Many of you reading this are probably quite familiar with the commonly cited reasons for eating local food: It’s better for our local economy; it means fresher, tastier ingredients; it intensifies our connection with the community, climate, and place where we live; and that connection gives us more certainty that our food is grown in a safe and sustainable way.
Often, personal health is mentioned peripherally in conjunction with all this, but it’s not usually a central theme. Until recently, though local food is extremely important to me, my own wellbeing was never something I thought of when listing my reasons for eating locally. I’m in my early 30s—I’ve always been healthy, and I eat a relatively well balanced, organic diet (I am a produce manager after all!). Like most people, I occasionally overindulge in things I shouldn’t, but I’ve never had any major health issues that forced me to think much about how the food I eat is affecting me.
Eating for two
All of that changed this year when I got pregnant. Suddenly, limitations both physical and nutritional were placed on me that I had never had to deal with before. The produce manager who had always been comfortable lifting 50lb bags of potatoes and cabbage all day was suddenly given a 25lb lifting limit, and the doctor was giving me long lists of things I should and should not eat. I’m not used to my lifestyle being micromanaged in this way, and it was tough to deal with at first.
As I’ve gotten further into my pregnancy (my due date is in mid-December), the reasons for all the limitations and rules have become more clear. I no longer feel the urge to lift heavy objects (sometimes just bending over to pick up a pen is a challenge!), and many of the rules about diet have started to feel more instructive than restrictive.
The doctor tells me to eat a diet that’s full of healthy proteins and fresh produce, and to limit my intake of sugary and processed foods. Although I already did that most of the time, I now feel the direct repercussions of my guilty indulgences much more clearly. Too much sugar gives me a headache and makes me queasy; highly processed, refined, or fried food give me heartburn (something I’d never experienced before pregnancy). All of it leaves me with an uneasy feeling of guilt: not only am I eating things that are bad for me, I now have another being that I am nourishing (or not) with my food choices.
How does all of this relate to local food?
Like I have for the past five years, I participated in the Co-op’s Eat Local Challenge this year, and doing so while pregnant gave me a new appreciation for what a diet of locally grown foods means for health.
As long as you pay basic attention to including all of the food groups, a local diet is naturally well balanced and full of nutrient dense, whole foods (vegetables, fruits, dairy products, grains, and meats), rather than processed ingredients that provide nothing more than empty calories. This is exactly how the doctor has been telling me to eat, and it’s also the diet that makes me feel the best. Once all the non-local foods were off the menu, I experienced almost immediate relief from my heartburn, headaches, and other uncomfortable pregnancy symptoms. My energy increased, and I felt mentally good knowing that the same diet that was nourishing me so well was also nourishing my baby.
Here’s what’s really great about eating locally for health: many times when one tries to eat better, it’s all too easy to focus on the ingredients that are off limits. This is a sure method for failure—unhealthy food becomes a forbidden fruit that’s so tantalizing it’s almost impossible to resist. This is even more true when you happen to be pregnant! In contrast, when you concentrate on eating locally, your focus naturally gravitates toward the things that you can eat, not the things that are off limits. For me at least, this has proven to be the only way that I can successfully avoid those unhealthy indulgences.
As we head into late fall and winter, eating a 100% local diet becomes more difficult. I didn’t do a lot of local food preservation this year, and I know that with the busy winter ahead of me I will surely purchase fruits and veggies from California and beyond. That’s OK. Eating as locally as possible during these months of plenty still serves a purpose: it makes it easy to get in the habit of enjoying the pleasures of nutritious whole foods and to realize that you really don’t need all the processed, sugary foods that are all too easy to overindulge in. Those good habits can easily extend into the winter months regardless of whether your diet is quite as local as it was in September and October.