I live in the Eastern Sierra, where I go on big backcountry climbing missions. For years, my go-to fuel was bars, gels and energy blocks, packaged oatmeal, and dehydrated meals. And while these foods delivered try-hard power, my blood sugar would crash and I’d get stomachaches. In 2017, I began taking portable, easy-to-digest whole foods—sweet-potato balls, egg-and-veggie muffins, cashew-stuffed dates, brown-rice balls with feta, figs, and home-dehydrated veggie and meat curries.
I quickly noticed the difference, whether it was at the gym, boulders, or sport crags, or on those backcountry days. I experienced less systemic inflammation—my fingers didn’t swell as much, my muscles didn’t get as tight after climbing, and subtle, chronic tendonitis issues abated. I also had better digestion, climbed harder, and recovered faster. Along the way—and piggybacking off my six years as a nutritionist—I’d reconnected with a wisdom our bodies have known all along: Real food will always be better than processed food or supplements.
Traditional Chinese Medicine and Seasonal Eating
When we eat foods in their whole form, we access their complete nutrient profile, from vitamins and minerals, to fiber, to phytochemicals (substances plants produce to protect themselves). Likewise, certain age-old principles still have merit, one being to eat foods during their growing season. Doing so reconnects you with nature’s cycle—seasonal changes in growing conditions are considered essential for balancing Earth’s resources and life forms.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), a strong influence in my nutrition practice, seasonal eating is essential. In Healing with Whole Foods: Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition, Paul Pitchford writes, “Seasonal eating benefits organ health, as each season is associated with a flavor that corresponds to certain organ(s) of the body.” For example, in spring, it’s recommended that you eat sweet, pungent foods to stimulate the liver. In summer, cooling, pungent foods benefit the heart and small intestine. In autumn, sour-tasting foods support the lungs and large intestine. And in winter, the focus falls on bitter flavors to benefit the kidneys and bladder. The take-home from TCM is that by synchronizing our eating with the seasons, we follow the natural method of detoxing and maintaining/strengthening the body.
We climbers looking for that performance edge, but who also care about our long-term health, should aim for foods at their 'shun.'
Japanese Shun and Local Eating
The Japanese are some of the world’s healthiest and longest-living people—according to the article “The Economic Effects of Aging in the United States and Japan,” the prevalence of heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, and obesity is much higher in the U.S. despite similar standards of living and health care. Estimates by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research show that Japan is also home to the world’s largest population of centenarians. One factor is the Japanese diet, which follows traditional, seasonal eating habits. Foods that are in season are at their nutritional peak: the Japanese shun. As soon as produce is picked, it starts to lose nutrients in a process known as senescence—deterioration—during which the plant cells lose their power of division and growth.
The more time that passes, the greater the deterioration—think of nonlocal, nonseasonal produce that has to be shipped, sometimes from another country (e.g., year-round blueberries and oranges). For example, refrigerated spinach loses half its folate after about a week, and unrefrigerated spinach loses even more. Citrus like oranges and grapefruits contains the most vitamin C during harvest season, which in the U.S. typically runs from late fall through early spring. Vitamin C is sensitive to light, heat, and even air, so the more time oranges spend in transport or sitting on shelves, the more they oxidize and shed vitamin C.
Additionally, many out-of-season fruits and vegetables are harvested before they’re ripe, and then sprayed with synthetic solutions like wax to prolong shelf life. This processing further compromises nutritional integrity and burdens your body by introducing artificial compounds. Organic food—grown without harsh chemicals and additives—is always preferable.
We climbers looking for that performance edge, but who also care about our long-term health, should aim for foods at their shun. Moreover, prioritizing local, seasonal eating, supports your local economy—farmers, grocers—and reduces the energy used for transportation and storage.
If seasonal foods are more nutrient-dense, then wild, foraged foods are some of the best options. Additionally, wild eating—harvesting wild-growing plants, seeds, and fungi—is an amazing way to connect with the land, and a perfect activity on a rest day. Options range from morels, asparagus, blueberries, nettles, onions, and edible flowers, to pine nuts, chestnuts, cattails, wild radish, etc.
Wild foraging doesn’t necessarily mean you find your food in some beautiful meadow; you might find edibles in a city lot or even at the crag. Educate yourself on wild edibles in your region—for example, watercress grows next to streams in Oakland, California. Research the water sources for these wild edibles, as well as which plants are rare, protected, or poisonous. And finally, don’t take more than 10 percent of a plant, to avoid over-harvesting.
Barriers: Food Deserts and Cost
Food deserts—areas with limited access to affordable, nutritious food (e.g., remote crags like the Red or Ten Sleep, city neighborhoods like those near rock gyms, etc.)—are one obstacle to eating right. They’re typically found in impoverished areas where predatory businesses sell cheap, processed foods coated in pesticides and preservatives. A factor that further complicates things: People living here often don’t have access to adequate transportation—and so they’re stuck buying whatever food is closest. Solutions include community and home gardens (using window boxes, balconies, or pots) and cultivating plants native to the region.
Then there’s cost. Penny-conscious climbers might perceive fast food, boxed food, and junk food as most affordable. However, let’s compare Hostess Donettes, which for $1.99 deliver 260 calories per 10-ounce serving, with apples, which in season cost around $1.30 a pound (three or four apples) and have 130 calories each. While the Donettes might cost about the same, they are nutritionally void, have high fat and carbohydrate content, and provide no vitamins or minerals—you can eat a lot of Donettes yet still be malnourished. Meanwhile, one large red apple has 0 fat, 29 grams of carbs, 5 grams of fiber, and 2 grams of protein, plus vitamins A and C, potassium, and iron.
Eating seasonal food might seem more expensive than non-seasonal eating, but during local growing seasons, fruits and vegetables are generally cheaper. For example, in December and January, oranges are in peak season and cheaper, while in summer they tend to be pricey. Thus an easier-on-the-pocketbook fresh fruit in summer would be watermelon, which is best (and cheapest) from May through September.
To eat seasonally at home and on the road, shop the grocery perimeter (where you find whole foods—fruits and veggies, nuts and seeds, meats and dairy), attend farmers’ markets, support farm stands and community-supported agriculture, and frequent restaurants and grocery stores that buy from regional farmers. Canning, dehydrating, freezing, and fermenting fresh fruits and vegetables are also excellent ways to preserve foods’ nutritional integrity.