This blog post was written by Victoria L. Freeman, Ph.D., CHFS, CMH, CBC.
Days are getting shorter, nights are getting longer, and the rhythm of life is transforming. The seasons are changing. Fall is in the air.
The notion of seasons is pervasive. Our planet Earth is transformed in a seasonal cycle every year, and those changing seasons have a holistic impact on us and all of life. Throughout our lifetime, we also go through many seasons. As King Solomon described in the Book of Ecclesiastes, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.”4 Including seasons for growing (and eating) a wide variety of produce under heaven!
Making seasonal eating adjustments was necessary in years past since people ate what was available in their area at a given time of year. Global commerce has, however, lifted that restriction. Do you want strawberries in December and rutabagas in April? No problem. You can get them. Although, it’s wise to consider the implications of that availability. Having any food you want at your fingertips, regardless of the season, has economic, environmental, and nutritional repercussions that may not be worth the convenience.
Why Eat Seasonally
Dr. Josh Axe, chiropractor and co-founder of the supplement company Ancient Nutrition, describes the concept of “food miles.” It’s the distance your food travels from where it’s grown to a grocery store near you.1 Food miles also tell us how much gas, oil, and other factors are involved in transporting food, he explains. “The 14% of the energy used to transport food from farm to store is equal to two-thirds of the total energy used to produce food.”1 And, 80% of the energy our food system uses goes toward processing, packaging, transporting, storing, and preparing food. Who pays for those costs? We do. The costs are built into the price we pay to purchase the food.
Fruits and vegetables, on average, travel 1,300 to 2,000 miles from a U.S. grower’s farm to your table.1 That’s bad enough, but consider the costs associated with internationally acquired produce. Chilean grapes, for example, travel 5,900 food miles, and the cargo ships and refrigerated trucks used to transport those grapes emit about 7,000 tons of pollution every year.1
To make matters worse, the nutrient density of produce begins to decline immediately after being harvested. For those of us in North America, our fruits and vegetables can spend up to five days in transit and then sit on supermarket shelves for one to three days before we buy them. They can then sit in our refrigerator for up to seven days before being eaten.1 During those potential 15 days, precious nutrients are being lost. The average supermarket vegetable has 5% to 40% less mineral content than that of 50 years ago.1 Part of that loss is undoubtedly due to poor industrial mega-farming practices, but food miles are also certainly part of the problem. Green beans and peas lose anywhere from 15% to 77% of their nutrient content by the time we eat them. Even the superfood broccoli can lose almost 60% of its flavonoids.1
Out-of-season produce offers sub-par nutrients as well. Fruits and vegetables that are forced into unnatural ripeness, i.e., skipping the natural nutrient-building process of ripening on a plant in its normal season, are not nearly as nutritious as those grown locally and allowed to ripen naturally. Since spinach is a cool-season crop, researchers have found as much as a three-fold difference in the nutritional value of spinach when harvesting in summer versus winter, for example.1
Buying produce from local growers means that foods are in-season, naturally ripened, endure less travel, processing, and packaging, and are more nutrient-dense. Plus, the changing seasons yield a constant variety of different foods to pique our interest. Shop local farmer’s markets or co-ops whenever you can, and don’t forget to ask if the growers use organic practices. Some do, even if they aren’t certified organic. See Better for People, Better for the Planet: The Benefits of Eating Organic Food for the differences between organic and conventionally farmed food.
You can also check out this website to find seasonal produce for your area. Using the search feature, select the state, month, and type of produce, or you can view all the in-season produce results for your area. Search results offer details, including information on the growing season, an educational profile on the product, and cooking tips.
High-Quality Fall Produce Picks
So, now that we know the benefits of eating seasonally and since autumn is upon us, let’s examine some nutritious produce at its peak this time of year.
Root vegetables. At their best from fall to spring, these underground veggies, including turnips, carrots, sweet potatoes, beets, parsnips, celery root, butternut squash, radishes, and rutabagas, are packed with vitamins, minerals, fiber (great for your microbiome), and antioxidants (that reduce oxidative stress and inflammation). All root vegetables have their own unique nutritional benefits, but we’ll dig deeper into a few specific examples. Turnips, a member of the cruciferous vegetable family like broccoli and cauliflower, offer rich nutrients in both the root and the leaves. One cup of turnip root or leaves yields at least 30% of the recommended daily intake (RDI) of the powerful antioxidant vitamin C. Turnip leaves, or greens, are also a good source of vitamin K (important for blood clotting and bone health), vitamin A (a vital factor in eye, skin, and lung health), and folate (important to produce red blood cells and to help prevent fetal developmental irregularities).7
Rutabaga, another cruciferous vegetable, is sometimes called the “Swedish turnip” because it’s often used in Scandinavian dishes and looks similar to a turnip. Rutabagas are high in antioxidants like vitamins C and E, the mineral potassium, and glucosinolates (chemicals that contain sulfur and break down into compounds that can help fight cancer.)14
Recently named a “superfood” due to their rich nutritional profile, beets (technically, beetroots) are high in the B vitamin folate that plays an important role in growth, development, and heart health. Beets are also high in the mineral manganese, which offers multiple benefits, including bone formation, nutrient metabolism, and brain function. Lastly, copper, a mineral required for energy production and the synthesis of some neurotransmitters, is also plentiful in beets.2
Nutrient-dense produce that screams FALL. Some foods make us think of certain seasons. Watermelon in summer, for example. Or how about a bowl of steaming chili in winter? Below is a brief list of produce that will have you thinking about autumn in no time.
