What is “Food?”
Webster’s English Dictionary defines food as “material consisting essentially of protein, carbohydrate, and fat used in the body of an organism to sustain growth, repair, and vital processes and to furnish energy.” A secondary definition is “something that nourishes, sustains, or supplies.”
This is, on the face of it, an excellent definition. There are some important factors missing, though, and especially when faced with the variety of products in a modern supermarket, this definition needs to be both expanded upon and simplified.
We all know what food is in a general sense. As in the dictionary definition above, it’s what we eat to keep us alive. However just because something is presented to us as food doesn’t mean that it will provide true nourishment and, furthermore, promote a high level of health and well-being.
To that end, here are some additions to the above definition, which can serve as guidelines to a healthy diet:
- Food is natural; it grows and rots: there is nothing on this planet which falls under the category of food and will promote health and well-being that doesn’t come from natural sources. While this might seem like an obvious statement to some, there are plenty of things which are available at the supermarket which are so far removed from the form in which they started in nature (or are entirely synthetic) that they no longer qualify as food by the time they reach your plate when you add this requirement to the definition.
- Food doesn’t require intervention; it doesn’t require pesticides, steroids, or other chemical assistance: we’ll add on to the above notion that food is natural, that it grows and rots, the requirement that anything which ought to qualify as food must be able to exist on its own. What I mean by this is that animals eat in the wild all the time without the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or other chemical intervention to preserve their food sources. Indeed, mankind lived this way for orders of magnitude longer than we have using our currently mainstream industrial agricultural practices. This isn’t to say that everything done to foods to make farming viable makes them inherently unhealthy; there are ways to fertilize or to guard against insect or other pest damage which aren’t particularly unhealthy or damaging to the food source, for instance. However, it is absolutely true that the less that a food source is altered in preparation, the more healthy the end food product will be.
- Almost all food can be eaten raw: while there are certainly a few things, such as beans, whole grains, and most meats, which ought to be minimally processed (usually, simply cooked) before consumption which can be a part of a very healthy diet, the vast majority of things which deserve to be called “food” can be eaten raw; vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, good oils, and even some meats are perfectly safe and tasty when consumed raw. In fact, if handled properly, everything which should be called food can be consumed raw, even red meat, with the exception of most legumes and grains and the items made from them (breads, pastas, etc.). However, because of uncertainties of potential contamination, shipping time, etc., it is only prudent to cook things like meat and eggs.
With the addition of these three considerations, huge sectors of the products marketed to us as “food” are taken off the menu. What’s left will, when eaten in moderation and proper proportions (which we’ll get to a bit later), form a healthy diet, one which combined with our effective trainingprogram will make for a long and healthy life.
We’ve expanded upon our definition of food; now, how do we simplify it? The short answer is; easily. I would suggest this definition of food: “food consists of the whole or minimally processed animal and plant products which best serve to promote health and long life when eaten.” Still a little wordy, I grant you, but it does tell you everything you need to know about how to define food to make healthy choices, unlike the dictionary definition.
To be sure, this new definition will still require a little work on your part. You’ll need to learn about where your food comes from, how it’s grown, and how it’s been processed to know whether or not it best serves health and long life. But at least now, your definition of food includes the requirement that it does, indeed, best serve your health. Furthermore, your definition of food outlines where it comes from; the animals (meats, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs, oils) and plants (vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, oils, spices, and herbs) which have provided the foods for our species and its ancestors for millions of years; the foods we’re built to best operate on, and the foods which will provide the most nourishment and the least complicatitions or damage to the body.
The Big Three
Everything you eat can be categorized by how it works in the body, by what type of nutrient it is. There are two main classifications; micronutrients and macronutrients. There are dozens and dozens of micronutrients, mostly vitamins and minerals, of which you need relatively tiny amounts each day and which generally do a few specific things each. There are far too many to list out here, though we might explore some of them in the future. Most of what makes your body work, and what most of your food needs to be, are macronutrients, which is what we’re here to talk about.
There are three types of macronutrient, each of which operates differently in the body.
