To me, Spring is the best time of the year. Trees and bushes come back to life, the robins return and sing me awake, and daffodils, tulips, and dandelions bloom. The eye and the brain are delighted by the colors and signs of life after the months of dull greys and browns. Young people’s thoughts turn to love, they say.
My thoughts turn in earnest towards my garden (and love, too, haha)!
The joyful part is thinking about new foods to grow and store to provide calories, nutrition, and a variety of tastes and textures for the long months of winter. But I must make room, of course, for the old staples because they’ve proven themselves reliable. Every year I grow potatoes, onions, garlic, basil, carrots, tomatoes, beets, and squash, especially zucchini. These are the foods that’ve succeeded year after year, and that I know my family will eat.
This year, the newbies will include a variety of beans, including Fava beans from a friend. Dried beans, I’ve learned, are a protein-rich food that is simple to dry (just leave them out on a screen), great for long-term storage, and very light in weight, and therefore portable.
So I’m one of those very enthusiastic gardeners. I don’t think there’s a better choice for promoting one’s and one’s loved ones’ health. In fact, other than growing food, the actions for which you get the biggest bang for your buck are storing water, and securing power through solar and/or wind generation. People can live without toiletries and electronic entertainment, but we wouldn’t survive long without food, water, and access to heat and shelter.
A garden harvest sure helps meet that need for food…
And my personal experience has shown me that the old phrase, “you are what you eat,” is 100% accurate. When I stick to a home-grown diet, I feel like a different person. It’s dramatic. When I “fall off,” I rapidly get achy, grouchy, tired, and down. It’s gotten so that now I realize that indulging in “treats” like chocolate and ice cream is not worth the health consequences. And the process of getting “back on the wagon” involves a few days of carb craving (sugar is the mind-killer!) during which I berate myself for having to learn the lesson again! But, in the grand scheme of things, eating ice cream is a minor sin, so I don’t “punish” myself for long.
Besides, our culture encourages us to indulge every whim and fancy so that someone makes money, and the manipulation works very well. There’s a bunch of study behind it! So if you’re trying to improve your diet, and fall off, just get back on again as quickly as you can, knowing that each time you do re-dedicate yourself to your health, you’ve learned something. And to be honest, I’ve found that if your diet fulfills your nutritional needs, as a homegrown garden helps to do, cravings decrease dramatically. It’s like, given the choice, my body prefers healthy food, but when given a taste of dopamine-eliciting goodies, my brain wants more of them! Silly, silly brain, froot loops are for kids 😊.
So I thought in this post, I’d explore WHY home-grown organic food is nutritionally superior to store-bought food, and even more, to fast food, convenient “snacks,” and sugary junk! What is it that food you grow yourself has that store-bought food does not?
Turns out that growing food for grocery stores is very different from growing food in gardens. First, commercial growing has developed crops that are ideal for appearing edible after prolonged transportation, storage, bumping, and handling. The breeding of that sort of fruit and veg ended up with produce with decreased nutrient levels:
“Commercial produce breeders often develop new varieties based on high yields and fast growth or the ability to withstand shipping. Sometimes, flavor and nutrients are inadvertently lost. Many modern varieties offer fewer nutrients than varieties did decades ago… High-yielding, fast-growing plants may not process nutrients at the same fast rate, so they have fewer nutrients compared to lower yield, slower-growing varieties…
[Also] many commercial crops are picked early and ripen on the way to stores. But… even when they do ripen in color… they may not “ripen” in nutrient levels the way they would have if picking was postponed. Mechanical pickers and bulk commercial handling often cause more stress and bruising, which speed up nutrient losses. In your own garden, you can keep crops on the vine until fully ripe and handle them gently. You’ll be rewarded in taste and nutrient content.”
Eating the food I’ve grown makes me feel so much better that I’m convinced there’s something magic about the alchemy between soil, sunshine, rain, and plants. And indeed, there are chemicals in garden produce that are being studied for their health benefits. These include polyphenols, carotenoids, glucosinolates, and flavonoids. They sound like dangerous chemicals, but they’re actually natural compounds that give fruit and veg their unique tastes, textures, and colors. And they’re garden produce’s secret health-promoting compounds, because they act as antioxidants, which prevent and help repair damage to our cells.
I’ve noticed that my garden produce has more complex flavors and fragrances then store-bought, and this is attributable, I’m sure, to these less well-understood compounds that quickly degrade in storage. For example, you can dig up a carrot from your garden and just smell the difference from store-bought. Then you bite into it and there are layers upon delicate layers of carroty goodness going on. It’s hard to explain, but once you experience it, you’ll be hooked. Fresh garden produce just tastes better. It’s akin to a spiritual experience, a fresh tomato or kale leaf or raspberry straight from the plant. Everyone on this planet should experience it, especially kids.
Last, there’s garden soil. If it’s healthy- regularly renewed with compost you can make at home– it contains a rich network of organisms, including bacteria, that are essential for the proper growth and nutrition of garden plants. These are the bacteria we require in our gut to digest food properly. Ever wonder where that internal biome came from? It comes from our soil. Tiny living things from the dirt end up being ingested, and inside of us they do very important work. We are soil, and soil is us. Without those soil bacteria within, we cannot be healthy.
So is home-grown produce better than fast and/or “convenient” store-bought food?
