For the last article in our “With a Purpose” series, we’re tackling one of the most fundamental and entirely overlooked aspects of our mental and physical well-being. If you’ve been following along with this article series, you know that the focus of all our articles has been on how to add small changes and intentions to our daily routine to help us become healthier, happier people. Writing, walking, and reflection can all be done with specific intentions and can have profound impacts on our lives. But as fundamental and simple as these activities are, there are some of us who won’t be able to relate to at least one of the above. There is one thing even more universal, something every single one of us do every single day of our lives, and that most of us never think twice about. That thing is eating.
Now, we know that many of us have given at least some thought to our eating habits in the past. Almost everyone has experimented with dieting at least once before, everyone knows to stay away from sugars and simple carbs, and an apple-a-day etc. But, just like our other Purpose articles, we’d like to invite you to take a deeper look at everything about eating for a moment, and perhaps see some angles you haven’t yet considered.
For starters, we know for certain that the decline of the general population’s health and increases in obesity can be directly linked to changes in our diets over the last century. But what are these changes exactly? Guidelines for a healthy diet have remained the same for decades, and people have always tried to stick to the rules about recommended foods and diets. It turns out our habits aren’t changing, but the food is. Since 1970, the amount of added sugars in mass-produced and mass-consumed foods increase by an average of 30%, and this correlates directly with the increase in obesity, diabetes, and other health conditions over that period of time. Juices and naturally sweet foods had sugar and high fructose corn syrup added to them as well. Even foods like bread or butter saw an increase and sugar, and we don’t typically think of these foods as containing sugar at all.
Sugar wasn’t the only change to bread. Bread, as well as carbs and other grain products, became “enriched.” Make no mistake, enriched is not a positive thing. This means that the grains were processed and mechanically separated, losing their rich natural nutrients in the process. Then, after the processing, insoluble vitamins and minerals we added back into the bread. The nutrients that are added are chemically produced and not as useful to your body, and the flour has been stripped and processed into simpler carbohydrates that provide only fast calories and sugar – none of the complex and natural nutrients your body craves. Other foods, like processed cheese, processed meat, and mass-produced drinks all saw similar changes – nutritional value was sacrificed in favor of profit.
Increase of Sugar Consumption in USA (source: Obesity.org)
The changes to foods like this have impacts that reach far beyond just the impact on our bodies. The tactics adopted to sustain the demands for these mass-produced foods have wreaked havoc upon the natural world. Most of us have heard of the deforestation occurring in the Amazon – over 75% of the entire former rainforest has been lost. Do you know what the number one cause of deforestation in the Amazon? Cattle ranching and farming to sustain the cattle. Most of the beef from these cattle is exported to the United States and Europe to support increasing demand for beef. The problems are domestic as well. Ecosystems are destroyed to make room for grain and other cash crop farming, and the lands that are cleared are so thoroughly stripped of nutrients that they cannot be farmed again for years – much less sustain the ecosystems they once did.
Ultimately, the result of these practices is an unsustainable and destructive system. It causes health problems for the consumers and destroying the source of production all in the name of higher profits. Walking through a supermarket and looking at the shelves with all of this in mind, you may begin to get a feeling for the importance of eating with a purpose in mind. That purpose can be summed up as by eating sustainably. So what’s the purpose of sustainable eating, and what does it look like?
When you eat with intention and purpose, meaning you’re giving consideration to the foods your putting in your body, you’re accomplishing several goals. Obviously you are providing your body with the proper nutrition it needs, Here are the 2 objectives to keep in mind for eating with a purpose:
1. Eat a diet that will keep my body happy and healthy for a long time
2. Eat foods that are grown, harvested, and transported responsibly – that won’t damage the world around us
Read on for some tips about how to meet those goals. What do you do to eat responsibly? How has diet impacted your life before? Leave a comment below and share your experience with us!
