From garden to gourmet, growing and eating nutritious food has become even more important to many of us throughout the pandemic.
Greater numbers of Australians are cooking from scratch, in part to save money as the economic challenges have heightened, but also as a source of pleasure and creativity while working from home.
As we look for local ways to invest our energy, including exploring our neighbourhoods and even our backyards, gardening provides many of us with a sense of normality, consistency and stability in this period of constant change and uncertainty. Our vegetable gardens, kitchens and dining tables have become significant places for daily reflection, connection and even healing.
As we look to a ‘new normal’, it’s crucial we retain our gardening habits. Growing our own food is not just fun, it can also be incredibly important for our mental and physical wellbeing.
For your mind
Growing, cooking, sharing and eating good food have become significant ways of coping for many of us throughout the past two years. One of the many effects of constant change and uncertainty is chronic (consistent) physiological stress. This sees our nervous and endocrine systems react by releasing a number of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. While helpful in the short term, over time these can increase our risk of a range of chronic diseases, including heart disease and even premature aging.
However, what we know from the evidence is that spending time outside in nature does the opposite. Time among plants and in the soil, as well as the feeling of awe we get from being amongst greenery, mitigate our stress response and lower our adrenaline and cortisol. In addition, the pleasure and accomplishment that growing food brings is likely to boost pleasure hormones like serotonin, help you sleep, and even improve concentration.
Living in our guts are more than a trillion (that’s right, a T) little microbes in a soup known as our ‘biome’. This group of bugs weighs more than one kilogram, assists with digestion and immunity, and could even help to prevent some chronic or inflammatory conditions.
These bugs feed on what we eat, and they love both fibre and diversity. Fresh foods packed with slow-to-digest fibres, like fresh fruit and veg, feed the bugs and help maintain a healthy balance of gut flora. The gut flora, or microbiome, are critical to supporting our endocrine and immune systems throughout the rest of our bodies, play a role in maintaining a healthy weight, and even act as a first line of defence against invading unhealthy microbes.
Moreover, there is good evidence that the more diverse our diets – packed with different, fresh foods – the more diverse our gut flora. It also makes sense that recently picked foods are more likely to contribute new and healthy bugs to your inner collection, as opposed to produce that has been treated with chemicals, sprayed to maintain shelf-life or cold-stored and transported.
Most people in Australia struggle to get their recommended amount of physical activity, and while we might think of kicking a ball or jogging the block, the physical act of growing food brings immense health benefits in itself.
A strength training, pilates class and cardio session rolled into one, being active in your backyard or local community garden is a great way to maintain your physical health. Important for your mobility, balance and flexibility; critical for bone density and muscle strength; and helpful for your heart – investing time in home-growing produce pays health dividends before the harvest even makes it to your plate.
Your immune system
When it comes to our immune system, growing our own vegetables brings a range of important benefits. In addition to reducing cortisol, a powerful stress hormone and immune-repressor, gardening is a great way to get our daily dose of vitamin D. Vitamin D is essential in maintaining healthy bones and strengthening our immune system, while also protecting us from specific diseases. It is largely produced by our bodies when our skin comes in contact with sunlight, and just 15 minutes outside in the warmer months can see us produce enough of this important immune-related vitamin to maintain good health.
Beyond vitamins our bodies can synthesise, there are a range of essential nutrients we must get from our food. Some of them are powerful antioxidants and critical for immune function. While companies will make wild claims to encourage you to buy vitamins in a bottle or tablet, my advice is always to spend your hard-earned dollars on the fresh stuff – or even better, grow your own.
Flavour is nutrition
Fresh vegetables are always best, but if you can’t afford the space or time to grow your own, buying fresh veg will still provide significant health benefits for you and your family. Frozen is also a great option, as the freezing process helps to lock in and preserve some of those important nutrients.
That said, the fresher, the better. Try to eat from your garden where you can and consider sharing produce within your neighbourhood to enhance dietary diversity. The reason is that, while freshly picked produce is packed with health-promoting nutrients, even vitamins like ascorbic acid or vitamin C begin to break down soon after the produce leaves the soil or plant.
Fruit and vegetables that might appear fresh on the supermarket shelves have probably been picked weeks before (sometimes longer) and cold-stored for shelf life and transportation. Much of what we buy is picked under-ripe, and while this allows the produce to travel and stay fresh for longer, often ripening to a degree along the way, it can result in the fruit or veg having less flavour and being less nutrient-dense.
At the roots of great nutritious food is great soil. There is robust evidence that the nutritional value of our fresh produce is in part determined by the nutritional density of the soils it grew in.
This makes sense, and while commercial producers may need to bolster their soil profile with added nutrients or soils may become depleted over time, affecting the nutritional composition of our foods, growing foods at home in compost-rich soils may well lead to a more nutritious (and delicious) dinner.
Beyond the food itself
Growing your own food can provide many physical and mental health benefits, such as reducing stress levels, supporting our immune system, and bolstering strength, mobility and even flexibility. But fresh food is not just about sustenance, and growing food is not only about the produce.
Gardening is a wonderful way to connect with others, create a local community or even spend time and reconnect with our loved ones. When sharing a kitchen we learn, bond, appreciate and relate. As an Italian-Australian who spent much of my childhood around a big family dining table, I can say with certainty that the unity and community created through the act of growing and eating together is critical for our mental and physical wellbeing.
Now, more than ever.
Written by Dr Sandro Demaio - medical doctor, public health expert, VicHealth CEO and foodie.