When it comes to nutrition, fresh foods are key to more than just a delicious meal. They’re important in building a diet that is healthier for our bodies and our planet. While the increasingly popular phrase “sustainable eating” may sound difficult, making the switch from processed foods to whole, fresh foods doesn’t have to be hard or expensive.


Health Benefits

Is sustainable eating really that much healthier? It certainly can be! Eating unprocessed or minimally processed foods like whole grains, legumes and fresh produce you can help lower total cholesterol levels, decrease risks of certain cancers, increase your colon function and increase your intake of important nutrients and minerals. Additionally, because sustainably grown produce and grains are picked at peak freshness and travel shorter distances, they taste better. This can lead to you eating more of the foods that are heathiest for you – fresh fruits and vegetables.

Sustainable eating also tends to focus on a diet heavy in fruits and vegetables. Eating more fruits and vegetables provides our bodies with ample nutrients, vitamins and fiber.

Because many sustainably grown produce and sustainably raised animals are exposed to fewer chemicals like pesticides and antibiotics, your body is exposed to fewer chemicals. This can help reduce your exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria or potential illnesses and health problems caused by pesticides.

Environmental Benefits

Sustainable farming and food production can benefit the environment in many ways. For example, organic farming improves soil health, which then improves how plant root systems absorb vital nutrients. Harvesting local fruits and vegetables in season helps farmers pick produce that is closer to peak ripeness since foods are being transported shorter distances. This can cut down on the amount of fuel needed for transport, as well as energy needed to properly store food products.


Economic Benefits

By buying foods that are grown or produced locally, you’ll help boost the economy by spending money that stays in the community. This helps local farmers and food producers hire local workers as demand for their products increases. Since many commercial food producers ship their foods long distances, this means revenue goes to places like South America instead of staying home.

Where to Start

Making changes to your lifestyle can be hard, but it’s not impossible, says SSM Health  St. Mary’s Hospital dietitian Denise Coots. Just start small.

“Try shopping at your local farmers market or talk to your grocer about what products are grown locally,” says Coots. “Also, cook at home more often. You’ll have more control over what you eat.”

Cooking at home has a significant impact on your health. By using fresh ingredients you’ll eat fewer calories, reduce your sodium intake and generally eat a healthier diet.  Check out delicious, dietitian-approved recipes online at websites like eatright.org, diabetes.org and heart.org. Or, head over to your local library to check out healthy eating cookbooks.

Some other tips on making the change to sustainable eating:

  • Grow something. You can grow herbs, peppers, lettuces and a variety of other vegetables in pots at home. If you have the space, start a small garden in your yard where you can grow fruits and vegetables.
  • Eat seasonally. When produce is purchased in season it costs less. It will also taste better and will be provided higher quality and nutritional value.
  • Choose restaurants that use local farms for their produce and meats. Many area restaurants are promoting the farm-to-table movement.
  • Join a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. This allows you to buy produce and other food products directly from local farms. You receive a wide variety of produce to try during the growing season.
  • Revamp your grocery list. Purchase items in bulk, buy fewer processed items and focus on making more plant-based meals
  • Ditch the disposable water bottles. Not only will using a water filter at home save you money in the long run, it will also cut down on fossil fuels used to package and ship bottled water. Plus, by drinking more water, you’ll be drawn to drinking fewer unhealthy, sweetened beverages like soda.

Coots suggests starting small and building on the changes gradually.

“You don’t have to change everything all at once,” says Coots. “Try cooking at home one extra night per week for a month. Then start shopping at a local farmers market once per month and increase your frequency over time.”


Sustainable can be Affordable

For many families, making big changes to diet and lifestyle can seem like a major financial commitment. It doesn’t have to be. Buying produce in season will cut down on your costs, as will making bulk purchases and then storing the excess food for use later in the year.

Another way to cut down on costs is to buy only certain items that have been produced organically. Some produce, like apples or potatoes, are exposed to and retain more pesticides than other fruits or vegetables. To learn more, check out the annual “Dirty Dozen” list from the Environmental Work Group (EWG). You can use this as a guide to make smarter decisions when purchasing your produce. By selectively buying organic produce you can cut down on the cost.


Make a Lasting Impact

Another key part of reaping the biggest benefits of sustainable eating is sustaining the changes and incorporating them into an overall healthier lifestyle.

“Remember to keep it simple: eat more whole foods, move more and have fun,” says Coots when asked about what advice she has for families looking to make healthier lifestyle changes.

Coots suggests making these changes as a family for a healthier life together:

  1. Include at least one fruit and/or vegetable with every meal. Purchase local produce whenever possible.
  2. Move your body every day. Aim for at least 30 minutes. It doesn’t have to be hard – walk the dog, take a bike ride around the neighborhood or even have a dance party after dinner! Anything to get your body moving will positively affect your health.
  3. Gradually reduce your sugar intake. Eat a smaller portion of dessert or try drinking your coffee without sugar. Opt for water instead of soda.
  4. Focus on eating more whole foods instead of processed foods.
  5. Break the breakfast culture by trying to consume more vegetables at breakfast.  Our society is the reason we focus on cold cereals, pancakes etc. for breakfast.  Instead, try to have some of your leftover veggies and lean mean for breakfast on occasion.  It may seem odd at first, but just pat yourself on the back for making a positive change.

Denise Coots is a dietician at SSM St. Mary’s.