Proteins are, literally, the building blocks of life. They are long chains of amino acids which are bound up into a particular shape, each protein being of unique molecular geometry and amino acid sequence. How they function in the body is determined by how they bond to other molecules. Proteins serve all sorts of purposes; they are hormones, enzymes, elements of the immune system, involved in just about every cellular function, and of course (as just about everyone knows) they’re also a major structural component, particularly in muscle tissue. Our bodies build the proteins we need out of the amino acids we consume, thus our diet needs enough protein to meet these needs. While our bodies can manufacture many amino acids by dismantling or processing the proteins we consume even if that particular amino acid is not present, there are eight which are essential for life which it can’t produce, and these must be present in the diet.
Of all the things proteins are great for, one things they’re terrible for is providing energy. Proteins are very complex, and only contain about 4 dietary calories per gram. So, proteins shouldn’t represent the majority of your caloric intake; all you need are enough to provide your body with the raw material for rebuilding and replacing the proteins it builds and uses every day. In the context of a fitness program, a lot of this protein requirement is accounted for by the repairing of muscle tissue… stressing and then repairing muscle tissue is how we grow stronger.
There are many kinds of fat, but they all share a few things in common; they are long chains of carbon and hydrogen, bound at one end to a “backbone,” usually of glycerol, which gives the molecule its structure. You’ve probably heard of “saturated” and “unsaturated” fats; this refers to the number of hydrogen atoms bound to each carbon atom in the fatty acid chain. If each carbon atom is bound to to two hydrogens (the maximum possible) then it is saturated. Fats serve many important roles in the body; the fatty acids are involved in cellular signaling, mood regulation, tissue inflammation control, and act as a buffer to disease, among other things. Fats also serve as an important energy source, in the form of the glycerol backbone of the fat.
Saturated and unsaturated fats work almost equally well as an energy source for the body, though saturated fats will yield slightly more energy per gram than unsaturated. Also, saturated fat molecules will “stack” more tightly together so they’re more stable and are usually solid at room temperature; this often makes them better for cooking with, since their higher melting point also means a higher boiling or evaporation point (in cooking terms this is called the “smoke point,” where a fat or oil will start to burn off).
Other significant values of saturated fats are in hormone messaging, as well as calcium deposition in bones. They’re necessary for the processing of essential fatty acids (which are all unsaturated, and which we’ll talk about next). Saturated fats also form the basis of cholesterol (which is a vital biological component and not the root of all dietary evil, as mainstream nutritional marketing might have you believing). Cholesterol is the precursor for vital hormones like testosterone, estrogen, progesterone, vitamin D, cortisol, and also act as carriers for vitamins K, E, and D. Cholesterol is also involved in cell membrane construction. Finally in our examination (though this is certianly not an exhaustive list of the functions of saturated fat) it prompts the release of leptin, the hormone which makes us feel sated after a meal.
Saturated fats are important, but you don’t need a lot of them, and too great an intake of them can have repurcussions on your health; while they are important, they may more easily accumulate along the walls of arteries and veins (a process known as atherosclerosis) than unsaturated fats. Saturated fats should account for about 10% of your total fat intake.
Unsaturated fats come in two varieties, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated. These also play a vital role; there are several fatty acids called “essential fatty acids,” so called because they perform vital functions in the body but can’t be manufactured by it. They must be included in the diet. These fatty acids are involved in tissue inflammation control, behavior and mood regulation, and synaptic functions. Generally speaking, the polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids should comprise about 50% of your total fat intake, while monounsaturated fats and the other polyunsaturated group, omega-6 fatty acids, should comprise the remaining 40%.
There is a group of unsaturated fats which should be avoided at all costs; trans fats. Trans fats are named because of the structure of the carbon chains in the fatty acid, by how the carbons are arranged around their molecular bonds. In trans fats, the carbon atoms form a straight chain, or trans-isomer. The other formation this bond can take is known as a cis-isomer, and in this arrangement the carbon atoms form a kinked chain. All of the healthy, essential fatty acids are cis-isomers.
There are two main reasons that trans fats are so hazardous to your health. Firstly, the straight geometry of the molecule gives it a tendancy to “stack” very easily; they can fit together easily and form very dense accumulations. Thus, they can build up in tissues (like along the walls of veins and arteries) and easily contribute to atherosclerosis and heart disease. Secondly, because they are identical in chemical composition to cis-isomer unsaturated fats which serve important functions in the body, and differ only in the shape of the molecule, they can fool the body and be used in place of these essential fatty acids without performing the actual function they’re meant to serve very well, if at all. There are no trans fats which occur in natural, whole-food sources, so if you stick to a healthy diet of non-preprocessed foods, you should be able to avoid these dangerous fats entirely.
Carboydrates are composed of chains of carbon atoms bound to hydrogen and oxygen (the last two elements always in a 2:1 ratio), and contain only those three elements. They are very energy-dense molecules, nutritionally speaking; all starches and sugars are carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates, or “carbs” as they are commonly shorthanded, are not essential macronutrients. Your body can get by just fine using a diet completely free of them… your energy can come entirely (and should come predominantly) from fats. However, they do serve a few useful functions. For instance, dietary fiber is composed of carbs which humans can’t actually digest; these serve to help keep the intestinal tract clean and healthy as they’re pushed through (apologies for any visualizations you may experience at this point). The same foods which are good sources of fiber (leafy green vegetables, for example) also usually serve as good sources of micronutrients. Also, the brain and nervous system require glucose (blood sugar) to function; while your body can produce glucose from fat, that process takes longer than the conversion of carboydrates into glucose. Thus, any time the body has expended a majority of stored glucose in a relatively short span of time (after an intense workout, for instance) consuming some carbs can be very useful in quickly replenishing the body’s energy stores.
So, there you have it. The big three; though really it’s “the big two,” as one of the three aren’t vital, only useful in moderation.
Most Western diets depend upon carbohydrates for the great majority of energy intake, for a long time that was actually the dietary recommendation; just look at the old food pyramid. Newly emerging evidence (and indeed a great deal of “old” evidence which has often been ignored) points to this model as being flawed; as we’ve just seen, carbs aren’t even necessary, so does it make sense to anyone that a nutrient group which isn’t even vital to sustaining life, let alone health, would be the ideal choice as the staple of our diets? In the next section, we’ll look at the differences between using fats and using carbs as the body’s primary energy source.
Fueling the Body Best
We contend that fats are superior to carbohydrates as an energy source for the body, and there are a few good reasons for this.
Firstly, let’s be clear: if weight loss is your goal, you must eat at a calorie deficit. Eating either too many carbs or too many fats will result in weight gain… calories in minus calories out is a true, valid, and primary fact of weight gain or loss. Now, weight monitoring is something we frown on a little, in the sense that if you eat right and train for performance gains, your weight will take care of itself. But, body composition and weight are definitely factors of fitness and health.
Additionally, and this is very important; while it’s true that we’d prefer the majority of energy in your diet come from good fats, the foods taking up the majority of space on your plate should be veggies. Fats are very energy-dense molecules, and they don’t amount to a large physical volume. By comparison, vegetables are very energy sparse. What they do contain (or should, if you’re eating the right ones) are loads of essential vitamins and minerals, as well as fiber.
Now that those points are out of the way…
First, we’ll discuss some basic differences of fat metabolism versus carbohydrate metabolism.
Fats are digested primarily in the small intestine, and because they’re not water-soluble molecules they take longer to digest than either protein or carbohydrates. Once they’ve been broken down and absorbed into the bloodstream the fatty acids and glycerol are routed to the liver for further processing; the glycerol is converted to glucose through a process called gluconeogenesis, and the fatty acids are either broken down further (into ketones, for example) or transported to muscle and other tissue, primarily for energy production via oxidation. Fatty acids do serve other functions in the body, but energy production is the big one. Some percentage of fat digested is always routed to adipose tissue (body fat) and stored for later use. This is accomplished via an enzyme called lipoprotein lipasae.
Having adequate levels of fat stored in the body (some level of body fat is healthy and necessary!) prompts the production of a hormone called leptin. Leptin helps control appetite; when levels are normal, it reduces the sensation of hunger.
Carbohydrates begin digestion literally as soon as we consume them; there is an enzyme called amylase which is present in the saliva and begins the process of digestion. Carb digestion occurs mainly in the small intestine, where more complex carbs are broken down into glucose (blood sugar) and moved into the bloodstream. The more complex a carbohydrate molecule is, the longer this process takes, but overall carbs are digested much faster than fats.