Pumpkin. Pumpkins are the star of the show for two fall holidays: Halloween as carved Jack-o’-lanterns and Thanksgiving as the quintessential dessert pie. As a type of winter squash, pumpkin is in the same family as cucumbers and melons, and since it has seeds, it’s considered a fruit even though its nutritional content is more like a vegetable. The seeds, leaves, and flesh are all edible. One cup of canned pumpkin offers 209% of the RDI for vitamin A in the form of alpha and beta carotene (both of which your body converts to vitamin A). It also has a notable amount of vitamin K and copper. It is low in sugar, high in fiber, and nutrient-dense (i.e., it offers many vitamins and minerals with few calories).5 Pumpkin health benefits include supporting your eyes (retina and macular health), skin (antioxidant vitamins C and E), heart (potassium for regulating blood pressure and fiber for binding to cholesterol to prevent absorption), and metabolism (fiber to blunt blood sugar spikes).5
Pumpkin can be prepared in dishes as either sweet (whole-grain pancakes, breads, muffins, and, of course, pies) or savory (canned pumpkin combined with coconut milk for a healthy curry sauce). Roasted pumpkin seeds can also be consumed as a crunchy snack or salad topping.
Okra. In many countries, okra is considered an essential crop due to its nutrient density. Cooks often use the sticky juice in okra to thicken sauces, and okra’s mucilage may support toxin removal from the body.11 As it contains many vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants such as catechins and quercetin, okra has been studied for a variety of health benefits, including supporting recovery from cancer, diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis, gastrointestinal conditions, and even as a replacement for blood plasma.11
Okra can be used in soups and stews like gumbo, roasted, or fried in healthy oils like avocado oil. Dried okra can thicken a sauce or serve as an egg-white substitute. Here’s an off-the-beaten-path idea: okra seeds are sometimes roasted and ground to be included in noncaffeinated coffee substitutes.11
Pears. Three of the most common varieties of pears include Bartlett, Bosc, and D’Anjou, but the options are much greater worldwide, as there are about 100 varieties in total.13 A medium-sized pear has about 6 grams of fiber, 16% of the Recommended Daily Value for copper (important for immunity, cholesterol metabolism, and nerve function), 7% for vitamin K (necessary for blood clotting and building strong bones), and 9% for vitamin C (a powerful antioxidant important for forming blood vessels, cartilage, muscle, and collagen).9,13
Pears also contain other antioxidants and flavonoids that are anti-inflammatory and promote gut and heart health. The skin of a pear is particularly nutrient-rich, so after washing, it’s best to eat this fruit with the skin on.
Easy to eat as a snack or sweet enough for a dessert, pears are also delicious when added to pancakes or salads with walnuts or hazelnuts.
Cranberries. Most Thanksgiving dinners include the tart zing of cranberries. They’re about 90% water, but they also offer some healthy carbs, fiber, and many nutrients, including vitamin C, vitamin E, magnesium, iron, and vitamin K.12
The cranberry’s claim to fame is supporting urinary tract health. Researchers speculate the mechanism behind that benefit is due to the proanthocyanidins in cranberries, which can prevent certain bacteria from adhering to urinary tract walls if the dosage is high enough (approximately 36 milligrams per day).6 Scientists conducting one 2019 study reported that although cranberries alone did not eliminate the bacteria that give rise to urinary tract infections, “combining cranberry extract with caprylic acid derived from coconut oil and oregano essential oil extract led to the eradication of the most common bacteria, Escherichia coli.”12 Other research has shown that cranberries or compounds in cranberries may support cardiovascular and oral health and slow cancer progression.12
Cranberries are usually harvested in September and October, but they can also be canned, frozen, or dried to be eaten at other times of the year. Other than the traditional Thanksgiving relishes, a few delicious ways to integrate cranberries into your diet include adding dried cranberries to homemade trail mix, oatmeal, or a salad. Another option is to add them frozen in a smoothie or toss them fresh or dried into a muffin or cookie recipe.12
Fall Functional Nutrition
We’ve learned that seasonal foods pack a more powerful nutritional punch and cause less wear and tear on the planet and our pocketbooks than off-season foods. They even taste better (ever have a tomato fresh out of the garden in the summer as opposed to one from the grocery store in the winter?)! Yet there’s another reason to let the seasons guide your nutritional choices: seasonal health benefits. Let’s end with some examples of fall health challenges that can be eased with functional nutrition.
