When the mercury starts climbing and you find yourself itching for a juicy slice of tomato, that may be more than your taste buds talking.
It might be your body’s way of telling you the nutrients it needs.
That’s according to Susan Rappaport, nutrition counselor and founder of NuYu Revolution, an exercise studio in New York City.
Rappaport is describing a theory known as seasonal eating.
The idea goes beyond eating simply the fruits and vegetables that are in season because they are less expensive or taste better.
Indeed, Rappaport says we should eat what’s in season because it’s designed to supply our bodies with exactly what we need when we need it most.
“We get certain vitamins and warmth from the sun, so when there is less daylight, it is important for us to eat foods that supplement this deficiency, as well as those that keep us warm,” she told Healthline. “And equally, when there is an abundance of sunlight, it is important that we supplement our bodies with foods that protect us from the sun as well as keep us cool.”
Take summer, for example.
Rappaport says during warm months we spend a great deal more time outdoors. We’re more active and we have more daylight hours. We also sweat more.
In turn, nature gives us some of the most hydrating foods of the year —watermelon, berries, cucumbers among them. It also gives us foods with rich sources of carbohydrates, such as peaches, melon, and corn.
In the fall and winter, when things begin to cool off and days become shorter, we crave fewer juicy melons and crisp salads.
Instead, our bodies gravitate toward warming foods such as vegetable soup, stews, grains, nuts, and avocado.
Fall also brings us the biggest harvest of apples, a fruit that’s filled with fiber and pectin to help us digest those bulkier foods we’re eating for warmth.
There’s also the citrus crop of winter that brings with it large doses of vitamin C, one of nature’s best protectors against the many bacteria and viruses that lurk in the colder months.
Rappaport says when we eat seasonally—consuming fruits and vegetables at the time nature gives them to us—our bodies benefit by becoming stronger, healthier, and happier.
All of these factors can improve balance and possibly lead to weight loss.
“[Seasonal eating] gives us a daily dose of vitamins in its most pure form,” Rappaport says. “It makes us more aware of our body’s needs, and it brings our physical and nutritional well-being front and center. When we get what we need, we feel better and more energized.”
Do our body’s needs really change with the season?
“Current theories would lead you to believe that it does change,” Dr. Luiza Petre, a board-certified cardiologist, and weight loss and management specialist, told Healthline. “However, there are too many variables involved, including where you live, your age, current state of health, weight, and activity level that all contribute to your nutritional needs no matter what the season is.”
If our needs changed, it might stand to reason our energy consumption (that is, how much we eat every day) might also change. However, that’s not what research suggests.
In fact, a 2015 study found that participants ate about 2,200 calories every day, regardless of the season. Likewise, the study’s authors said in their findings, “Intakes of energy, macronutrients, micronutrients, and food groups did not differ between seasons.”
In other words, the nutrients we eat in the summer are often the same as what we eat in winter.
That, Rappaport says, is less about natural cycles and more about habits.
If given the opportunity and experience with listening to our bodies’ natural cues, she contends we’d learn to eat seasonally and turn more toward the foods that are available during nature’s cycles.
We’d soon find these natural sources of nutrients provide us with far greater energy than what we eat strictly out of habit, she says.
What is clear is that locally grown seasonal foods are better sources of vitamins and minerals than counterparts grown out of season or grown elsewhere and shipped hundreds or thousands of miles to our grocery stores.
“Seasonal foods that are grown locally may have a slightly better nutrient profile since certain nutrients, such as vitamin C, can become depleted with prolonged storage,” Summer Yule, a nutrition communications specialist, told Healthline. “In addition, local foods may taste better if they are fresher.”
“Purchasing in-season locally grown foods may benefit the environment by decreasing the transportation and fuel needed to get the food to the store,” Yule adds.
Rappaport says you can stick as closely, or even as loosely, to the idea of seasonal eating as you like, but the closer you follow nature’s cycle, the better you’re likely to feel.
And if nothing else, seasonal eating is a good way to get tasty food with a lower impact on the planet—and your wallet.
“I think the idea of seasonal eating does make sense and can provide a great base for planning the fruits and vegetables to include in meals,” Yule says. “That said, it can still be healthy to include some foods that are not in season where you are. Depending on where you live, it may even be advisable to include some of these foods.”
Yule, who lives in the northeastern United States, says a truncated growing season makes it necessary to seek seasonal produce from other parts of the country for a portion of the year.
“Including other [seasonal] foods can be helpful to achieve a more balanced diet,” she says. “Freezing some of the summer’s offerings to use in the winter can also be a helpful way to eat more local foods all year.”
Kimberly Holland is a freelance journalist and editor. This article was originally published on Healthline.com