A Prescription For Gardening
By Kay Wolfe
While researching the leading health problems of our day— cancer, strokes, heart disease, diabetes, obesity and dementia—they all have one thing in common: They are all closely related to our diet. According to most experts, the best way to lower your risk for these diseases is to eat more fruits and vegetables and fewer processed foods and meats. Add to that the increased cost of organic foods and you have plenty of reasons to grow and preserve your own healthy foods. But how do you know what you should plant? You really can’t go wrong with any vegetable, but some carry more health benefits than others.
Let’s Get Real
The older I get the more I realize the importance of what we eat. It seems the young can get away with poor food choices, but as we age, junk and processed foods can zap our energy, clog our arteries, raise our blood pressure, cause inflammation (including an inflated waist line), and simply make us feel old. Real food does just the opposite. Whole natural foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables provide the antioxidants, enzymes, fiber and nutrition needed to fight all these diseases. We eat for many reasons but the most important one is to feed our cells so our body can heal and renew itself daily. That’s why we must eat real food.
Just what is “real” food? Well that’s subjective, but my definition is any food in its original state as provided by nature. If you want to eat real food you are going to have to learn to cook from scratch. That is the goal, and even I fail at this goal sometimes, but I strive to get as close to it as possible. What we do occasionally has little effect on our body. It’s what we do daily that determines our health. That means if you want to splurge on a Coke and Big Mac once a week, it is not going to make much difference long term any more than eating fresh vegetables once a week is going to make you healthy. Once you begin to grow your own food though, you will come to love the freshness and high quality so much you will not be happy with anything less.
If you are already a gardener, you know that food gathered and cooked the same day far exceeds the taste of anything you can buy that has been shipped across country to your grocery. Besides taste, the nutritional value is affected by time and storage. Few things get better with age, so that produce you harvested is at its peak when you walk out of the garden. With each passing hour or day, you lose a little quality. That’s why if we can’t consume something shortly after picking, we freeze or can it right away to stop the deterioration.
In order to eat a healthier diet, we need to replace junk and processed foods with real food we raise ourselves. If you are not gardening already, it’s time to start the garden you’ve been planning. If you have a garden, enlarge it so you can meet your needs for an entire year. Find ways to extend the growing season like row covers, and start the seeds indoors, and, of course, utilize preservation methods to store it away. The safest food is organically grown, so be aware of the products used on your plants. Your family will be eating this, so why feed them pesticides, herbicides and fungicides? What you feed your family will have a greater long-term impact on your family’s health than anything else you do.
Leave A Legacy
I had never been one to really like anything green. I would skip the salad section at the buffet and I had never eaten broccoli, cauliflower, kale, Swiss chard, spinach and so many other things until I was well into adulthood. I was also obese and had high blood pressure as a result of my food choices, but I couldn’t resist the lure of growing such beautiful plants, so I planted an array of vegetables, not sure if I would even eat them. Once they were maturing though, I started searching for recipes and fun ways to prepare them. Low and behold, it turns out I loved them. My taste buds and cravings began to change as I deleted sugar and processed foods from my diet, replacing them with real foods. The momentum continued as I experimented with more and more varieties until I no longer had to wonder what I was going to cook. I just grabbed my basket and to the garden I went.
Sadly, most Americans don’t eat the recommended servings of fruits and vegetables. Most kids don’t like vegetables except fries, which means we are raising adults who won’t eat fruits and vegetables. We must set an example for our children by eating and providing a wide range of produce. It helps if we learn to cook it so it is tasty! Growing your own food though makes it far more appealing. Children who actively participate in the cultivation of their own food are much more likely to consume it and enjoy it.
A wonderful resource for me is a website titled, The World’s Healthiest Foods. They have a list of 100 foods we should eat and provide extensive information on each item including nutrition and health benefits. As I began to read through the list and drill down on what each food does for the body, I learned what to eat to help my various ailments. The best part is, I don’t need a prescription and there are no bad side effects. I simply buy the seed, plant it in my garden, and then harvest my way to health. I enjoy meal prep now and I have a whole new relationship with food as a gardener. I knew I was eating better but was still pleasantly surprised when I saw the improvements in my blood tests as a result!
Beans And Grains
Beans should be a large part of your diet as a great source of protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals. There are countless varieties of beans and peas you can plant that will never be found on grocery shelves. You can eat them green as snaps, eat them freshly shelled, but be sure and dry plenty so you can eat them all year long in a variety of dishes. If you are going to try and eat less meat, beans can fill that void by providing much of the same nutrition found in meats. Many varieties are climbing, which means they take up less space in the garden by utilizing your vertical space. Sometimes when you are running out of room, there is nowhere to go but up! (If you want to learn more about growing climbers and crawlers, check out our March/April issue.—Editor)
There is one food group we seldom find it in the garden, and that is grain. Some people are trying to cut grains from their diet and that’s a shame because they are missing out on the great health benefits. But I agree we should never eat processed grain products that have had the fiber and nutrition removed. The resulting product is a carbohydrate that wreaks havoc on our blood sugar levels and contributes to our obesity epidemic—but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Whole gains, simply ground the way they have been ground for thousands of years, contains lots of protein, vitamins and minerals, along with healthy fiber. A Harvard Medical School study of nurses during a 12-year period found that women who ate whole grains weighed less than those who ate processed grain. And the more whole grain they ate, the less they weighed. Whole grain consumption also reduced the risk of metabolic syndrome (insulin, blood sugar, and diabetes problems). So, I think it is safe to say we need whole grains in our diet just as much as fruits or vegetables.