Well, yes… fast and highly-processed food actually has very little nutritional value. The “prep” it goes through- any natural part being mixed with chemicals and boiled/fried/steamed/dried until there’s no life in it- renders it practically nutrient-free. Even the “fresh” veg on a burger is of the store-bought variety and therefore less nutritious. Chips, cheese spreads, margarine, pop-tarts, white bread, flavored crackers… all contain next to no nutrients and are teeming with chemicals and artificial dyes. I think of these now as cardboard sprinkled with salt. That’s literally what I see myself chewing on when I think about these foods.
Now let’s talk about sugary junk!
Modern “food” developers make use of unnatural sweeteners that wreak havoc on our bodies. These are “refined sugars including corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, dextrose” and artificial sweeteners like aspartame and sucralose. These latter are suspect to me and I never use them. They may also be addictive.
There are three naturally-occurring sugars: fructose, and sucrose (glucose plus fructose), both found in fruit, and lactose, found in milk. Science has found ways to convert these natural sugars into super-concentrated forms that are then used to sweeten everything from tomato sauce to packaged cookies to soups to “healthy” cereal. The big problem with unnatural sugars is that they break down very quickly to glucose, the form of sugar our body needs. So you get a rapid and very high concentration of sugar in your blood followed by a crash. Our bodies didn’t evolve to handle that kind of instant sugar load. By contrast, natural sugars break down slowly, thereby providing a constant, steady dose of glucose energy.
This rapid, large dosing of sugar over time is linked to all kinds of health problems including obesity, diabetes, a weakened immune system, cancer, heart attack, strokes, generalized inflammation, and metabolic syndrome.
I’ve had this discussion with my son over and over. He has kids. I’ll buy them ice cream for the occasional treat. He buys them Slurpees, candy, and pop. Then when I criticize his choices, he’ll say, “there’s no difference between the treats I buy them and the ice cream you offer them.”
But he could not be more wrong. And the type of sugar is the main culprit. Pop and candy are basically high fructose corn syrup, water, and dyes. But the milk products used to make ice cream at the very least give the kids some calcium and vitamins. And the fat in it slows down the absorption of the sugars, a lot of which is admittedly refined. Of course if I wanted to give them a truly healthy dessert, I’d offer them some berries, fresh from the garden! Or watermelon, a mango, or even a banana split with home-made ice cream sweetened with Stevia. But I’m only one Grandma, what can I say?
So now you know that home-grown food is factually healthier than store-bought. But while doing the research for this post, I came across many additional advantages to garden produce:
1- you save a bunch of money! Gardening is cost-effective. And if you save your seeds, as I do for tomatoes, chard, beets, carrots, and basil, it’s even easier on the chequebook. My chives, rhubarb, and garlic come back every year without fail. My strawberries should, but I’ve had some trouble there.
2- gardens improve food security- “with the fall of communism in Russia, food prices spiked and many urban dwellers responded by using vacant land for food production. This land now produces 30 percent of all food grown in the country and 80 percent of the vegetables.” Cubans, too, during the difficult ’90’s, used any vacant land, and developed intensive urban gardens (organiponicos), to supply people with food. With financial aid from Venezuela, Cubans stopped gardening as much, and are now experiencing food shortages.
3, 4, 5 and 6- “From an environmental perspective, urban gardens and farms do much more than beautify vacant land. They help to attract and repair habitats for pollinator species such as bees to urban areas, in a time when the bee population is in crisis. They provide stormwater capture through the installation of rainbarrel systems. Finally the addition of plants to an urban environment provides necessary cooling effects to an area often surrounded by pavement and concrete.”
7- it’s easy- ” ‘Growing food is very simple,’ says Kathleen Frith, managing director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment (CHGE) at Harvard Medical School. ‘It takes a little time, but things like tomatoes, lettuce, peppers — basic kitchen crops — are very forgiving. Really, anyone can learn to grow food pretty easily.’ “
8- it makes healthier kids- “Poor eating impacts people throughout their lives, from fatigue and concentration problems at school and work to behavioral and medical problems in both children and adults… Active gardeners have reported increased consumption of vegetables and decreased consumption of less nutritious sweet foods and drinks as a result of growing their own food.”
9- it connects you to our planet and increases gratitude- ” ‘Backyard gardening can inspire you to take an interest in the origins of your food…’ says Dr. Helen Delichatsios, an internist at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital. ‘When you grow your own food, you savor it more because of the effort it took to get to the table.’ “
10- it gets you outside and is great exercise- in fact, gardening burns more calories than walking an equivalent time, can lower blood pressure, reduce anxiety and depression, and strengthen your bones (sunshine stimulates Vitamin D production).
If all that doesn’t convince you that you should plant a garden this year, I don’t know what will! You can start off very small, and work your way into a bigger, more diverse garden. And you can buy plants which makes things very simple- just place them in good soil with enough space and sun, water them, and watch them produce a lovely harvest for you and your family. You won’t believe how healthy and empowered you’ll feel. Happy planting!
Addendum: here are two excellent talks on the harmful effects of high fructose corn syrup and the resulting sky-high (and increasing) costs to society. Dr. Lustig is a brilliant endocrinologist, and recently took legal training just to fight the commercial food lobby that hides the truth about HFCS.