Man holding crate of fruit and vegetables

Joanna Blythman: Plant-based diets don’t work in winter

Our columnist discusses the impact of vegan diets and seasonal British fruit and vegetables. Learn about which foods are in season during winter.

Ever since the clocks went back, my diet has adapted accordingly. The transition began inexorably when breakfast bowls of muesli with berries and nuts started to feel chilly and unappealing, so I moved onto hot, salty porridge topped with cream and full-fat milk.

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Now I’m relishing eggs, bacon, black pudding, kippers, the occasional cooked breakfast, or filling kedgeree, stiff with flakes of appetite-whetting smoked haddock. I’m in the mood for filling soups made from meat bones, and sticky stews – oxtail, Lancashire hotpot – maybe a lamb curry, or some slow-roast belly pork. It’s rich, hearty dishes like this that will sustain and cheer me and my nearest and dearest through cold midwinter days.

The common thread here is a seasonal shift to a wintry eating pattern that’s centred on animal foods. In the summer and autumn when market stalls, greengrocers, allotments, orchards, and kitchen gardens were operating at full tilt, vegetables and fruits were the natural cornerstone of my cooking, while meat and fish played second fiddle. When the sun was high in the sky, I considered a plate of cold salads to be an excellent and enticing lunch.

Back then, in summer, a casual observer could have mistaken me for a signed-up disciple of the plant-based creed. Not at the moment though. I’m still eating sauerkraut these days, but now I want it garnished with ham hock and sausages. Frankly, seen from the depths of UK winter, a plant-based diet is an impractical proposition. Although there are glimpses of light at the end of the tunnel in the form of February and March’s forced rhubarb and wild garlic, there’s not a fat lot of fruit and vegetable action to look forward to until April.

As an omnivore, I’m resigned to that because I can tart up the staple winter vegetables with meat, fish and eggs. But if I were truly ‘plant-based’, I’d be heartily sick of parsnips, squash and carrots by this point, and padding them out with starchy carbs and pulses, or falling back on processed foods, would do little to raise my spirits.

Of course, I can see that I’m making life difficult for myself here because I’m a locavore: someone who consciously builds their diet around fresh ingredients that are, if not strictly local, at least UK-produced. Being plantbased, indeed vegan, is much easier in one sense because you can ignore the realities of home production, take advantage of supermarkets’ global sourcing, and eat as if British seasons don’t exist. You just load up your trolley with everything from avocados and asparagus to pineapple and papaya, in the virtuous belief that despite all their attached food miles, you’re still doing your bit to combat climate breakdown by avoiding animal foods.

But surely populations around the world should align their diets to the productive capacity of their land? In the UK and Ireland, countries blessed with abundant green pasture, our forte is producing meat, dairy and eggs. And these nutritious, natural foods never go out of season. Surely we should make them the backbone of our diet, not turn our backs on them? After all, they reflect the ecology of the country we live in, and realistically, they are our key to building its self-sufficiency in food.

If you ask me, our current food conversation has become almost absurd when those who evangelise plant-based eating promote jackfruit, tinned in Thailand and shipped to these shores, as a meat-like substitute for real home-produced, grass-reared meat from the farmer or butcher on our doorstep. So put it this way, I’m a fair-weather friend of plant-based eating when the days are long and the air is warm. The rest of the year, I’m an omnivore.

Read more articles by Joanna Blythman

For health’s sake, please eat when you drink
The humble potato deserves more respect
Why ‘grass-fed’ isn’t as virtuous as it seems
Why I won’t use vegetable oil
Stop the vegan fake ‘meat’ copycats
There’s a lot of artisan fakery about

Do you prefer buying seasonal fruit and vegetables? Leave a comment below…


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Good Food contributing editor Joanna is an award-winning journalist who has written about food for 25 years. She is also a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4.