Given that we eat several times every day, we should all be food experts. But it turns out that many of us don’t know much about our food including where it came from, the method of preparation, or the quality and nutritional value. We are increasingly disconnected from our food, a fact that has implications for our health and the health of the environment. We should all try to learn more about the food we eat and the impact it has on our health, environment, and quality of life. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.
Our lack of knowledge about the food we eat has been replaced by a heightened awareness about nutrients. In fact, many people follow diets that either emphasize or restrict certain nutrients to obtain health benefits. But the research to support the importance of these individual nutrients is often mixed or lacking altogether. Still, as we seek out sources of these nutrients we turn to supplements, such as fish oil, or processed foods with added nutrients, like fiber.
To be sure, fish oil and fiber are good for us. But does that mean that taking a fish oil supplement will have the same health benefits as actually eating fish instead of, say, fried chicken? Or is adding fiber to a chocolate breakfast bar equivalent to getting more fiber from fruits and vegetables? According to both research and common sense, the answer is no.
Beyond the individual nutrients, the food we eat has changed. Even the way food gets to our table has changed. Since nearly half of our meals are eaten outside the home, it’s not even “our” table anymore. And when we do eat at home, take-out and prepackaged heat-and-eat meals have become the norm. In fact, the idea of cooking meals from ingredients is so foreign that we have to be reminded about how and why we should do it. There are even services that will deliver ingredients and detailed instructions to make cooking a reality for many people.
Getting back to the basics of cooking and eating real food may seem old-fashioned, but it is a current trend. This, of course, is how people ate for years before the obesity and diabetes epidemics we are dealing with now, so eating real food again is a step toward reducing these, and other, health problems.
In addition to the potential health benefits of focusing on food over nutrients, this approach is also good for the environment and the economy. It turns out that eating healthier food promotes sustainable agriculture and can support local farmers. Locally grown produce, which is picked at the peak of freshness, can be more nutritious and have a lower environmental impact than food from factory farms which is often shipped great distances. And most important, food from local farms usually tastes better!
We should make ourselves aware of where our food comes from and do our best to eat “real food” as opposed to processed and pre-packaged foods that tend to be high in calories, added sugar, salt, and unhealthy fats. When possible, we should buy foods that are grown locally to minimize the environmental impact and support local farmers who live, work, and pay taxes in our area.
It turns out that focusing on food, not nutrients, will have a positive impact on your health, the environment, and quality of life for you and others. In fact, eating real food usually means that you will get all the nutrients you need to be healthy and thrive.