Now that we are past the equinox, it definitely feels like autumn. As I’m writing this, the sun is just breaking through the mist, but it has taken until 11.30am. I love autumn: the colours of the trees in glory, morning mist, the smell of bonfires, scrunching through leaves.
I’ve lived in cities all my life. In a city it’s easy to try to ignore the changes of season. Yes, we complain about the weather, but most of the time it doesn’t really impact our lives. Since my cancer diagnosis, I’ve spent a lot more time outdoors than I used to. I’ve realised how calming being in nature can be, and I’m never happier than when I’m walking in the woods or cycling round the lake. Perhaps it’s because I spend more time in nature that I now really feel the change in seasons – not just externally, but within me.
Seasons and energy
Humans don’t hibernate, but nevertheless we can think of the change in our energy in autumn in relation to hibernating animals. Autumn is a time for curling up in front of a fire, for going within and nourishing yourself, and the food that you eat can reflect and support that. As humans, we have evolved with nature to thrive when we eat what it offers us at a particular time of year. In the spring and summer our energy increases. Our digestive systems become stronger as we don’t have to direct as much energy to warming ourselves, and we can eat more raw vegetables and cooling salads. In the cooler weather of autumn some of that digestive “fire” wanes and, if we listen to our bodies, we might find ourselves craving more cooked foods, especially stews, soups and casseroles.
Nature provides us with bounty at this time of year. As the berries come to an end, we harvest root vegetables. Squashes, turnips, pumpkins and swedes are packed with carbohydrates to give us energy for the colder months. (I also prefer getting carbohydrates from root vegetables than from grains, because if you choose brightly coloured vegetables you get a good serving of plant antioxidants as well.)
Yin and yang
Chinese medicine considers foods in terms of whether they are more yin or more yang. Yin foods are cooling: fruits, green vegetables, seaweed and sugary foods are all yin. Yang foods are warming: root vegetables, meat (particularly red meat), pungent vegetables like onions and garlic, and warming spices like ginger and chillies are yang foods. These can be very supportive in the colder months. In Chinese medicine, ill-health is thought to result from an imbalance of yin and yang. It is interesting that two of the conditions thought to be caused by too much yin food include lethargy and depression. It is perhaps no coincidence that these are conditions which we associate more with the colder, darker months. Eating more warming, yang foods can rebalance the body at this time of year, potentially reducing fatigue and depression.
I mentioned digestive “fire”. Many factors can cause our digestion to become weaker. Aging, chronic stress, poor thyroid function, nutrient deficiencies, autoimmune disease and imbalances in gut bacteria can all affect our ability to properly digest our food (1). Although raw food is high in nutrients and enzymes, for some people too much can be difficult to digest. This can result in bloating, gas, indigestion or discomfort. If this is the case for you, it’s important to work to optimise your digestive capabilities so that you can absorb the maximum amount of nutrients from whatever foods you eat. In the meantime, however, autumn is a key time to nourish yourself by eating more cooked foods as digestion may be more difficult when it is cold.
Whatever the time of year, seasonal eating has additional benefits. By buying food which has been grown locally and in season we can benefit from:
• Cheaper produce
• Better taste
• Higher nutrient content – some nutrients are lost when food is stored
• A greater variety of foods – amongst other things, this helps our microbiome!
• A lower carbon footprint – less lighting and heating are required
Moving to eating seasonally can also be a prompt to reconsider other aspects of your diet. Are you eating foods in their whole states as nature intended, or are your cupboards and fridge full of processed “food”? How many pesticides and herbicides are on your food? Are there certain foods which you suspect you don’t tolerate very well?
If you’re a city-dweller like me, it can be difficult to keep track of what’s in season. Eat Seasonably is a good resource to start you off, and includes a calendar showing what produce is seasonal at any given time of year as well as tips on growing your own seasonal veg.
You can find local, seasonal produce at your local farm shop or farmers’ market. If you can’t find one nearby, you could consider joining a vegetable box scheme. I love my weekly Riverford organic veg box – we eat absolutely everything in it and I actually enjoy being “forced” to cook and eat vegetables I wouldn’t normally choose. Of course, other veg box schemes are available, and you may find that there is a local scheme in your area.
And of course, assuming you’re a better gardener than I am, you could always grow your own!
(1) Murray, M.T. (2013). ‘Maldigestion’. In Pizzorno, J.E. and Murray, M.T. (2013). Textbook of Natural Medicine. 4th edition. Missouri: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone.