Every Saturday morning I wake up as early as I can (usually not very early) and head to the San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers Market to buy my vegetables for the week. Seasonal vegetables are the foundation of a healthy diet, and buying them each week is the single most important step you can take to upgrade your healthstyle.
(This post is part three of the series How To Get Started Eating Healthy. Part one is Stock Your Pantry and part two is Essential Groceries. Subscribe to Summer Tomato to get more free healthy eating tips)
Decades of research on diet, nutrition and health have universally confirmed that a vegetable-based diet can reduce your risk of (and even reverse) almost every disease. Debates still rage regarding the mechanism by which vegetables improve health (Is it because they replace bad foods? Contain antioxidants? Are low in calories? Low in fat? Low in protein? Have low glycemic index?), but for you and me the reason doesn’t really matter. The important point is that vegetables are proven to make you healthy. Those other questions are only important to people who want to bottle that benefit and sell it to you at a premium.
Interestingly, one of the most consistent findings in nutrition science is that any attempt to isolate a specific element of food and create a useful dietary supplement fails to mimic the benefits of the whole food. The lesson from all of this is that you are much better off spending your money on vegetables and other whole foods than on nutritional supplements.
If you have ever wondered how much vitamin C is in a tomato, please stop. The idea that one tomato is the same as the next is ludicrous, yet this is the kind of logic we have accepted from grocery stores and the food industry in general.
Anyone with taste buds can immediately tell the difference between a sweet, ripe heirloom tomato at the height of summer and a mealy red beefsteak from your grocery store in December. These foods taste wildly different because of how they were grown, so doesn’t it stand to reason that they may have different nutrient levels as well?
In fact, there is a tremendous difference in nutritional quality of foods grown in the correct season and in good soil. Seasonal organic produce is substantially better for you than the conventional produce at Safeway, and this difference is reflected in how your food tastes.
For these reasons, shopping in season can do wonders for how you think about vegetables. A salad may sound boring to you, but how about miner’s lettuce tossed with arugula, Tokyo turnips, Mediterranean cucumbers, ruby grapefruit and sliced almonds? If you are more excited to eat vegetables because they look, sound, smell and taste delicious, then you will lose weight and become healthier by default. Your daily greens will be a joy, not a chore.
Seasonal produce is also more affordable than out of season produce that was grown in a greenhouse or shipped halfway around the world.
How To Shop Seasonally
As I mentioned above, my preferred place to shop for vegetables is my local farmers market on Saturday. Farmers markets are wonderful because you have access to the freshest local and seasonal vegetables available, usually just picked the day before. This means that not only are you guaranteed vegetables at the peak of their season, you can even go from stand to stand and find the batch you like best. You can also discover interesting and unique offerings (like the chocolate persimmon), and build relationships with local farmers. If you are lucky enough to have a weekly farmers market in your area, it is certainly worth it to commit yourself to go every week.
Read this blog on Saturdays to keep up with local finds in the Bay Area and California in general.
Unfortunately, farmers markets are not practical for everyone. Some people have time constraints that prevent them from attending a weekly market. Luckily there are some alternatives available. One option is the CSA, or Community-Supported Agriculture. When you subscribe to a CSA you have pledged support for a particular farm (or sometimes a group of farms), and in exchange receive a box of seasonal produce each week or on an agreed schedule. The biggest convenience of joining a CSA is that the times arranged for delivery or pick up are much more flexible than the weekly market. There are CSAs for vegetables, as well as meat and dairy.
From what I understand, individual CSAs can vary substantially in how they are run and what they provide. If you are interested in finding a CSA in your area, I recommend spending some time researching your options and deciding what works best for you.
I have personally never belonged to a CSA and would love to hear about your experiences if you have.
Local Produce Markets
Even without a farmers market or CSA it possible to shop in season. Most cities and suburban areas have local produce markets and/or health food stores that focus on fresh vegetables. While not everything in these markets will be seasonal and local, they usually provide a nice alternative to large chain grocery stores to at least supplement your produce shopping. For more information you can read my article about how to find local produce markets in your area.
Even if none of these options are available in your neighborhood, it is still likely that the most affordable and best tasting food at your regular grocery store is whatever happens to be in season. Thus it is still worth it to keep up on local produce trends in your area.
Eating your vegetables is the most important thing you can do for your health, and neither nutritional supplements nor regular workouts can substitute for a healthy diet. Whether you have access to farmers markets or not, you are better off eating any vegetables than no vegetables at all. The same is true if you are considering conventional vs. organic produce.
If farmers markets are not available to you year-round there are many ways to get seasonal vegetables and fruits. But the first step is committing to your health and your future by making sure seasonal, fresh vegetables are a part of your personal healthstyle.
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