In Checkout Line, Lou Bendrick cooks up answers to reader questions about how to green their food choices and other diet-related quandaries. Lettuce know what food worries keep you up at night.

Love your pasta

Your food or mine?

 

Lou,

I am curious about any benefits of eating seasonally — the foods or products that are traditionally or historically in abundance at particular times of the year. At one time were our bodies in sync with those seasons and the foods that were available at that time? Curious, let me know!

George

Dear George,

What a timely question, when farmers markets and gardens are overflowing with the season’s bounty! Personally, nothing makes me feel more secure than a countertop full of apples and squash. (And let’s face it, apples and squash may be the most secure place to put your money these days.) As for biological synchronicity with the seasons, the answer is yes. More on that in a moment, but first I must extol the little-known benefits of seasonal eating, which include but are not limited to:

Preventing a flabby palate. As Grist’s own Chef Kurt Michael Friese explains, “It’s important to know the source of your food for economic, nutritional, and even spiritual reasons. But the plain fact of the matter is that food that’s from closer to my kitchen door is going to be fresher, and fresh tastes best.” When we eat out of season — gobbling shipped-in strawberries in January, for instance — Kurt says our sense of taste degrades: “Our palate weakens just as our eyesight would if left in the dark for too long.”

Holiday party stamina. According to Esther Blum, author of Eat, Drink and Be Gorgeous: A Nutritionist’s Guide to Living Well While Living It Up, fresh food is also the most nutritious. And that nutritional boost might pay off under the mistletoe: “When your diet is naturally richer in vitamins and minerals then you are going to increase your chances of beating a cold and keeping your immune system solid through the holiday party season,” says Blum.

Oil-free breath. When we eat from the industrialized food system, according to Michael Pollan, “we are eating oil and spewing greenhouse gases.” That is, we’re eating food that requires a lot of energy to produce, ship, and package. So if you choose seasonal foods that also happen to be local and sustainable, the eco-bonus points really add up. Plus, your breath will be kissable. (See mistletoe, above.)

More money for beer. Buying fresh foods in season, when they’re ample, can save you a boatload. For example, I picked organic strawberries at a U-pick farm in June at about $1.80 per pound. I picked 30 pounds, freezing most of them for later enjoyment. Do you realize how much it would cost to buy 30 pounds of organic strawberries this time of year? (Yeah, that’s a lot, but work with me here — this is a math word problem, and therefore inherently inane.) Online, organic strawberries run $6.50 per 8 oz. right now! Wow! If you’d bought your strawberries back in June, you’d be about $336 richer, which would buy you 42 six-packs of Wolaver’s organic brown ale, one of my favorite brews. And all you had to do was pick your strawberries in June!

Desirable connections. The payoffs for eating local don’t just involve alcohol, there’s sex, too … the traditional and historically abundant foods you mention connect us to our culture, our place, and each other in surprising ways. Take, for instance, the emblem of autumn, the pumpkin. Can you imagine Thanksgiving without pumpkin pie? In fact, pumpkin pie causes such deep, happy associations that its aroma causes sexual arousal in men. Although I lack the Y chromosome, I think the equation behind the pie-aroma phenomenon goes like this:

comfort food + football + beer x memories of college girlfriend = ardor

Speaking of ardor, let’s move on to the horn of plenty.

Our bodies were, and still are, in sync with seasonal abundance. I learned this by chatting with Dr. William R. Leonard, the department chair of Anthropology at Northwestern University, who often writes about nutrition and human evolution. He explained that because reproductive hormones are tied to body fat, especially in women, a “high season” (when ample calories are available) means higher fertility rates. Indeed, menstrual cycles fluctuate in certain parts of the non-industrialized world where food availability fluctuates with the season. “During the flush times of the year … there’s more food around and people have extra energy to do other things beyond the basic daily functioning,” Leonard says. “That often tends to be the time when you see conceptions peaking.”

And there’s a reason we crave fats and sweets this time of year. Leonard points out that, once upon a time, our bodies needed more calories to produce warmth to get through the winter. In fact, seasonal, biological changes are still evident in native populations in places such as Siberia. “What we can show with native populations of the north is that there are seasonal fluctuations in metabolic turnover,” he says. “Thyroid hormone uptake tends to be greater during the winter time as a way of sort of juicing up the system — juicing up the metabolic rate to produce more heat.”

But don’t reach for that doughnut, George!

“Obviously, this sort of seasonality becomes a bit problematic for us in the modern world now that we have climate-controlled environments so that our actual exposure to the cold is greatly reduced,” says Leonard. “It’s one thing when you’re out there herding the reindeer and elk and your body tells you that you need to eat more fats and get more energy — you’ve got the ability to burn it off. Much less so in our modern western societies.” In other words, we get fat.

So, George, I hope this satisfies your curiosity. Enjoy the holiday season, reach for fresh, local foods, and don’t forget to stop and smell the pumpkin pie.

Your food-advice columnist,
Lou Bendrick