Friday, June 8, 2012

Eating Locally: Healthier for You and the Planet

We know it’s best to feed our families foods that are both nutritious and good for the planet. But making these choices can be confusing with the information that makes it into the news.

Woman in red coat standing and holding and looking at plants
Woman looking at local plants.

We all hope to lead lives of integrity, with actions that align with values and beliefs. We believe in supporting the environment, and acting in healthful ways toward both the planet and ourselves. We know it’s best to feed our families foods that are both nutritious and good for the planet. 

But making these choices can be so confusing with the information that makes it into the news these days. Which is better – local, organic – or does it even matter? Should we stop eating fish since contamination seems pervasive? What about beef? Should we embrace plant-based diets in the wake of the pink slime scandal?

The good news is that by making a few simple choices you can move toward a healthier diet and planet.

Researchers and food activists believe the food that is best for us is also best for the planet. Whole, plant-based foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains are rich in variety, unprocessed and high in nutrients – and they’re also healthiest for the Earth when produced using sustainable practices.

Sustainability is defined as production that maintains and enhances natural resources. Water, energy, air, soil and land are considered when foods are produced in a sustainable manner. For example, animal protein like nonorganic beef requires pesticides, fertilizers and energy to produce, which takes a greater toll on the planet.

Eating well and sustainably is also a seasonal activity. Choosing fresh fruits and vegetables that are in season and grown in the Pacific Northwest can improve your diet and support sustainable farming practices. Summertime brings a bounty of foods to our dinner tables, and makes leaning toward a more healthful local diet an easy choice.

Follow these tips to increase the nutritional profile of your diet and soften your footprint on the planet:

Vary proteins – Shifting your daily intake away from the "least-efficient" proteins – beef and other animal products – to the "more-efficient" plant-based ones – grains, legumes, nuts and seeds – is healthful and reduces environmental pressure on the Earth's land and water resources. Gradually change your eating patterns to include more plant-based proteins like beans, legumes, nuts and seeds, and reduce your consumption of beef, chicken and fish. To get started, try a “meatless Monday”: one day a week with no meat.

Eating local improves food quality – Local foods are fresher, more flavorful and can be more nutritious than foods shipped from distant locations. According to most surveys, this reason tops most lists of those who choose to eat locally. In addition to the advantage in freshness, growers who produce for local customers need not give priority to harvesting, packing, shipping and shelf-life qualities, but instead can select, grow and harvest crops to ensure freshness, nutrition and taste. Eating locally encourages eating seasonally, in harmony with the natural energy of a particular place, which is becoming an important aspect of quality for those seeking to make a closer link between food consumption and the environment. Begin by visiting local farmers markets, which are abundant this time of year. A great resource is the Washington State Farmers Market Association website www.wafarmersmarkets.com.

Eat organic produce where it counts the most – One of the requirements for foods labeled organic is that no synthetic pesticides may be used on these crops unless they are on a list of approved substances. Similarly, to be certified organic, animals must be fed 100 percent certified organic feed and cannot be treated with hormones or antibiotics. There are clear health benefits to these rules: According to the National Academy of Sciences, more than 80 percent of the most commonly used pesticides have been classified as potentially carcinogenic, and many have been linked to an increased risk of birth defects and human reproductive problems.  

However, organic food is simply not always available or affordable. Start by buying organic when the conventional variety is known to contain high levels of pesticides. A great resource is the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” website at www.ewg.org/foodnews, which lists produce contamination levels and can help you decide where it counts most to choose organic. 

Eat whole foods – Choices include:

  • Fresh vegetables and fruits
  • Whole grains such as millet, brown rice, oats, rye, whole wheat, buckwheat, quinoa, cornmeal
  • Beans and legumes including lentils, chickpeas, kidney beans
  • Nuts and seeds

According to researchers, whole grains provide more protection from chronic diseases than any of their component nutrients used as supplements. Another major benefit of eating whole grains is slowing down the digestive process to allow better absorption of the nutrients. Whole foods are rich in fiber, which helps regulate blood sugar by slowing down the conversion of starches into glucose. Whole foods can also make favorable changes in the intestines, allowing healthful bacteria to keep disease-producing bacteria in check. Additionally, the strong antioxidant properties of fresh fruits and vegetables help protect the body and support proper functioning of the digestive and immune systems.

Eat home-cooked meals you make from scratch – Cook your own meals at home starting with fresh whole foods. By buying your own whole foods, preferably organic, you have the most control over how the ingredients in your meals are "processed." Home-cooked meals also tend to be less expensive and involve much less waste. Simple, whole foods recipes can be fast, easy and affordable. 

Try this simple, in-season whole foods recipe as a start toward your season of eating locally.

Shaved Asparagus and Radish Salad

1 bunch asparagus, large spears
3 to 4 small radishes (icicle radishes, if available)
1 T. lemon juice
1 t. lemon zest
1 T. balsamic vinegar
¼ c. extra-virgin olive oil
1 scant t. chopped, fresh marjoram
Salt and pepper to taste
¼ c. local goat cheese, crumbled
Edible flowers for garnish (borage, calendula or sage flowers)

On a cutting board, shave the asparagus lengthwise. Cut the radishes into quarters and mix with the asparagus in a bowl.

Add the lemon juice, zest, vinegar, oil, marjoram, salt and pepper to a jar. Twist the lid on tight and shake well. Drizzle some of the dressing to your taste over the asparagus and radishes. Pile the asparagus and radishes up on a salad plate, much like pasta. Scatter some cheese over the top and garnish with the edible flowers. Serve with crusty bread.

Recipe Credit:  Becky Selengut, PCC Cooks

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