For a while I purchased whole wheat bread at the grocery until I learned it was not really what I thought it was. What they call whole wheat is really processed wheat with the fiber and germ separated and then added back after being pulverized to a powder and leavened with fast acting yeast. The effect is it also causes blood sugar to rise and then fall just as much as bleached white flour. So what’s the solution? I make my own bread the way it has been made throughout history. I grind my grain the day I need it and then ferment it with what many call a sourdough starter. This slow acting yeast unlocks the nutrients and makes the gluten easier to digest. In fact, some studies have suggested that gluten intolerant people can tolerate fermented wheat, but I wouldn’t try it without consulting your doctor.
Raising wheat, barley, rice and other grains is a bit more difficult than raising vegetables, but you can buy them online or in bulk food stores in 25 to 50 pound bags very reasonably priced. In addition, there are several grains that you can raise, dry and store at home to be ground later. All you need is a grain mill and you too can make real bread from grain you store at home. It is not only healthier, but I think it tastes better. It is certainly less expensive than the commercial breads, which are in part responsible for the rise in obesity rates.
If you are from the South, then cornbread is probably one of your favorites. I grind my own cornmeal fresh each time I cook and it produces a superior bread than any meal I have ever purchased. Besides, there are a lot of different corns I can raise thanks to the Native Americans who preserved them for us. Try some of the blue flour corn or maybe a multi-colored dent. Once you taste it there will be no turning back.
My husband is one of those gluten intolerant people, so I had to purchase gluten-free flour in order to bake his favorites. It is very expensive, and I didn’t like that it was pretty much empty calories from starch, so I set out to make my own gluten-free flour. My favorite is quinoa, which is listed as one of the 100 healthiest foods. I noticed today the price for a one-pound sack of quinoa in the grocery was $10. I see that as extreme since I plant my own. A cup of grain becomes a cup and a half of flour or more after grinding, so it really doesn’t take as much grain per person per year as you would think. It is not that difficult to grow and harvest, so experiment with it and see how quinoa works out for you in your garden.
Another highly nutritious grain is amaranth. Amaranth has been cultivated for thousands of years and is easy to grow in most gardens. Be sure and select a variety that is known for its grain production since some are used mostly for the edible leaves or simply as an ornamental plant. Amaranth can serve as a vegetable or a grain. The grain can be stored and used in many ways. Even if you don’t want to raise your own grain, it really is worth buying a grain mill and purchasing the grain in bulk so you can make real, wholesome products that will feed your family, instead of simply adding empty calories.
If your doctor hasn’t talked to you yet about your diet, he probably will. But even if he doesn’t, we must take responsibility for our own health and certainly that of our dependent children. It’s not unreasonable to think we can raise a year’s supply of wholesome organic foods that will improve our health. Gardening in and of itself is therapeutic and a great exercise, but the added value of safe, fresh foods in endless varieties is even more beneficial. Add to that the economic value of the food you grow, and you’ll have a healthier bank account as well. Gardening really is the prescription for health. Doctor’s orders!
WHAT TO PLANT
Your climate and gardening zone will dictate what you can plant, but most vegetables are annuals and will grow anywhere. I started with the list of 100 healthiest foods and wrote down each vegetable I thought we could grow and would eat. You really can’t go wrong with a packet of seed though. The fun is in the experimenting so try lots of varieties. The more colorful a variety, the more cardiovascular benefits it provides. Go for the rare and exotic heirloom seeds. It will be fun and you’ll get the kids interested too.
Prescription For Health:
• If like me, you have trouble stabilizing your blood sugar levels, then grow asparagus, corn, green peas, onions, squash, sweet potatoes, Swiss chard, apple (yes, you can plant apple trees), strawberry and raspberry or blackberry.
• For us postmenopausal women who are concerned about our bone health, be sure and plant a lot of onions, potatoes, spinach, Swiss chard and tomatoes.
• If you are trying to get clean after years of junk food, then you need something to detox your body. You’ll find that with broccoli, cauliflower, collard greens, kale, mustard greens and turnip greens.
• When I was confronted with high cholesterol, I refused to take statins, at least until I tried to get it under control myself. With the help of my garden I did it and you can too if you plant and eat plenty of cabbage, collard greens, eggplant, garlic, kale, mustard greens and beans.
• If you are concerned about cancer (and really, who isn’t), then plant foods that have shown promise in studies to help fight cancer cells like bell pepper, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, collard greens, cucumbers, fennel, garlic, green peas, kale, mustard greens, onions, potato, spinach, squash, tomato, apple, strawberry and raspberry/blackberry.
• The leading cause of death is still heart disease and stroke, so we’d all do good to eat foods proven to fight coronary heart disease. I would say most any fruit or vegetable is better than junk food, but these items have shown in test after test to prevent or even heal coronary heart disease—carrots, cauliflower, celery, collard greens, eggplant, garlic, green bean, green peas, kale, leeks, mustard greens, onion, potato, leaf lettuce, tomato, turnip greens, apple, strawberry and beans.
• Inflammation is tied to many diseases including artery disease, but those who suffer from arthritis or any of the autoimmune diseases know the damaging effects of inflammation only too well. There is help in your garden though if you plant these foods that fight inflammation—asparagus, bok choy, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, celery, collard greens, cucumbers, garlic, green beans, green peas, kale, mustard greens, sweet potato, Swiss chard, turnip greens, apple, watermelon, strawberry and raspberry/blackberry.
• Dementia becomes more of a concern as we age so try these brain protecting plants—eggplant, potato and strawberry.
As you can see, many fruits and vegetables are listed in multiple categories and this list is not all-inclusive. These are just a few of the ones tested. I think it is safe to assume there are many other health benefits in fruits and vegetables that have yet been discovered. Add to that the medicinal herbs you can grow and you have the best medicine nature has to offer.