Changing the world, one meal at a time
Ever watch kids pluck green beans off the vine and gobble them up like candy? The pleasures of wholesome food go beyond good taste and good health. Eating well--fresh, uncontaminated, responsibly produced food--is as good for the Earth and other species as it is for our bodies.
Watch this video clip from GoGreenTube to learn more about shopping for healthy food.
- Keep it simple. What should we eat to be healthy? It may seem complicated, but it's basically common sense. Nutrition scientist and food writer Marian Nestle boils it down to ten words: "eat less, move more, eat lots of fruits and vegetables." Journalist Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food, puts it slightly differently: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." (By "food" he means fresh whole food, not processed food products.)
- Grow your own food. In 1943, with the country's resources devoted to the war effort, Americans planted 20 million victory gardens, producing 40% of the country's fresh food. In the 21st century, there's been a resurgence of victory gardens, as more people look for ways to free their families from rising food prices and uncertainties about food safety. Of course, the main reason for planting a vegetable garden hasn't changed: it's hard to beat the taste of a juicy tomato still warm from the sun or peas that go straight from the garden to the pot. Growing food at home covers the gamut from potted herbs on the windowsill to vegetable beds and fruit trees to poultry and other small livestock. If you wind up with an abundance of basil or chard, pass some to your neighbors--you might get homemade jam or fresh eggs passed back.
- Eat whole food. That means unprocessed or minimally processed food that is close to its natural state. Think fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts, whole grains, and unprocessed meat, poultry, and fish. Whole foods typically contain more vitamins, minerals, and fiber than processed, packaged foods and few or no additives. As Nestle points out in her book, What to Eat, "heavy processing does three things to food: diminishes the nutritional value of the basic ingredients; adds calories from fats and sugars; and disguises the loss of taste and texture with salt, artificial colors and flavors, and other additives." Whole food also tends to have a lower carbon footprint than processed food because less fossil fuel-based energy goes into producing it.
- Eat local. Eating food grown in your region is a terrific way to reduce your carbon footprint. The New York Times reports that if you live in Iowa, the carrot in your salad likely traveled 1,600 miles from California, the chuck roast came 600 miles from Colorado, and that side of baked potato covered 1,200 miles getting from the Idaho soil to your plate. So how do you go about reducing food miles? Grow some of your own food. Also, shop at farmer's markets and farm stands, and look into becoming a member of a community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm. When you join a CSA, you pay in advance for a weekly box filled with ripe produce from the farm. The box may be delivered to your home or to a neighborhood pick-up spot. The farmer gets a stable source of income and you get delicious food from near your home.
- Buy organic. Once a niche market, organic food has become big business, with U.S. sales exceeding $30 billion annually. Organic farmers don't use synthetic pesticides or fertilizers that degrade the soil, contaminate waterways, harm non-target species, and endanger the health of farm workers and people who eat the food.
- Take care with kids. Children, in part because of their smaller body mass, are even more susceptible to the harm caused by pesticides and mercury. For this reason, take special care when thinking through meals for your entire family.
- Organics cost more than conventionally produced food, so if your budget is tight, focus on choosing organic when you buy what the Environmental Working Group calls the "dirty dozen," the 12 fruits and vegetables most contaminated with pesticide residue: peaches, apples, sweet bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, lettuce, imported grapes, pears, spinach, and potatoes. To see if the produce is organic, look at the PLU (product look-up) number on the item's sticker, twist-tie, or bag. If it begins with 9, it's organic.
- For decades, health advocates have exhorted us to eat more fish. It's low in saturated fat, rich in healthy omega-3 fatty acids, and a good source of protein, minerals, and vitamins. But these days the arguments for eating fish aren't so cut and dried. Many species, especially tuna, swordfish, and shark, are poisoned with mercury (much of which comes from emissions from coal-burning power plants). Mercury contamination is especially harmful to developing fetuses.The environmental news about fish is equally dire. According to WWF, an international conservation group, the populations of all species currently fished for food will collapse by 2048 if humans don't dramatically change our fishing and fish consumption practices.Unfortunately, fish farming has not turned out to be a panacea. Huge quantities of wild fish are caught to feed farmed fish, exacerbating overconsumption problems. Waste from fish farms contaminates the oceans, and the flesh of farmed fish may contain artificial dyes, as well as PCBs and other chemicals from industrial and agricultural waste.What to do? If you choose to eat fish, be a conscious consumer. The Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch provide handy lists of best and worst seafood choices that are tailored to regions of the country. Download the one that is right for you clicking on your region of the country - Hawaii, West Coast, Southwest, Midwest, Southeast, and Northeast. If you happen to live in the Midwest, you can also download the Right Bite Wallet Card of preferred fish provided by our partner, the Shedd Aquarium. In addition to containing ocean fish, it also contains advice on lake fish.
...to your health
Your health can be directly related to what you eat. Less meat in your diet reduces your risk of cancer and heart disease. Buying organic food and avoiding certain fish can reduce your exposure to pesticides and mercury. Eating locally likely ensures that your food will be fresher and more full of nutrients. And remember, avoiding pesticides and mercury and eating healthy is even more important for children.
...to your wallet
Buying whole foods that are in season usually costs less than buying processed foods or out-of-season imported foods. Organic food usually costs more than food grown with pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. But with giant retailers and agribusinesses getting into the organics game, the cost of pesticide-free food is coming down.
...to the Earth
Responsible food consumption can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, support environmentally sound agriculture and aquaculture practices that conserve soil and protect waterways, and transform the inhumane and unsustainable practices in the livestock and fishing industries. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the livestock sector produces 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions--more than the transportation sector. What's more, livestock uses 30% of the planet's land surface, forests are being cleared at an alarming rate to create pastures to grow corn and soy for animal feed, and the livestock industry is one of the major polluters of fresh water and even the oceans.
Buying organics at the store but using pesticides at home. Whether you're growing your own food or just trying to keep ants out of the kitchen or thrips off your roses, nix the nasty pesticides. Unhealthy chemicals don't belong anywhere near your food, your kids or your pets.
Changing to a healthier, more environmentally responsible diet doesn't mean you have to go whole hog. If you do, in fact, you risk becoming overwhelmed and slipping back into old habits. Try making one positive change this month that feels manageable: cutting out two meat meals per week, for instance, or buying organic milk, or steering clear of fast food restaurants. Next month, add another positive step, like shopping at a farmer's market one Saturday morning or taking fresh fruit to work a few days a week so you're less tempted to grab that jelly donut. The following month . . . well, you get the idea.