As the glucose moves into the bloodstream, the body responds by releasing a hormone called insulin. Insulin is a regulatory hormone responsible for storage; it prompts the uptake of glucose from the blood into body tissues (mainly muscles) for immediate energy production, and prompts the liver to convert glucose to glycogen for storage in the liver and muscle tissue. When glycogen stores are saturated, the liver begins to convert the excess glucose to triglycerides for storage in body fat. Insulin also stops the oxidation of fatty acids for energy production.
The greater the amount of glucose entering the bloodstream, and the faster it is digested from the carbohydrate in the small intestine, is directly proportional to the body’s insulin response; more glucose, more insulin.
Immediately you can see an obvious truth: if you eat a lot of carbs, you produce a lot of insulin, and that prompts the storage of all that energy you’ve just consumed. In fact, it prompts the storage not just of the glucose but also of any triglycerides present because the production of lipoprotein lipase is triggered by insulin. It is true, fat digestion does trigger an elevation in insulin levels, but it is a vanishingly tiny effect compared to the massive insulin response of a big dose of glucose.
The counterpart to insulin is a hormone called glucogon; this can be thought of as an extraction hormone. When blood glucose levels are low, glucogon prompts the conversion of stored glycogen back into glucose in muscle and liver tissue, and also prompts the release of triglycerides from adipose tissue to be converted back into fatty acids for energy production.
This is the primary reason for our contention that fats are a superior source of energy for the body: the digestion of carbohydrates triggers a process whereby the body goes strongly into a storage mode, and the digestion of fats does not do this. In our modern world access to food is ample and simple (if you’re lucky enough to live in a developed nation, that is). In a world where foods, particularly fast-burning sugars, might be scare it makes sense that an organism would respond to finding and consuming a source by storing as much of it as possible. The effect of switching off fat-burning also makes a kind of sense; why use up all that energy you have stored up when you can switch over to burning this suddenly abundant sugar source for fuel?
This feast-or-famine condition describes the vast majority of our history as a species. However, if you take that same biological response and provide it with a practically endless supply of carbohydrate sources you have a recipe for constant weight gain, not only because you’re less frequently consuming your body’s already-stored energy by burning body fat, but especially since it’s very easy to consume much more energy than you need if your energy is coming mostly from carbohydrates.
This is the second reason for our preference of fats: they provide a far more self-regulating energy source than carbohydrates. As mentioned above leptin makes you feel full and helps switch off hunger. In a sense, it responds to fats the same way insulin responds to glucose. However, as it is produced in response to fats already stored in the body, and thus has a much slower response time, it doesn’t rise and fall rapidly after eating in the way that insulin can. Therefore, it is not strongly responsible for an increase in the sensation of hunger (which is controlled by a hormone called ghrelin).
The effect of insulin on hunger in a high-carb diet is effectively opposite that of leptin in a high-fat diet. The more often and more sharply your diet causes your insulin level to elevate, the more your body begins to perceive this level of insulin as “normal.” When all that blood sugar gets processed and insulin levels drop again, the production of ghrelin is strongly triggered and you feel hungry again, even though you probably don’t actually need to consume more energy.
Thus, it seems that eating a high-carb diet makes you more likely to overeat since the more carbs you ingest, the more frequently you crave them. However if most of your energy is coming from fats, you are avoiding high levels of insulin and your body is more frequently and readily consuming its fat stores for fuel when the fat coming directly from digestion has been burned. Thus the slower and more moderately-acting hormone leptin becomes a stronger influence on appetite, acting to increase it only when your body fat stores begin to drop below optimal levels.
This feedback-loop effect of a high-carb diet is the last key reason we prefer fat as an energy source. The more frequently and sharply your blood glucose levels are elevated, the more strongly your body needs to respond with insulin to process it. This is exactly analogous to a drug addict’s dilemma: as they keep taking the drug, they need to keep upping the dosage to get the same sensation, and eventually they need to take large doses of the drug just to feel “normal.” Similarly, the more insulin your body is regularly pumping out to deal with elevated blood sugar levels, the less effective the insulin becomes and the more your body needs to produce to get the same effect. This leads to a condition called insulin insensitivity, or hyperinsulinemia. From here it’s a short road to type II diabetes.
