7 reasons to eat healthier this year that aren't about your waistline
From supporting local farmers to improving your mental health, there are plenty of benefits to eating healthier than just losing weight.Posted — Updated
With a new year comes new resolutions; and for many people, eating healthier and losing weight is often at the top of the list.
While shrinking a bit around the waistline can be one benefit of a healthy diet, there are plenty of other perks that come with eating fresh produce and implementing healthier eating habits.
When rushing to work in the morning, convenience can be key. But instead of grabbing a donut or breakfast burrito on the road, preparing a healthier dish like fresh fruit and yogurt can help you make better eating decisions for the rest of the day and into the week.
"We don't know all the effects of highly processed food, but our bodies weren't designed to eat something that never goes moldy. Knowing that you started the day with a healthy decision can have a spiral effect," said Lucy Hayhurst, a registered dietician and manager of wellness solutions company Well Balanced Nutrition. "When you start your day with a donut, then typically you don't spiral into eating salads, roasted veggies, and fish — you spiral into pizza."
Hayhurst recommends incorporating colorful fruits and vegetables into your lunch in order to pack your meal with filling, healthy nutrients and suggests subscribing to a produce delivery service that brings fruits and vegetables to your home every week.
One such company, Hungry Harvest, has provided access to more than 25 million pounds of produce to people throughout the country since its launch in 2014. Each week, team members curate "fresh rescued fruits and veggies" for customers and pack them up for a doorstep delivery that typically costs less than grocery store prices.
With a variety of sizes and options to choose from including organic, subscribers are also able to customize their boxes of fresh goods for free.
"Getting more produce into your diet as a part of your weekly routine is the important part, whether you get it from the store or a delivery service like Hungry Harvest," said Bart Creasman, senior markets manager at Hungry Harvest. "With Hungry Harvest, however, delivery makes it very convenient, while saving valuable time."
Mid-afternoon slumps are often made worse by diets filled with processed foods. You may still need a cup of coffee to start your day, but eating fresh produce at breakfast and lunch can provide the energy boost needed to power through the entire day.
"For me, eating healthy is focused on this concept of fuel versus fluff. When people focus on eating more fuel — things that come from nature — that's going to automatically make you feel better. The energy that the sun gives the fruits and vegetables then in turn is energy that you get from eating the fruits and vegetables," said Hayhurst. "Part of my job is helping people understand that when they eat more of these whole foods, their bodies are going to respond by feeling more energized and nourished. Physically, you'll end up feeling better than when you go and grab fast food, for example."
Studies have found that diets that incorporate more fruits and vegetables often lead to higher levels of mental wellbeing, lower rates of depression, and improved focus.
"Oftentimes people are not eating fast food because they love it — it might be that they lack confidence in being able to cook, not knowing the ways they can prepare fruits and vegetables, or they don't have the time or energy," said Hayhurst. "When people choose to make it their mission to include a fruit or vegetable with each meal, then they gain a level of mental clarity."
In North Carolina, farms cover 8.4 million acres of land and the growing season stretches through most of the year. For locals, this ample access to fresh produce not only helps build a healthy diet, but also directly contributes to the state's economy and supports local farmers.
At PORCH, an all-volunteer, grassroots hunger relief organization based in Chapel Hill, co-founder Debbie Horowitz and her team rely on fresh fruits and vegetables grown by North Carolina farmers to feed low-income members of the community.
Hungry Harvest is a valuable go-between in supplying some of this produce, and PORCH also has established relationships with several farms and dairies in the state.
"There are a number of organizations like Hungry Harvest that are really trying to help make healthy food affordable and accessible to low-income families in particular through partnering with organizations like ours," said Horowitz. "It's this wonderful cycle where local farmers get more support, the food stays local, and the families have fresh produce."
"We have a large network of farmers, both locally and nationally, that come to us when their produce is not accepted by their wholesalers, distributors or retail outlets," said Creasman. "We are able to pay them a fair price for their whole harvest and offer this produce to customers for less than what they'd pay at a typical grocery store. "
Speaking of price, one of the biggest misconceptions about eating healthy is that it's expensive. In reality, buying affordable produce and reducing meat intake can actually help your grocery bill and delivery services like Hungry Harvest can help keep your fridge stocked at a lower cost.
