Revenge of the Farmers' Market

Believe it or not, many large manufacturers don't place your health and fitness at the top of their priority list.

Jan 1, 2005
Outside Magazine

Don't compromise for convenience.    Photo: avlxyz/Flickr

Shop the perimeter of the store for produce, whole-grain baked goods, deli, and dairy items. At the checkout lane, look at your basket. What's the ratio of whole to processed foods? Strive to make two-thirds or more whole foods.

food guide

Be sure your energy intake isn't empty of nutrients. When you feed yourself, aim to help yourself.

food guide

Strive to make two-thirds of your groceries whole foods rather than processed.

DEEP DOWN, WE ALL really know what to eat, don't we? Let's talk specifics: fresh fruits and vegetables, grains, nuts, olive oil, lean meat and poultry, salmon and other healthy fish—put simply, whole foods that have gone through no or minimal processing. Simple enough. Well, maybe not.

"The key lies in bridging the gap between knowing and doing," says Ellie Krieger, a New York–based nutritionist anauthor of the forthcoming Small Changes, Big Results (Clarkson Potter, February 2005).

Why are whole foods so much better for us, and how do we get more of them into our gut? Nutritionists like to talk about food in terms of energy. "Energy intake" is nutri-speak for eating. "Energy output" refers to activity, like mountain biking or running to catch a flight. With relatively minor variation, the quality and volume of intake and output determine our physical makeup.

Many processed foods are "energy-dense," because the added sugar and lack of water or fiber spikes the glycemic response described earlier. We're going to push you to eat whole foods that are less energy-dense—for a list, see The Okinawa Diet Plan, by Bradley and Craig Willcox (Clarkson Potter)—and foods that fall lower on the GI scale. You're not eliminating all items with high GI ranking, like, say, bananas and baked potatoes, just balancing them with food across the range. Herein lies one of our biggest challenges.

Because so much of our food behavior is driven by convenience, price, and taste, we are largely at the mercy of the marketplace. "People don't make choices about what they bring into their households in a vacuum," says Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition at New York University and author of Food Politics (University of California Press), a book about the food industry and federal nutrition policy. "Those choices are manipulated by $34 billion worth of food and beverage marketing."

Believe it or not, many large manufacturers don't place your health and fitness at the top of their priority list. The good news is that never before have so many wellness entrepreneurs been working as hard to make healthy food tasty, inexpensive, and accessible. Have you been to your local co-op lately? It may not be the dimly lit, leaflet-festooned hovel you remember. More likely, it's modeled (or remodeled) after a specialty grocer like Whole Foods, Wild Oats, or the Harris-Teeter chain in the Southeast—veritable chapels illuminated with reverence for the harvest of the earth.

This burgeoning sector may be best illustrated by the rise of the farmers' market. According to the latest USDA figures, their numbers increased 79 percent between 1994 and 2002. Markets are now fixtures in more than 3,100 locations across the U.S. "When people go to a farmers' market and actually meet the person who grew their food, and when they take their kids as a way to spend time with their family—that becomes part of the quality of life many Americans feel they're losing," says Anna Lappé, co-author, with her mother, Frances Moore Lappé, of Hope's Edge (Jeremy P. Tarcher), a book about forthcoming food movements and a follow-up to the 1970s bestseller Diet for a Small Planet. "Once you experience that, you lose the desire to shop any other way."

Which isn't to say you can't get everything you need at the nearby megastore; you just have to be a little more savvy about how you do it. Try shopping the perimeter of the store, where you'll find produce, whole-grain baked goods, deli, and dairy items—everything you need for optimum nutrition. As you head to the checkout lane, look at your basket: What's the ratio of whole to processed foods? Strive to make at least two-thirds whole foods.

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