Studies have shown that low-carb diets are at least as effective as low-fat diets, and often more so, in helping people control their weight, and this makes perfect sense. A diet which provides the majority of energy from fats is far more self-regulating than a high-carb diet, and also much more strongly promotes the consumption of whatever energy the body has already stored. Additionally, there is evidence to suggest that maintaining a diet where the majority of energy comes from good fats helps promote healthier cholesterol ratios.
You’ll notice the qualification of “good” fats; if you look at the Macronutrient section, you’ll see that not all fats are created equal in terms of their promotion of good health.
For further, and more in depth, exploration of this topic:
Eat Like a Caveperson!
The Paleo Diet has a simple premise: we have evolved eating a certain type of diet, and are most healthy when we follow that diet as closely as possible. Mutation and natural selection (the forces of evolution) have not had sufficient time to adjust our physiology to the radical changes which civilization, agriculture, and industrialization have brought to our diets.
The Paleo Diet is a relatively low-carb, moderate-protein diet which ideally takes most of its energy from fats (which we discussed our position on in the previous article). It is an excellent vehicle for maintaining a low-sugar, low-carb diet (low-carb in the sense that most energy comes from fat, not in the sense that you don’t eat veggies!) because all foods which are energy-dense carb sources are excluded; it is virtually impossible to over-eat on low-glycemic carbs like spinach, mushrooms, onion, squashes, etc., because they have so much fiber. It’s a very self-regulating calorie management system.
While there is a great deal of information which can be found on this diet (links provided below), for me this diet has two fantastic aspects which make it my strongest recommendation as a model for healthy eating:
Firstly, it is easy to follow, in the sense that the dietary restrictions are extremely clear cut: eat lean meats, vegetables, nuts and seeds, and some fruit. Do not eat grains, dairy, legumes, starchy tubers, or any of their products. Do not eat anything pre-procssesed. That’s essentially it; strict adherence to this eliminates all pre-processed foods, all high-carbohydrate foods, and all high-sugar foods. There are certainly expansions upon this: olive oil, for example, was not available as a bottled product to our pre-historic ancestors but was obtainable only through eating olives. However, used in moderation there’s not much difference between eating olives and using olive oil apart from the small amount of fiber in the olive. But overall it’s a very, very clear-cut nutritional program.
Secondly, and most importantly, it’s unarguably healthy. There is much about the Paleo Diet which could be debated; whether or not it’s truly the “ideal” diet, whether or not there are concrete differences in the fitness of a healthy individual eating strictly paleo versus someone who eats non-paleo foods in moderation… it’s even arguable, depending upon whether or not you accept evolutionary theory, whether or not the premise of the diet even applies (though that discussion is one which we’ll not engage in here).
However, regardless of any of that, and unlike some extreme low-carb or no-carb diets (such as the original Atkins Diet), or indeed any number of other “fad” diets, no one can make the claim that someone following the Paleo Diet is eating in an unhealthy way. Even if one does not accept the premise of evolutionary suitability, who can point at someone eating lean meat, plenty of veggies, nuts, seeds, and some fruit and say, “you’re eating poorly” with a straight face? A diet of whole, unprocessed foods which happens to leave out grains, dairy, legumes, and tubers lacks nothing nutritionally; it includes all the essential macro- and micronutrients in healthy quantities and contains nothing which is strongly linked to any chronic epidemiological conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, or cancer. It automatically includes a good proportion of omega-3 fatty acids (which we’ll talk more about later).
To be sure, there are those who treat the Paleo Diet as a very high-protein diet (in fact, Dr. Loren Cordain, author of the book “The Paleo Diet” makes very high protein intake recommendations). While I’m not an expert on either archaeology or anthropology, it seems that maintenance of a very-high protein diet for our hunter-gatherer ancestors seems less likely than a moderate-protein diet since they would be unsuccessful in their hunt at least some significant portion of the time. Whether or not that’s true, though, it’s just a fact that protein makes a lousy energy source; fat is superior and so, again, you should aim to get the bulk of your calories from good fats.
If you want a truly simple way to maintain a healthy diet, the Paleo Diet definitely seems like the way to go!
A simple Google search for “Paleo Diet” will lead you to more information than you can absorb in an afternoon, but here are a few excellent pages if you would like to explore further:
Why Omega-3s Are So Important
Omega-3 fatty acids (also called n-3 fatty acids) are so-called because the final double-carbon bond exists at the n-3 position of the fatty acid chain.
