During the winter months, keeping warm isn’t our only health challenge. Maintaining adequate nutrition proves to be a bit more challenging, and it’s especially vital during the months when the common cold, flu, and now COVID are more transmissible.
Shopping locally during the summer months is excellent for the environment, and it enables you to get optimal nutrition because your produce was likely harvested not long before you purchased it. Depending on where you live, winter produce is usually off the vine or out of the ground up to 10 days before consumers purchase it. That doesn’t mean you can’t stay healthy during the winter.
Read below for some tips on how to stay on top of your nutrition during the cold season.
1. Learn About the Nutritional Lifeline of Produce
According to the California Department of Food Agriculture, Salinas Valley and Imperial Valley of Central California produce most of the United States’ ‘plant-share,’ including over a third of US vegetables and two-thirds of the country’s fruits and nuts. Lettuce, in particular, is most commonly cultivated in California, with over 90 percent coming up from the Central Valley. So, what does it mean if you live on the East Coast and that head of romaine you bought the other day at Whole Foods has traveled over 3,000 miles?
Once harvested, fruits and vegetables continue to ‘breathe.’ This process, known as respiration, breaks down stored organic materials such as carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, subsequently leading to the loss of nutrients (as well as flavor). Warm, dry air can also speed this process considerably, so keeping produce cool and moist is important.
The longer produce has to breathe before consumed, the less likely it is to retain its original nutritional value. This means that the nutritional profile of that lettuce head in your fridge is not as dense as it was when it started its journey. But fear not, it doesn’t mean your body will starve for nutrition. Later on, I’ll cover some helpful nutrition tips and take a deeper look into the nutritional journey of your winter fruits and veggies.
Sticking with that head of romaine as an example: romaine is an excellent source of Vitamins A and C, as well as magnesium and phosphorous, making it an incredible boost for your immune system and gut microbiome (not to mention a great increase for your skin’s collagen production!).
However, vitamins are very fragile, particularly once they are harvested and start to oxidize. Vitamin C, in particular, can begin depleting almost immediately once it’s plucked from the ground. According to a University of California Davis study, vegetables can lose 15 to 55 percent of Vitamin C within a week. As for other veggies, spinach can lose 90 percent of its Vitamin C within the first 24 hours of being harvested. Broccoli loses 50 percent of its Vitamin C content within one week of harvest.
On average, produce shipments from California to the East Coast can take up to a week and often creep up to 10 days. In that time, there’s no guarantee that a head of lettuce is stored in a way that prevents as much oxidation as possible. Therefore, by the time it’s reached your supermarket produce section, that head of romaine lettuce may only have a fraction of its original nutritional profile. Keep reading for some tips on how to stay nutritious this winter and plan for next winter.
2. Learn How to Get Most Nutritious Produce
Eating as locally as possible is certainly one solution to the conundrum of getting ample nutrition. Plus, eating locally is one of the most significant ways to support local farmers and reduce your footprint. Check your local farmers’ markets, as many run year-round. The Chicago Farmers Markets, for example, run through the winter, though with a slightly scaled-back selection. The Union Square Farmers Market in New York City is another market that runs 12 months a year.
If you live in an area without a winter market, keep in mind that eating your greens with even a fraction of the nutrition they would have fresh off the vine is still better than not eating them at all! If it’s a choice between no vegetables at all or partially nutritious veggies, always choose vegetables!
Frozen fruits and vegetables are also a great way to access produce that’s retained higher nutrition levels. Berries, in particular, are plucked from the vine and put into freezer bags within the same day. In the case of broccoli, you are more likely to get 50% more Vitamin C from a frozen varietal than you would from broccoli off the regular refrigerated section of your supermarket.
Remembering our ‘Clean 15, Dirty Dozen’, buy organic for the prioritized produce whenever possible. This video from the BBC depicts an interview with an expert nutritional researcher and explores the comparison of fresh produce versus frozen- particularly looking at the density of Vitamin C (spoiler alert: frozen veggies take the prize!). Since the frozen approach involves a bit higher of a footprint in single-use packaging, check out this guide for a “Zero-Waste Kitchen.”
As we move through the winter and spring seasons, you may be considering a summer CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) share. Perhaps you’re even receiving advertisements already for Summer ’22. As you explore price options, it might be worth it to consider a full share – as opposed to half share- and freezing about a quarter to one half of your weekly bundle for next winter of 2023 (yes, it sounds crazy to think ahead, but maybe worth it!).
If you live in a place with good ‘pick-your-own’ options, consider picking a large bunch of berries next summer and freezing a good portion of them. Except for lettuce and dark leafy greens, all fruit and vegetables can be frozen. Check out this guide for how to freeze your summer harvest in anticipation of winter.
3. Don’t Knock Root Vegetables So Quickly
Eating locally during the winter may not be as non-nutritious as you might think. While it’s important to get in your cruciferous leafy greens any time of year, the plants that are seasonal to winter are still abundant in essential vitamins and amino acids. Root vegetables are incredibly diverse, delicious, and offer a wide range of impressive health benefits!
Dr. T. Colin Campbell, the author of the famous and influential China Study, has described the great nutrition of potatoes; yes, plain old white potatoes, which we would all think is the least nutritious plant food. Potatoes offer prebiotic resistant starch, which acts very similarly to soluble fiber and even can help to expand short-chain-fatty-acids (SCFAs). Both are vital to maintaining a healthy gut (keep in mind that your gut health is the center of your immune health, which is key to staying healthy, especially during winter).
Sweet potatoes contain 65% of your Vitamin C DV (daily value). Even better is to cook the sweet potatoes with the skin on, which is where the bulk of that nutrition lives. Whether you’re partial to yams, purple sweet potatoes, or orange sweet potatoes, you’re getting powerful antioxidants like beta-carotene, Vitamin B6, and potassium.
The so-called “blue zones” of the world (the pockets of the world with the greatest longevity) eat sweet potatoes almost daily. In Okinawa, Japanese sweet potatoes are a staple to the diet. Feel free to ditch the anti-carb mentality and dig into some delicious sweet potato recipes!
And don’t forget about beets, which are loaded with Vitamin A, potassium, and antioxidants; Borscht, anyone? (key tip – don’t throw away or compost the greens from the beets; they’re incredibly nutritious and make for a nice sharp pesto dip!)
Don’t forget cabbage either, which contains more Vitamin C than oranges. It’s also chock-full of probiotics that, when fermented, proliferate and become a living and incredible food for your gut health. Check out our guide for getting started on fermenting!
4. Get a Vitamin D Supplement
Last but not least, don’t forget about a Vitamin D supplement to get you through winter. Vitamin D is vital for bone health, calcium absorption, mood, and immunity (perhaps even more so than Vitamin C). That being said, it’s important not to go overboard with Vitamin D as it’s fat-soluble, and if your body builds up too much, your body won’t be able to cleanse off the superfluous Vitamin D that it doesn’t need. 2,000 IU of Vitamin D3 is the general recommendation. Try to get 20 minutes of sunshine as many days as you can.
5. Don’t Forget About Food Storage
Extending the longevity of your produce can help ensure the retention of its essential nutrition. Be sure to check out our guide for tips on food storage to help in this process! For quick reference, some suggestions on produce storage include Rubbermaid Freshworks (BPA-free plastic refrigerator containers with ‘FreshVent’ technology to regulate airflow), VejiBags (Organic cotton vegetable and fruit refrigerator bags), or BluApple Produce Saver Balls (an organic food preservative packet that’s placed in the crisper drawer). All of these methods will not only preserve your produce and its nutritional profile but will help to reduce food waste, a significant environmental polluter.
Overall, remember not to stress it! Still eat a diversified diet of raw foods, cooked foods, greens, root veggies, and fruits. Any amount of plant food will be better than none at all! Stay well and enjoy the winter season, and before you know it, spring will be here!
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