Eating Local Is My ‘Diet.’ What’s Yours?

vegetable man

To any of you who’ve been reading what I write for awhile, the story of how I cleaned up my eating act is a familiar one.

In a nutshell, several forces converged to push me toward a healthier, more plant-based life than I’d grown up with: my husband and I put in a garden and we had to figure out how to eat what it was giving us; we started having kids and had to devise a way to encourage them to want food other than gummy bears and animal crackers; we began researching ways to be more environmentally responsible and eating better seemed an important, achievable goal on that front.

Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle were big influences in leading me to embrace a local food lifestyle — one in which I grew and made from scratch as much as I could, then looked at farms and farmers markets close to home to fill as many gaps as I could, buying from the supermarket only what was impossible (coffee, lemons, avocados, bananas), overly difficult (grains, beans, crackers) or too expensive (fruit in the winter) to find locally.

A dozen years or so after making this locavore shift, much of what once seemed radical has simply become routine. I know, these days, what’s coming from the garden and (for the most part) what to do with it. I know my Saturday mornings from April to November will include a stop at one of my favorite farmers markets and that each spring and fall, I’ll stock my freezer with several local chickens and a half a hog. I pick berries at local farms to freeze and make jam. We have chickens to give us eggs. Often I’ll barter with mushroom foraging friends or kombucha making kids to procure even more items that I don’t make or grow.

I keep on eating this way because it works for me. I’m meeting my original goals of satisfying my gardening habit, feeding my family healthily and helping on the environmental front by reducing excess packaging and food transport miles.

But recently I was asked about the topic of Food as Medicine and I realized that not only does eating local meet all of my original goals, it has created a wholistic healthy lifestyle for me that I wasn’t even necessarily going for. Eating Local has made me healthier — not only because of what I’m not doing (eating food from far away) but also because of what I am doing (getting outside when I garden, making meals from whole food ingredients, cutting down on food quantities).

In today’s 24/7 blitz of what’s trending, Eating Local has been somewhat surpassed by other food movements. Like the Whole30  Program, The Paleo Diet, The Mediterranean diet, eating vegetarian or going gluten-free. But for me, Eating Local is my diet — and it works as well or better than any of these other regimens.

At its most basic level, a locavore life creates limits — and those limits solve many eating issues. Take, for instance, the difficulty of not knowing which artificial sweetener is the best to ingest at the moment. Is it Aspartame or NutraSweet or Sucralose? Or what about all those unpronounceable added ingredients like “carrageenan” or the totally nondescript “natural flavors?” If I’m eating local, I’m eating salads and smoothies and home-baked snacks. I’m making my own bread, granola and yogurt, eating local cheese. And these ingredients are just not a part of my food intake.

What about the war against sugar? If I’m looking local, I’m sweetening with honey and Virginia-made maple syrup. There, sugar problem solved.

Trying to eat less meat? Local meat is more expensive. So in order to feed it to my family, we have to eat less of it. Hence, a more plant-based diet.

Trying to lose weight? Making food from scratch takes more time. So you appreciate it more and eat less of it. (Making food from scratch is also, by the way, empowering. What a sense of accomplishment after you’ve learned to pickle or made jam or turned out a lovely meal.)

What about the oh-so-common cooking rut we all get into from time to time? Eating from my garden shapes my meal planning every week. In the Spring, it’s lettuce and spinach and kale. In the summer, we’re eating tomatoes and cucumbers, peppers and okra. In the fall, there’s winter squash and potatoes. In the winter, I’m eating garden surplus that I canned or froze. So even if I’m making essentially the same meals again and again (pasta, pizza, salads, soup) they’re different because the ingredients are different.

Gardening gets me outside and makes me move my body. Two plusses I just don’t get from running to the store.

Farmers market stops and trips to local farms also create a sense of community just as strong if not stronger than any Weight Watchers meeting. At those markets and farms, I see familiar faces and run into folks who have similar goals as mine. They’re there to share their resources, recipes, tips and I’m strengthened by my relationship to them.

I don’t want to misrepresent what we’re doing in our house. Do I buy potato chips and pretzels and food at restaurants and occasional treats? Absolutely! We look closely at labels around here. But treats are a part of life and eating out is a nice break and Peeps in the Easter basket are pretty much sacred.

I also don’t want to oversimplify many people’s real dietary problems or needs. I am not promising that Eating Local will help you lose significant weight or combat diabetes or end allergic reactions.

But I am saying that by choosing an uncomplicated guiding principal — eat food that comes from close to home as much as you can — has, for me, created habits that have improved my health in a larger and somewhat surprising way.

Eating Local is the guide post that shapes my family’s meals and our food purchases each week. And now that I think about it, it’s a guide that has led us to some pretty cool places. My kids — and I — know so much more about the natural world than we would if we didn’t grow our food or raise chickens or regularly visit farms. Another plus, right?

So, Local Eating is my diet and I’m sticking with it.