Yes, I know; you didn’t need to know that. What you do need to know, however, is that omega-3 fatty acids seem to perform a whole host of vital functions in the body, and just as importantly they are an essential fatty acid. That is, it is essential that they be included in our diet because unlike most fatty acids, our bodies cannot manufacture them; they must come from our food.
The list of factors and conditions which omega-3 fatty acids seem to be involved in, or in many cases definitely are involved in is huge, and with one possible exception (depending upon the circumstances) are all highly beneficial. They are anti-inflammatory, appear to help regulate mood, promote heart health, assist in tissue repair and recovery from exercise, assist and improve cell messaging, improve circulation, can help improve varicose veins, may help prevent cancer… the list goes on and on and on. Google is your friend; search “omega-3 fatty acids” and see what you get!
The one thing they do which could be circumstantially detrimental is that they thin the blood a bit and inhibit clotting. However, unless regularly being so badly wounded you could bleed to death is some kind of occupational hazard for you, the only time this would be of any potential concern is if you’re going to be undergoing surgery. In which case, your surgeon will probably tell you to back off the fish oil supplement for a couple weeks prior to opening you up. Otherwise, these are a great thing to have in your diet!
Omega-3 fatty acids should provide about 50% of your total fat intake. The two most commonly available omega-3s are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These can be taken in both through your normal diet and through supplementation.
Fish oil is an excellent supplement, just make sure you’re taking enough. When you’re looking at the bottle of fish oil, add up the DHA and EPA numbers for the listed dose (these are the actual omega-3 fats), and make sure that you then take a large enough dose that this adds up to 3g (3000mg). For example, if one listed dose is 2 capsules and each dose has 200mg of DHA and 300mg of EPA, you’d need to take 12 capsules a day to get 3000mg.
Grass-fed beef is another decent source of omega-3 fatty acids, containing as much as 60% more than conventionally grain-fed beef. Cattle naturally are grazers, they consume grasses their entire life. The same kind of proportional difference can be found in poultry and fish which have been fed according to their natural diet.
You’ll notice, the first several pages are all fish. Fish is probably the most concentrated natural source for the omega-3s we need. Foods not on that list (because the USDA and FDA have some catching up to do), but which are also decent sources of omega-3 fatty acids are grass-finished beef, butter and cheese from grass-fed dairy cows, free-range chickens and their eggs, and wild game meat.
How To Shop (and Eat) Well
There are two big considerations when shopping for food; how well will it promote health, and how much will it cost?
Previous articles in this section have gone over the first question at length, so we don’t have to re-hash that. We know we’re looking for whole, unprocessed foods, and trying to stick to lean meats, vegetables, nuts and seeds, and some fruit.
This does leave us, however, with a good deal of discussion left, especially as regards the second question. Since we know what our nutritional goals are, we’ll take this generally from the most potentially low-cost to the most potentially-high cost approaches. Of course, it’s certainly possible to find sources of food not in line with this model. Also, consider that cost means not necessarily just the money spent at the register, but time and effort, as well as the cost of production in terms of environmental impact, sustainability, and food quality.
For instance, growing your own vegetables can be, in terms of money, an extremely low-cost option. If you tend your garden properly, almost all of the investment (which is pretty modest) is up front, and additionally you have complete control of your food quality… you can go 100% organic and sustainable (which would be my very strong recommendation), or you can choose to judicially use various things like fertilizers or pesticides. Also, you’ll always be eating things which are geographically appropriate and in-season, thus they’re more likely to be nutritionally dense since they’re not being forced into existence chemically or being harvested before they’re ripe and shipped halfway around the country (or in some cases, the planet: look at the little stickers on your produce next time you’re at the market).
However, there is that part about “tending properly.” My partner and I kept a garden for the 1st time this year (well, mostly he keeps it, but I chip in here and there), and it doesn’t take much more than 5-10 minutes in the morning to maintain. It’s not very big; we have about 25 square feet of garden beds plus a few stand-alone plants around the property, and we’re planning on expanding that by about 30% next year. With a couple of losses to pests (we’re going 100% organic / sustainable, remember) our garden has provided the veggies for at least four or five meals per week since things started to ripen.
