As a health coach, I’m often asked, “What’s the best way to eat? Should I be vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian, Paleo, Keto, high-carb, low-carb, no-carb, high-fat, no-fat…?”
Sorry—there really doesn’t seem to be a perfect eating style for everyone:one person’s food is another person’s poison, and it’s up to each of us to do the work and decide for ourselves what works best.
The only guidelines we try to adhere to as I explore this question with my clients are:
- The food you eat is as close to nature as you can get it—whole or minimally processed, without synthetic fillers, preservatives, flavorings, or color.
- 50–75% of your plate at every meal is from plant sources, and the majority of that is vegetables—a rainbow of them
Once you have this sorted—and if it is within your budget—I encourage you to go “next level” and pay attention to the following four criteria when making food choices:
- Is it seasonal?
- Is it organic?
- Is it local?
- Is it ethical?
The acronym for these criteria is SOLE, and we’re going to spend some time in the next few columns diving into each one of them.
I arrived at health coaching from the culinary world, where I was a chef and caterer, and that background has overlapped with my current work in preventive health care in many ways. One offspring of this pairing is an interest in food energetics.
When we get to the root of it (sorry—pun intended), food = energy: when we eat, we take in calories (a measure of energy), which we then expend in our daily activities, from running our basal metabolism—functions that include brain and nerve function, blood circulation, breathing, cell growth, contraction of muscles, and controlling body temperature—to the conscious activities of work, workouts, and play.
Because we live in Michigan, it’s pretty easy to observe how our own energy shifts with the seasons.
Many people I know here suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD): the lack of sunlight through the many long, grim months of winter can lead to or exacerbate depression.
I seem to have the opposite: gray does not get me down, but wow, does a bright, clear day make me feel positively giddy!
I’ve come to think of this as a sort of spectrum: if your set point tends toward the lower energy side, you low and your high are lower than someone less affected by winter; it your set point is toward the higher energy side, both your low and your high are higher than someone with SAD.
How does this relate to food energetics?
Fall and winter veggies, whether we are talking about the numerous roots, tubers, or winter squashes, have spent the warm months concentrating their nutrition into compact packages that can stand up to longer cooking times required by roasting, braising, simmering, and stewing.
Root vegetables in particular are an apt metaphor for the fall season: in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), they are associated with the lower half of the body, our roots to the earth, and they nourish us with a focusing, grounding energy.
Light spring and summer greens and late summer sturdier veggies tend to grow above the ground and reach toward the sun. They are often eaten raw or lightly steamed or grilled, and they correspond to the upper half of the body, the energy that draws us upward.
Why eat seasonally?
We are privilege to be able to get any produce we want at the grocery store, so why limit ourselves?
As I discovered in my own family’s journey toward a SOLE food diet, eating seasonally definitely has benefits.
It has boosted our immune systems: much to our doctors’ dismay, we usually refuse flu shots, and yet if we catch that year’s virus—we often don’t—we seem to suffer less and recover much more quickly than others. The difference in our children’s school attendance records and those of others is pretty striking.
(Please note: This is NOT a recommendation that you skip the flu shot—that’s a decision that must be made by you in conjunction with your primary care practitioner.)
For me personally, the benefit of seasonal eating became very clear when we moved from sunny Southern California to wintry Michigan. Growing up in Vermont and living in Colorado and Illinois, I had always been one of those people who was perpetually cold—cold fingers, cold toes, cold nose….
I think the only time in the earlier part of my life when I felt truly warm was when I was pregnant, especially with my son, who continues to be a portable space heater in the way that teenage boys are.
During “the cold years,” I used to try to “eat healthy” by choosing salads for lunch—even in the winter, when what my body really wanted was some heavier, stew-y food.
When I finally experimented with eating what I really wanted for lunch and replacing cold green salads at dinner with heartier dark green leafy veggies available in the fall and winter, I suddenly discovered that I wasn’t constantly cold … and no, I didn’t gain weight!
Can I scientifically prove any of this?
No … and yet if you’re willing to try an experiment, you can prove or disprove it for yourself. No clinical trials involved, just you, your kitchen, and your journal.
You may even discover that eating seasonally helps your energy levels and improving your state of mind year ‘round!
How to eat seasonally
If you are used to shopping at the grocery store, you may not know what produce is in season because you can get just about any fruit or vegetable any time of the year.
And you’ve probably noticed that the produce you buy there can vary greatly in how tasty it is!
Produce doesn’t require a nutritional label, but I encourage you to start noticing the required “COO” label, which stands for “country of origin” and can tell you a lot about seasonality: you’ll find the information on the fruit or on the sign next to it. Usually, if your food is being shipped from a different hemisphere, you can bet that it’s not in season where you live.
Want to really learn about what’s in season?
Visit your local farmers’ market.
Think it’s more expensive? There are some indications that conventionally grown produce is priced about the same as in a grocery store, while organic produce can often be less expensive at the market!
Better yet, many markets now accept SNAP (food assistance benefits) and some even offer incentives such as Double Up Food Bucks (started by Ann Arbor’s own Fair Food Network!) to those who shop there using their EBT cards.
Many farmers’ markets have rules about what farmer/vendors sell there, meaning that the food has to be grown by them and within a certain radius of the market. Beware of markets that have laxer requirements: if you see bananas at a market in Michigan, you can bet it’s a resale arrangement!
If you shop at the farmers’ market on a regular basis, you will come to know what grows in which season and will learn to appreciate seasonal eating much more.
How to cook seasonally
Find the farmers’ market off-putting because the veggies are not familiar?
Cooking vegetables is not difficult once you understand a few very basic principles. If you’re just starting to cook them, check out the following resources:
- Alice Waters’sChez Panisse Vegetables
- Deborah Madison’sVegetarian Cooking for Everyone and Vegetable Literacy
- And from the department of shameless self-promotion, my Fl!p Your K!tchen cookbook gives you a home cook’s version of the culinary school curriculum on vegetable cookery
Now that you’re supplied with seasonal veggies and armed with recipes, try eating seasonally for a few weeks.
Record what you eat, and more importantly, journal about how you feel. What do you notice about your digestion/elimination? Your energy levels? Your state of mind?
Remember that you are bio-individual: your results may be different from anyone else’s … and they can still inform your food choices going forward.
Ann Arbor’s Liza Baker, a WLAA health columnist, is a health coach, cookbook author, nonprofit consultant, and woefully underpaid COO of a busy family of four. Liza lives in a half-empty nest in Ann Arbor and is passionate about health and happiness, education and exercise, SOLE/SOUL food and social justice. You can get a taste of her work on her websiteand/or join the (Sorta) Secret Sisterhood, her membership site for women over 40.