Sustainable Foods for Sustainable Health
We have continually heard that eating a heart healthy diet full unprocessed (or minimally processed) food, such as whole grains, legumes, and fresh fruits and vegetables, has a number of health benefits. This includes decreased total cholesterol levels, decreased risk of certain cancers, increased colon function, and increased intake of important nutrients and minerals. However, the increased popularity of local, organic, and sustainable foods has been driven in part by the environmental and health benefits of these types of foods over their conventionally grown version. Not only is eating sustainably beneficial for the environment, it is also beneficial for your health!
Nutritional Value of Sustainable Foods
Interestingly, the shift towards industrial agriculture created a shift in the nutrient content of our diet. In the beginning of the 20th century before the development of industrial agriculture, the human diet has been estimated to contain an equal ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s. These two types of essential fatty acids are found in plant as well as animal products. However, this ratio has shifted dramatically in the last 100 years. We are now consuming nearly 20 – 30 times more omega-6’s than omega-3’s! [i]This is due to heavy consumption of omega-6 rich corn and soy products and decreased consumption of omega 3-rich foods, such as pastured animal products, wild fish, leafy greens, and nuts.
Sustainable Foods & Health
Why is this important? Studies have indicated that omega−6 fatty acids tend to be inflammatory, prothrombotic, and contribute to vasoconstriction. Omega−3’s have anti-inflammatory and vasodilatory properties that contribute to the prevention of coronary heart disease, hypertension, as well as type 2 diabetes [ii].
Consuming a diet rich in sustainable produced plants and animal products can help us get back to a more balanced ratio of omega-6 and omega-3 oils. Meat and dairy from pasture raised animals have higher levels of omega 3s, vitamins A and E, and other antioxidants! Eggs from pasture-raised chickens also have higher levels of omega-3s and Vitamin E [iii][iv].
Sourcing your foods from sustainably sources also decreases exposure to harmful substances such as pesticides, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, as well as questionable food additives. Finally, eating sustainably means that you are supporting a more environmentally and socially responsible food system. It’s a win for everyone involved: for yourself, the local economy, and the environment.
Where To Find Sustainable Products
If you are living in an urban area, chances are there are farmers markets or CSA’s in your area that will give you access to more sustainably produced foods. For information on where to find sustainable resources, check out the Eat Well Guide or the free Farmstand App, which hosts a list of farmers markets across the US. For those who may be living in a rural area with limited access to fresh foods, finding sustainable produce may be difficult to find, not to mention expensive. If access to sustainable foods is limited or none, purchasing organic produce is the next best option and will similarly reduce your exposure to pesticides and antibiotics.
[i] Blasbalg, T., Hibbeln, J., Ramsden, C., Majchrzak, S., & Rawlings, R. Changes in consumption of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in the United States during the 20th century. Am J of Clin Nutr. 2011; 93, 950-962.
[ii] Simopoulos, A.P. Essential fatty acids in health and chronic disease. Am J of Clin Nutr. 1999; 70 (suppl), 560S–9S.
[iii] Daley, C., Abbott, A., Doyle, P., Nader, G., & Larson, S. A review of fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beef. Nutrition Journal. 2010; 9, 1-12.
[iv] Karsten, H.D., Patterson, P.H., Stout, R. & Crews, G. Vitamins A, E and fatty acid composition of the eggs of caged hens and pastured hens. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems. 2010; 25, 45–54.