This Thursday is Food Day, an annual event that aims to raise awareness about the food we eat and the impact it has on our health, environment and quality of life.
It turns out that many of us don’t know much about our food including where it came from, the method of preparation and 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.
Our lack of knowledge about food has been replaced by a heightened awareness about nutrients. In fact, many people follow diets that either emphasize or restrict certain nutrients in order to obtain health benefits. But the research to support the importance of these individual nutrients is often lacking. Still, as we seek out sources of these nutrients we are led 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? Both research and common sense suggest that the answer is no.
Most of the health problems we suffer can be linked to what we eat. Increasingly, this includes processed foods at restaurants as well as prepackaged heat-and-eat meals we prepare at home. 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.
Organizations such as Slow Food and Oldways and events like Food Day are an attempt to get us back to the basics of cooking and eating real food. 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 supports local farmers. And locally-grown foods can be more nutritious that food from factory farms.
For example, beef that is grass-fed on a local farm will have a healthier balance of fats and be less likely to have dangerous bacteria than beef from a huge feedlot.
A locally-grown tomato will be picked when ripe so it will taste better and have more nutrients than a tomato from a factory farm that was picked before the nutrients and flavors fully developed, shipped a great distance, and chemically ripened using ethylene gas.
Local farms are also likely to have a lower environmental impact than a factory farm and transportation costs will be lower.
This is the point of Food Day. We should make ourselves aware of where our food comes from and do our best to eat “real food” as opposed to processed and prepackaged 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. And that is why it is called Food Day, not nutrient day.
Brian Parr, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Exercise and Sports Science at USC Aiken where he teaches courses in exercise physiology, nutrition and health behavior.