I started 2007 diving into Barbara Kingsolver and her family’s thought provoking tale of their year of seasonal eating. It reminded me of my more budget conscious years of being a student in shared houses when I become an accidental ‘locavore’. A group of us in similar living arrangements started an organic food buying collective, getting our produce directly from a family run farm in the Grampians. Our fresh fruit and vegetables were all seasonal, grown a couple of hours drive away and chemical free. Supermarket shopping was minimal and the remaining staples like grains and nuts came from Friends of the Earth. This minimal footprint fed about 50 people for ridiculously little. The fact it was organic and local was more a happy accident. But that time of eating in this way taught me that the avocadoes that I craved to eat on my homemade bread didn’t grow near by, tomatoes are abundant in summer/autumn and that you can become very creative cooking silverbeet when it is your winter green vegetable for weeks on end.
Fast forward a decade or so with global warming and soaring fuel costs, eating what is seasonal and locally grown makes sense for the health of the planet but is it healthier for us? Having lived through the experiment, which was limited to fresh food rather than all food, anecdotally it gets a big tick on the wellbeing scale. There are some caveats though and this largely depends on where you live, which will influence the diversity of your food intake. In temperate Australia with all year round availability of enough different fresh produce to provide our nutrients it is fine but in times of drought this can limit what we will ultimately consume. Rather than focusing on luxury extras, make sure you get a full rainbow of fruits and vegetables and enough vegetarian proteins for your bodily requirements.
Speaking of the drought – this winter was the first time I saw a proud sign touting conventionally grown, “not irrigated” oranges. Do we skip water guzzling Australian grown fruits or other plant foods such as rice in favour of the non-irrigated overseas produce, or do we take the food miles into account and skip it totally? The answer all depends on your ethical priorities. However advocates of the Palaeolithic diet would suggest you dump the grains for better health, not just the planet’s wellbeing. This theory traces the evolution of the body to a time before whole grains, legumes and dairy foods were regular features of our diet. An accidental spin-off from the ‘caveman diet’ as it is sometimes called, is one that is coeliac and dairy intolerance friendly but the antithesis of vegetarianism.
Countering the Palaeolithic way of eating are concerns about modern meat production. Peter Singer, academic, vegan and animal rights warrior co-authored last years publishing sensation “The Ethics of What we Eat”. Using a wide arsenal of ethical concerns including the environment and animal cruelty, this book will put you right off your bacon and eggs. But are vegetarians or vegans any healthier? Once again, it all depends on how you eat within the dietary limitations. There is strong evidence that a diet free of animal products is a sure fire cure for high cholesterol, with the benefit of reducing cardiovascular diseases (such as heart attacks and stroke). Further evidence suggests a vegetarian diet makes you less likely to be obese, have gallstones and less reproductive and bowel cancers. However a diet based on pasta and cheese is not going to be healthier, it is all about eating a variety of natural foods and supplementing if necessary with B12 and iron.
Even our more natural, ‘free range’ dairy farming gets the thumbs down when it comes to the wellbeing of the planet. Land clearance for stock, methane production of cows and the increasing issue of water make some Greenies rethink the inclusion of dairy foods, as well as meat, in their diet. With the rising incidence of dairy allergies and the increasing evidence that bone strength is not about consuming milk products many people could be healthier without this common food group.
So what about fish? Rich in omega 3 fatty acids and low in cholesterol this old favourite has become a born again health food. Unfortunately its popularity along with modern fishing techniques has depleted fish stocks in the wild. The move towards aquaculture initially got the ethical tick of approval but this also has had a rethink. It has been found that these pen grown fish in some cases live on a massive amount of wild caught fish. Secondly, sea based aquaculture (like our Atlantic salmon) creates havoc when the farmed fish escape into the ocean. A good summary of fish to avoid and the pros and cons of fish farming can be found at this ABC site. Health-wise deep sea fish tends to be richest in the great fats we needs, however these tend to be slow growing fish that are both easily depleted and also more prone to accumulating heavy metals from pollutants in the sea. While local fish such as flathead may not be as good an oil source, it makes for more ethical eating. As for farmed salmon, while European and North American grown sources have been found to be higher in contaminants and lower in good nutrition than it’s wild counterparts, it is very difficult to find analysis of our Australian farmed salmon. If anyone has any reliable data on this, please contact me.
Perhaps the most conflicting econutritional data is found in the organic versus conventionally grown food debate. Commonsense suggests that plants and animals farmed without chemicals should be healthier for us but a lot of money is invested in science attempting to prove the opposite. There is little debate that intensive agriculture depletes the earth of nutrients. To feed a hungry world, historical farming practices of crop rotation and seasonal eating have been dropped in favour of synthetic pesticides and fertilisers. A summary of some of the conventional versus organic health issues can be found at this medical website.
While pesticide residues have been linked to a significant increase in breast cancer and cited as a neurotoxin in children, there is conflicting evidence as to which conventionally grown foods are the worst contenders. On most lists strawberries, potatoes, lettuce and stone fruits come out as conventionally grown foods we should avoid. Corn and coffee are also of increasing concern.
Take home message: A diverse diet, using unprocessed foods creates a healthier nutritional profile. Eating locally and without processing cuts down on cost and can also make buying organic food more affordable. Ethically, if you choose to eat meat and eggs go for organic or true free range to reduce animal cruelty and possible toxin residues. Unless you are doing 8 hours of manual labour a day, eat meat less frequently and in smaller serves. Consider kangaroo over non-indigenous animals. Skip the flake and go for local, sustainable fish and seafood.
What makes good health is multi-factorial. Food is just one, however very important, aspect of our overall wellbeing. Stressing about our food may negate some of the health benefits.