About a year ago I decided to alter my diet and activity level based upon the season. I was motivated by the differences I saw in the approaches to paleolithic diets. Some of my nutritional mentors favored higher fat levels, some higher protein levels and others had a more relaxed opinion to carbohydrates. Instead of picking a favorite, I theorized that I could reconcile the different beliefs by altering the approach based upon the season.
The outstanding book Lights Out: Sleep, Sugar and Survival helped me outline my seasonal approach. From my review:
Lights Out is mostly about the evolutionary and hormonal aspects to light and sleep. Longer days (more light) tell the body via hormones that it is summer and that means eat sugar now before winter comes. Shorter days (less light) tell the body to sleep more and eat less.
The short version is summer is for growth and winter is for repair. More carbohydrates are available in the summer. Less in the winter. We are more active in the summer and rest more in the winter. At least we are supposed to. Artificial light and access to endless supplies of food year round have put modern man in a constant hormonal state of summer. This is not ideal for fat loss or health in general. From that same review:
The problem is we are not only in constant Summer Mode from endless supplies of carbohydrates, we are in constant Summer Mode from excessive lighting and shortened winter sleep cycles. Winter Mode is for repair. When that repair doesnt happen (no Winter Mode), it can result in obesity, cancer and mental illness.
Nephropal wrote an excellent primer on Summer vs Winter Mode.
Summer in Seattle
- Fall Strategies For Nutrition and Fitness
- Winter Strategies For Nutrition and Fitness
- Spring Strategies For Nutrition and Fitness
- Summertime is Not the Season To Lean Out
How Did I Do?
I was able to get to get to the leanest point of my adult life using this method. During the winter months I had some of the deepest and most relaxing sleep ever. For me the experiment was a rewarding experience. I had no problem following the seasonal approach, but I am probably a special case. I was already lean to start with and had no night time commitments during the winter months.
Although I think taking a seasonal approach will have a positive effect on ones health, I don’t think this plan is viable for most. Modern life and culture make demands upon us that our Paleolithic ancestors never had to deal with. Since most of us are in endless Summer Mode, the season we need to repair the most is Winter. Here are the 2 most important seasonal steps you can take during the winter to improve your health.
- Sleep more and reduce exposure to artificial light at night and in the evening.
- Reduce your carbohydrate intake. Less activity and more rest means fewer carbs.
What “Winter” means can vary from person to person. For someone in perfect health, they may use the calendar definition. For others in poor health, they may extend their “Winter” to undo the damage caused by a lifetime of endless hormonal Summer. Also, how far you live from the Equator will play a role.
I am a few months into testing a new strategy that combines the best ideas from the seasonal approach with the flexibility of modern life. The new plan is more in line with my Minimal Effort Approach. If it goes well, I’ll share it in a future post.
UPDATE: My newest strategy is The Paleo/HIT Cyclical Approach to Fitness and Nutrition.
Jul 28, 2011 — 11:37 am
Thanks for this.
I guess its no wonder I prefer winter to summer.
Aug 4, 2011 — 6:23 am
I just came across your site last night and now I’m going through the archives – you’ve got a lot of great material here. I’m very interested in your take on seasonal eating – I’ve wanted to try eating seasonally for some time now, but I’d been looking at it from a different perspective – since grains and root vegetables store so well (and are generally harvested near the end of summer), I’d been thinking that winter would be the carb-heavy season, while summer would be based more on fresh vegetables and some fruits (meat consumption would be about the same for both).
Your take makes a lot of sense from a Paleo standpoint, especially once I checked out Nephropal’s post. I agree completely with the big picture – summer is the season for growth and action, winter is the “lean season” for rest and repair. I’m wondering, though – if we’re cutting back on carbs, what’s in season in winter besides meat? By the time November rolls around here in VT, the only thing to eat outside is snow. It’d seem a little contradictory to make an effort to eat seasonally only to buy vegetables from Peru to avoid going 100% carnivorous.
Aug 4, 2011 — 8:10 am
@Dan – Your points about storing grains, root veggies and probably legumes makes sense if one applies a modern twist to the seasonal approach. Like others in the Paleo world, I am anti-grain and have reservations about legumes. Root veggies make sense.
Besides meat, I am a big fan of fermented veggies. There are recipes on this site for kimchi and sauerkrauts. They are the perfect solution to winter veggie storage. I also am OK with fermented dairy. Being heavily carnivorous during winter months in cold climates makes sense.
After I year doing this, I came to the conclusion that most of the benefits will come from sleeping more and cutting out the sugar. More carbs in the summer and less in the winter.