closer to the summer (11,12). To explore more food growing at different times of the year, you can use the EUFIC Interactive seasonal fruit & veg map, where you can view fruit and veg harvest by month.
(1) Macdiarmid, J., 2013. Seasonality and dietary requirements: will eating seasonal food contribute to health and environmental sustainability?. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 73(3), pp.368-375.
(2) Boeing, H., Colamesta, V., Kleiser, C., La Torre, G., Linseisen, J., Lojko, D., Nimptsch, K., Palys, W., Peñalvo, J., Saulle, R., Stelmach-Mardas, M., Suwalska, A. and Uzhova, I., 2016. Seasonality of food groups and total energy intake: a systematic review and meta-analysis. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 70(6), pp.700-708.
(3) Froom, P., Kristal-Boneh, E., Lubin, F., Shahar, A., Shahar, D. and Yerushalmi, N., 2001. Seasonal variations in dietary intake affect the consistency of dietary assessment. European Journal of Epidemiology, 17(2), pp.129-33.
(4) De Castro, J., 1991. Seasonal rhythms of human nutrient intake and meal pattern. Physiology & Behavior, 50(1), pp.243-248.
(5) Doruk, H., Ersoy, N., Özgürtaş, T., Salih, B., Taşçi, İ. and Rakicioğlu, N., 2018. Effect of seasonal changes on nutritional status and biochemical parameters in Turkish older adults. Nutrition Research and Practice, 12(4), p.315.
(6) Bremer, A., Cronise, R. and Sinclair, D., 2014. The “Metabolic Winter” Hypothesis: A Cause of the Current Epidemics of Obesity and Cardiometabolic Disease. Metabolic Syndrome and Related Disorders, 12(7), pp.355-361.
(7) Fahey, M., Klesges, R., Kocak, M., Krukowski, R. and Talcott, G., 2019. Seasonal fluctuations in weight and self-weighing behavior among adults in a behavioral weight loss intervention. Eating and Weight Disorders – Studies on Anorexia, Bulimia and Obesity, 25(4), pp.921-928.
(8) Duarte, C., Heitmann, B., Horgan, G., Larsen, S., O’Driscoll, R., Palmeira, A., Stubbs, J. and Turicchi, J., 2020. Weekly, seasonal and holiday body weight fluctuation patterns among individuals engaged in a European multi-centre behavioural weight loss maintenance intervention. PLOS ONE, 15(4), p.e0232152.
(9) Bowen, P., Hwang, E. and Stacewicz-Sapuntzakis, M., 2012. Effects of Heat Treatment on the Carotenoid and Tocopherol Composition of Tomato. Journal of Food Science, 77(10), pp.C1109-C1114.
(10) Abbott, A., Daley, C., Doyle, P., Larson, S. and Nader, G., 2010. A review of fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beef. Nutrition Journal, 9(1).
(11) EUFIC, 2021. Explore Seasonal Fruit and Vegetables in Europe. [online] Eufic.org. Available at: <https://www.eufic.org/en/explore-seasonal-fruit-and-vegetables-in-europe?fbclid=IwAR29iGk3WXQ1efeSZv81IEcHDjLRD6N2ETL8aHO2yYziTABrlFr42S5WPBU> [Accessed 26 March 2021].
(12) Vegetarian Society, 2021. Seasonal UK grown produce. [online] Vegetarian Society. Available at: <https://vegsoc.org/cookery-school/blog/seasonal-uk-grown-produce/> [Accessed 26 March 2021].
Contribution by Denisa Dufkova, ANutr Apothecary 21