Obviously, to completely feed a household would require a much larger garden, or much greater yield. But, supplementing your produce shopping with a vegetable garden is a fantastic, low-monetary cost, and (for many) fun way to make sure you’re getting some high-quality foods in your diet. Doing any kind of animal product production at home, even keeping a couple of chickens to produce eggs, gets more complicated and having no personal experience I can’t recommend it to anyone. But, if you’re interested you can find a great deal of information online.
Next, let’s talk about supermarket. This is probably next on the scale of cheapness, at least at far as money spent at the register goes. If you’re going to shop at a supermarket and want to give the simplest consideration to your purchases, a good rule of thumb is to stick to the meat and produce sections. Everything that fits (or at least comes close to ) our Paleo Diet model will be found here.
However, I would argue that the supermarket is not the best choice, if you have some other options available. There are a lot of hidden costs going on there… for the consumer, the cost is usually to be found in quality of food. Having “fresh” tomatoes in December is just not natural; those have to be picked prior to ripening in some location where the weather is suitable for their growth (picked prior to ripening so they don’t rot in transit), and then are artificially ripened once they’re closer to their destination, which is usually done by exposing them to various gases.
This kind of “forced freshness” produces a food which is far less nutritionally dense than something which has actually grown in season. This kind of process is true for almost anything you buy out of season; it was either grown through artificial means (greenhouses, hydroponics, loads of fertilizers, etc.) or comes from somewhere so far away that they’re in a growing season when the place you’re living isn’t. In either case, the food product is almost always less nutritious.
In fact, if you have to buy a fruit or vegetable at the supermarket and want to buy something out-of-season, you’re far better off buying a canned or frozen version of that item, as those things are usually picked in-season (when producers are getting the best yield) and preserved when ripe.
The larger hidden cost to this process is the promotion of unsustainable food production practices, which practices provide the produce for nearly all big supermarkets. This cost aspect grows worse when it comes to animal products. The food quality costs of industrialized beef and poultry production are huge! Besides the quality lost through feeding practices (almost all beef you’ll find at the store is grain fed, not grass fed), the production system is so unsanitary that the animals must regularly be administered antibiotics, and after slaughter the meat is washed with products like ammonia or chlorine to sterilize it.
Also, of course, the same food industry which is providing these qualities of “fresh” meat and produce is providing the stuff which makes up the overwhelming majority of items at the supermarket: box after box after box of highly-processed foods, usually very high in sugar, starch, and sodium.
A good choice between growing your own and supporting the mainstream industrialized food production culture is to find a farmer’s market or food co-op to buy from. We’ve been buying almost exclusively from such sources for nearly a year, and while it can be a little more expensive, the noticeable difference in food quality is well worth it, and these differences aren’t just in taste (which can be huge) but in how it makes you feel. There is a definite, perceptible difference in the overall sense of well-being when you’re consuming fresh, nutritionally-dense food.
Again, in terms of money-at-the-register this can be a little more expensive; we spent, on average, $65.00 per week this past year, which makes for a monthly food budget of $260.00 for two people. This is not economically feasible for everyone, but I would highly recommend making it a budgetary priority if you can. Especially since costs can be recouped in fewer trips to the doctor and dentist, and down the road you’ll be avoiding the very costly problems of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, etc.
Try it as an experiment; for one month, buy all (or as much as you can) of your food at the local farmer’s markets. Make the time to get out to them, there are several around the city throughout the week. Don’t be afraid to ask questions of the vendors; are they 100% organic? Do they spray for pests? If they do, what do they use? If they’re selling meat or poultry, is it grass-fed and -finished? Are they growing their own or just acting as re-sellers?
I challenge you to this for a month, and see what the difference in cost is to your typical food budget. For us, it has been about 10% more expensive to shop exclusively locally and in-season… and I’ll gladly take that over poorer-quality food any day. After all, we quite literally are what we eat. There is nothing which more strongly impacts our long-term quality of life and general health that what we choose to eat. How can it not be a bigger priority than a couple of nights out, or that new pair of shoes, or waiting an extra month to get the latest and greatest smart phone?
With a little discernment and investment of time in your food-sourcing, you can make a huge, huge difference in the quality of your diet and health, and also support a shift to a more sustainable practice of food production for the whole nation. I strongly recommend it!
Here are some links to the various farmer’s markets we frequent, as well as a fantastic local-food site, to get you started: