Updated: Sep 15, 2018
This past weekend, my partner and I took his kids to the annual Golden Harvest festival in our little town outside of Syracuse, NY. It was great: apple cider and fresh made donuts, bluegrass bands, flannel shirts and hay rides. All that is best in Upstate NY this time of year. As we walked around in the now crisp September air, I was thinking: when the heck did fall show up?? It was 90 degrees and sunny last week! Well, us New Yorkers know that’s how it goes this time of year. The weather changes fast, and we go from Summer to Fall in just a couple of weeks. But this time, however, the transition time, is my favorite time of year. It’s the time of year when the food bounty of our fertile corner of NY is at its best. The tomatoes are still coming in strong, but the pumpkins, winter squash and apples are happy reminders that the holidays are well on their way. All of this was going through my head last Sunday, and I thought it would be a good time to write about the value of bioregional eating.
What does that mean? And why is it important? Let’s tackle these questions together…
The theory behind bioregional eating is twofold. The first part is the idea that as human beings, we evolve with our environments. All living things do this, not just us. So for example, a person whose family lineage is from East Asia evolved with a very different natural environment (and therefore different food available) than a person whose background is German. Furthermore, the culture histories of each place (including war, famine, religious tradition, trade, etc.) have had lasting effects on which biological traits have been passed down through families. Why does all this matter for what we eat? Well, as time went on, our bellies have all gotten used to eating a certain way depending on where we lived. Going back to our example, my Chinese roommate in college never was very good at handling dairy products but food didn’t taste good to her until she poured a whole bottle of hot sauce on it. On the other hand, my grandmother’s German genes put cheese on everything, but the littlest flake of chili pepper caused her great discomfort in the bathroom. We call these evolutionary differences in tolerances, taste and temperament the “ancestral gut”: meaning we evolved to eat a certain way based on where our ancestors lived, and therefore which foods were environmentally and culturally available to them. This not only shapes our ability to physically tolerate certain foods, but also has had a lasting impact on what our bodies need. This is where it gets good. My dietary needs, meaning which foods keep me healthy and which foods make me sick, are probably going to be different than those of my roommate. If we both ate the same block of cheese, she is going to be more prone to high cholesterol because of that diet choice than I am. If we both ate the same plate of rice, I am going to be more prone to insulin resistance because of that choice than she is. Starting to make sense? All of this means that there is a genetic component to what we are supposed to be eating, and those genes are attached at the hip to where in the world our families evolved. Therefore, being mindful of the question “Where am I from?” can help guide healthy food choices, and is part of bioregional eating.
The second part of the theory is the part that most of us are familiar with, but there is more to it than you might think! When we think of “eating local” or “eating in season”, we think of farmer’s markets flooded with fresh produce from the farm down the road, or maybe we think of that turkey on the table in November at the height of turkey season. Wherever our mind goes, we instantly make the connection that these “local” and “seasonal” choices are for some reason healthier for us. But why? The obvious answer is because you’re getting fresh food directly from the source, unprocessed, often times organic, pastured, antibiotic free, etc. But this is only scratching the surface of the answer. Here’s the rest: because local food is local, the ability to grow it, raise it, hunt it or fish it is completely dependent on where you live. You cant grow peppers in upstate NY in the middle of winter. This is the seasonal component of bioregional eating! When you eat locally, it forces you to eat with the seasons. Ok, we got it. But why is eating seasonally such a big deal?
Let’s break this down, because it’s a tricky one. We talked about how our bellies evolve through our families based on where they lived, but there’s more to our dietary needs than just that. The first answer was based on genetics: this one is based on biology, in particular the idea of symbiosis. Different scientists have used this term differently throughout history (in 1877 it was used to demonstrate the relationship between types of lichens), but my favorite definition came in 1879 from a German scientist named Heinrich Anton de Bary, who defined it as “the living together of unlike organisms”. We of course do this every day. In the northeast we live with maple trees, apples, deer and blueberries. In Oregon the landscapes are covered with pine trees and grizzly bears. In Florida they live with palm trees, mangos and the occasional flamingo. All of these relationships matter, even if we vain humans think they do not. We are constantly playing off the needs of one another, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly over generations. We create a give and take: and it affects our bellies, just like it affects the maple tree in my back yard. What does this mean for our diets? It means that my dietary needs are not only different than my college roommates’, but they are different than my friends that live in Oregon. The relationships my “Northern blood” has formed with this part of the world (even though my family is not originally from here) demand that to stay healthy, I need to eat those tomatoes in the Summer. I need to eat those pumpkins in the fall. I need to eat that venison in the Winter and I need to eat fresh baby dandelion greens in the Spring. In short, my ability to live a healthy life in the Northeast is dependent on eating things this area offers at certain times of the year. This is the secret behind eating local, and eating in season. It’s also what makes Thanksgiving such an important experience for Americans living in the Northeast. There is a biologically and nutritionally significant reason why heavy foods such as pumpkins, turkey and apples are eaten by us in the late fall: they give our bodies what they need to carry us from a time of great plenty to a time of scarcity. Its no coincidence, then, that they just happen to be “in season” this time of year. You'll also notice its also difficult to grow apples and pumpkins in Florida: but Florida's hot climate is the perfect place to grow oranges and lemons, both of which have cooling properties that help keep Southern residents from overheating in the Summer. None of this is an accident.
So here we are at the end. What are the takeaway points from all of this? Let’s number them, shall we?
1. Know your family history. Know where you came from, and know that this place will shape your dietary needs.
2. Pay attention to what is in season at the market near you. If you are a meat eater, ask a farmer, hunter or fisher which meats are in season at certain times of the year in your area. Try to focus on eating at least some of those foods at the “right” times of the year.
3. Finally, remember the role of culture. So much of our food choices are shaped by our experiences as humans, and its ok to celebrate that! When you eat culturally, just like when you eat bioregionally, you are participating in a special experience that makes you who you are. Embrace it.