By Dr. Neil Sweigart
Here’s what we know. The United States is one of the unhealthiest of all developed countries, ranking 46th in life expectancy.
Life expectancy for males is 79.11 years, and for females is 81.65 years. Yet we spend twice as much per person on health care as any other country in the world.
Here’s what we can do to become a healthier nation. As Michael Pollan says in his book In Defense of Food, we should eat food that is not processed, packaged and loaded with preservatives. We should not overeat (obviously), and our food should mostly be plants (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes).
In previous articles, I elaborated on the beneficial effects of a plant-based diet. It not only improves our health by drastically reducing obesity, diabetes and heart disease but benefits the environment and helps reduce global warming. But we can do even more.
Living in southwest Indiana, we have available to us an abundance of locally grown produce. Melons (my favorite), apples, peaches, corn, green beans, lettuce, peppers, potatoes, mushrooms, zucchini, and much more. I almost forgot turnips. Have you ever tried my friend Alan’s turnip soup? It is unbelievably delicious.
While eating plant-based is very healthy, eating locally grown fruits and vegetables is even better. It promotes a safer food supply since fewer hands are involved from farm to table.
The following information comes from Michigan State University:
- Locally grown food is full of flavor. The crops are picked at their peak of ripeness versus being harvested early and shipped to your store.
- Eating local food is eating seasonally. Even though we wish strawberries were grown year-round, the best time to eat them is when they can be purchased directly from a grower. They are full of flavor and taste better.
- Local food has a shorter time between harvest and your table, and it is less likely that the nutrient value decreased. Studies show many of the food’s nutrients are formed as it ripens. But the moment it’s picked, sugars begin to convert to starch, plant cells start to shrink, and nutrients diminish.
- The money spent with local farmers and growers stays close to home.
- By purchasing locally grown foods, you help maintain farmland and green and/or open space near you.
- Local foods promote a safer food supply. Shipped food has the potential for safety issues at harvesting, washing, shipping and distribution.
- Local growers can tell you how the food was grown. You can ask what practices they use to raise and harvest the crops.
Rita Klivinsky of Michigan State University Extension offers these tips on buying local.
- Buy fruits and vegetables that are in season. When it’s winter in the northern hemisphere, it’s summer in the southern hemisphere. Summertime fruits and vegetables are in supermarkets in the winter … only when they are shipped from the opposite side of the world.
- If you like to eat summer foods in the winter, buy from the freezer section. The fruits and vegetables are frozen soon after harvest, and the cold helps retain their nutritional value. Or buy fresh produce when it is in season and freeze it yourself for the winter.
Most farmers market produce is picked within a day of market and sometimes the same morning. The food is fresher, healthier and more sustainably produced and sold directly to the consumer, possibly making it less expensive. The farmers market is a great place to teach children about healthy eating habits. Studies show that when children (and adults) are more involved with their food, they are more likely to eat their veggies and try something new.
If you’re like me, you’re looking forward to spring and the local farmers markets with great anticipation. Enjoy!