Fall allergies. Spring allergies are often triggered by tree pollen, but the culprit is frequently weeds in autumn. In either case, foods containing quercetin may help. According to scientists at Mount Sinai, the antioxidant quercetin has been shown in lab studies to prevent immune system cells from releasing histamines, which are the chemicals that result in allergic reactions like runny nose, watery eyes, hives, and swelling of the face and lips. We don’t have definitive scientific proof of this effect yet in vivo (in living people), but many natural health enthusiasts claim good results.8 Due to these potential anti-inflammatory and anti-histamine effects, produce rich in quercetin, such as apples, onions, kale, broccoli, and blueberries, often tops fall menus.10 See this chart for more details on the quercetin content of selected fruits and vegetables.
Seasonal affective disorder. People experiencing seasonal affective disorder (SAD) symptoms, such as carbohydrate cravings, low energy, feeling sluggish, sad, and depressed, usually feel the onset in mid to late fall, with symptoms continuing and often worsening into the winter. The good news is that B vitamins can support recovery from SAD due to their positive effects on many brain processes. In the case of depression, B12, B6, and B9 may be especially helpful.3 Organic whole grains (like brown rice, barley, and millet) and organic seeds (such as sunflower and pumpkin) are good sources of B vitamins that might improve mood and help reduce anxiety, depression, and seasonal affective disorder. If you’re struggling with any of these conditions, don’t hesitate to speak with your healthcare provider or a mental health professional.
It’s time to enjoy the variety that seasonal eating provides, appreciate the efforts of local growers supplying us with nutrient-dense foods, and do our part to care for the planet in the process.
To learn more about nutrition and the benefits of local produce, consider enrolling in the Certified Nutritional Consultant program. For more information, visit trinityschool.org/program/cnc or call 800-428-0408, option 2, to speak with an Enrollment Specialist.
1. Axe, J. (April 21, 2021). Eating Seasonally for Better Nutrition … and a Better World. Downloaded July 5, 2023, https://draxe.com/nutrition/eating-seasonally/.
2. Coyle, D. and Ajmera, R. (June 5, 2023). Everything to Know About the Health Benefits of Beets. Downloaded July 7, 2023, https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/benefits-of-beets#nutrients-and-calories.
3. HealthMatch Staff. (May 12, 2022). Seasonal Affective Disorder: What Vitamins Should You Take? Downloaded July 10, 2023, https://healthmatch.io/seasonal-affective-disorder/vitamins-for-seasonal-depression.
4. Holy Bible. Book of Ecclesiastes, 3:1. Downloaded July 5, 2023, https://www.biblegateway.com/quicksearch/?quicksearch=There+is+a+time+for+everything&version=NIV.
5. Jennings, K. (May 19, 2023). Pumpkin: Nutrition, Benefits, and How to Eat. Downloaded July 8, 2023, https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/pumpkin-nutrition-review.
6. Kennedy, M. April 19, 2016). Not All Cranberry Supplements Prevent Urinary Tract Infections. Downloaded July 8, 2023, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-uti-cranberries/not-all-cranberry-supplements-prevent-urinary-tract-infections-idUSKCN0XG2DF.
7. Lang, A. (November 22, 2019). All You Need to Know About Turnips. Downloaded July 7, 2023, https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/turnip-nutrition.
8. Li, Y., et al. (March 15, 2016). Quercetin, Inflammation, and Immunity. Nutrients, 8(3): 167. DOI: 10.3390/nu8030167.
9. Mayo Clinic Staff. (November 17, 2020). Vitamin C. Downloaded July 8, 2023, https://www.mayoclinic.org/drugs-supplements-vitamin-c/art-20363932.
10. Raman, R. (February 9, 2023). What Is Quercetin? Benefits, Foods, Dosage, and Side Effects. Downloaded July 8, 2023, https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/quercetin.
11. Ware, M. (November 6, 2019). Benefits and Uses of Okra. Downloaded July 9, 2023, https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/311977.
12. Ware, M. (February 9, 2023). What to Know About Cranberries. Downloaded July 7, 2023, https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/269142.
13. Wartenberg, L. (February 4, 2023). 9 Health and Nutrition Benefits of Pears. Downloaded July 9, 2023, https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/benefits-of-pears.
14. WebMD Editorial Contributors. (October 25, 2021). Health Benefits of Rutabaga. Downloaded July 9, 2023, https://www.webmd.com/diet/health-benefits-rutabaga.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Victoria L. Freeman, Ph.D., CHFS, CMH, CBC, has traveled a long and winding professional road that includes working as a teenage fine artist, later a personal trainer and wellness coach, a college professor and administrator in exercise science and education, a freelance natural health and fitness writer for national magazines, a property manager and interior designer for vacation and executive rental properties and most recently returning to the natural health arena while attending Trinity School of Natural Health to become a Certified Holistic Fitness Specialist, a Certified Master Herbalist, and a Certified Biblical Coach.