Buy Fair Trade
If you haven’t been buying Fair Trade products already, you should start today. Fair Trade certifications have high-standards to meet for sustainable production and ethical concerns. They make sure that ecosystems are preserved where their products are made, and that profits go back to communities and native populations. On top of that, their foods have minimal processing because of their small carbon footprint, so their often more nutritious than their mass-produced counterparts. Look for the Fair Trade certified logo in stores or purchase products directly from their website.
Buy food from a Farmer’s Market
The next best place to look for sustainably and ethically grown food is your local farmer’s market. Local, small-batch farmers often grow organically and sustainably. Since you’re meeting the farmer face to face, you have the opportunity to ask them about their farming practices – not to mention getting to know another member of your local community you may not have appreciated in the past! An additional benefit of locally grown fruits and vegetables is they are much more nutritious than produce bought in stores. That’s because many of the healthy compounds and nutrients begin breaking down immediately after the plant is harvested. For plants that are harvested and mass-produced before being shipped around the world – like those you find in supermarkets – this means you’ll lose much of the nutritional benefits compared to fresh produce at a market which was picked maybe only a few days or week before. Plus, it just tastes better.
Opt for whole foods – not supplements
The Omega-3 craze hasn’t settled down at all in recent years – and we don’t expect it to. Omega-3 Fatty Acids are an essential part of a well-balanced diet. They have anti-inflammatory properties and have been proven to boost cardiovascular health and brain activity. Unfortunately, most people who are aware of the benefits get their Omega-3 from supplements and fish oil pills. These pills are harvested from farmed sardines and mackerel, mass-produced and highly processed (meaning a large carbon footprint), and can increase the risk of internal bleeding to your body. In fact, many pill-form supplements have similar negative impacts – they are produced with profit in mind and without consideration for sustainability. The good news is you can buy flaxseeds – which have a large does of naturally-occurring and unprocessed Omega-3’s – at Fair Trade and organic markets everywhere! Almost everything you can buy in a pill, you can find in a food. It’s often much healthier for you and the environment to do so – just make sure you know where your food is coming from!
Cut back on meat – add more complex grains and vegetables
Almost everyone who eats a modern Western diet is consuming way too much meat. This overconsumption of meat is one of the biggest problems with modern diets – both for producers and consumers. For your health, too much meat can result in higher blood pressure, increased risks of cancer, and hormonal imbalances. Additionally, the over-consumption of meat means that increasingly destructive practices are being adopted to keep up with the demand for more and more meat every year, just like the destruction of the rainforests we mentioned above.
On the other hand, not nearly enough people are eating enough complex grains or vegetables. Complex grains are a great source of plant-based proteins, and come packed with a large variety of other nutrients you’d have a hard time finding in any other foods. They will keep you full longer than simpler carbohydrates, provide you with more energy, and they aren’t nearly as processed which means they have much less of an impact on the environment. Try experimenting with a variety of vegetables too. Bright, colorful vegetables like peppers and carrots are often full of their own antioxidants and nutrients, while darker-leafy vegetables have vitamins and minerals like zinc or magnesium in soluble forms that your body can use readily. There’s a whole world of different vegetables available, and mixing up the variety you are exposed to means you’ll get a wide variety of benefits.
If you must eat meat, you don’t need to have more than a 4 oz. portion with a meal. Try your absolute hardest to avoid highly processed meats – like lunchmeat, bacon, and sausage – as these were all shown recently to highly increase your risk of cancer in even very small portions. Make sure if you’re buying fish that you know the region it was caught from or if it was sustainably farmed – if you’re buying in a supermarket, chances are it wasn’t caught or raised responsibly. Overfishing and massive fish farms are two big contributors to the rapidly declining health of our oceans and lakes.
Hopefully you’ve found at least a few new ways to add some purposeful eating habits to your life – for yourself and for the world we all share. This article will be the last one in our Purpose series, but don’t worry, we’ll still be coming with more new articles weekly for you. Stay tuned for the start of a new series next week!