"Hungry Harvest delivers 10 pounds of produce starting at $15 right to your door. This is typically enough produce for two people for a week, which is less than the cost of takeout for two," said Creasman. "Even if you buy from the grocery store, staple items like potatoes, sweet potatoes, apples, oranges, broccoli, squash, and spinach are all less than $1 per serving."
"Simple ingredients like beans, rice and carrots — you could go to the store and buy a whole lot of that for $5 and make so many different dishes. It's more likely the beef and other meat products that add up on our grocery bills," added Hayhurst. "At the same time, eating healthy isn't just eating fruits and vegetables. I definitely want people to add in protein, whether it's a plant protein like legumes or beans or animal protein. But by making half of your plate fruits and veggies, it really bulks up your meal and can be cost-effective."
For both Hayhurst and Horowitz, incorporating more fresh and local produce into your diet can help add variety to your meal plan.
"Sometimes people get in a rut, and they have the same meals that they go back to. What's great about North Carolina, especially from somebody that grew up in Ohio, is you have these amazing growing seasons," said Hayhurst. "Even in the winter, we still have sweet potatoes, collard greens, kale — there are still things that are coming in abundance right here in our own backyard. Maybe you'll be a little sick of kale by the end of February or March, but that's okay because it's almost a new season and you can embrace whatever comes next."
At PORCH, Horowitz and her team rely on local farmers — which means distributing whatever crops are currently in season. She frequently receives positive feedback about the food provided, with glowing reviews from parents about how their children now have a newfound love of asparagus.
"In addition to the food, we also provide recipes and nutrition information, and we hear that that information helps families use what they get," said Horowitz. "Since some of the people we deliver to are immigrants, they may not be familiar with all of the produce we give them. With these recipes, we give them some ideas so they can maximize the use of the food — because I can give 40 pounds of produce to a family, but it doesn't mean that all of that gets used."
Creasman said that getting produce regularly can help ignite a creative spark when it comes to weekly meal planning, especially if you're receiving things like pomegranates, starfruit, delicata squash and purple brussel sprouts that can spice up your repertoire.
"You'll discover items that you might not typically buy and also save money compared to buying similar items at the store since we recover items at a discount that would otherwise not have a home," he said. "It can help make dinner time more fun when you decide to cook based on what you have on hand versus cooking strictly from a recipe. We make sure to provide our subscribers with lots of inspiration on how to prepare produce to help make sure everything gets eaten."
Food waste is a massive problem in the United States — 40 percent of all food grown in America gets thrown out each year. In North Carolina alone, 1.2 million tons go to waste annually. Organizations like PORCH and companies like Hungry Harvest are motivated to create a more equitable and sustainable food system.
By subscribing to a produce delivery service like Hungry Harvest, people are able to cut back on heavily processed foods, eat more fruits and vegetables, and reduce their carbon footprint — especially if that produce is locally sourced.
"When you eat foods that are locally sourced, the nutrients are going to be more abundant," said Hayhurst. "The locally sourced options are going to have more of those vitamins and minerals that we're looking for, and not putting it on a truck and shipping it thousands of miles is a win, as well. We all know the benefits of less transportation and gas costs, and the whole system becomes more sustainable and less of a burden on the planet." said Horowitz.
Hungry Harvest exclusively sources its produce from stock that would otherwise go to waste and works with many local farms in its respective service areas, which include the Triangle. The company works with farmers and wholesalers both locally and nationally to recover produce that would otherwise go to waste, usually due to cosmetic features that don't meet retail specifications or farmer overstock — nothing that affects the quality and taste of the produce.
By doing this, Hungry Harvest prevents food waste by taking "discarded" produce and putting it into the hands of thousands across the country who put it to good use, making a significant and sustainable difference.
"As climate change continues to become more real, people must be more mindful of where their food comes from, what they choose to eat, and how that all contributes to either the solution or the problem," said Evan Lutz, CEO and founder of Hungry Harvest. "A greater focus on our food system means there will be more pressure for sustainable practices in farming and a demand for options that actively help mitigate climate change. We want to be a part of the solution. Supporting farmers by rescuing food from going to waste will always be our primary goal and we see the mitigation of waste becoming a more critical factor in how consumers choose to spend their grocery dollars."
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