Ask the Experts: If we are what we eat…

Photo by Tom Jorgensen.

Kathy Mellen is a lecturer in the Department of Health and Human Physiology. She is a registered dietitian who teaches food and nutrition courses. The courses focus on optimizing food choices to improve personal health and performance as well as the environmental and social impact of food. She has a bachelor’s degree in food, nutrition, and dietetics from Bradley University, a master’s degree in health promotion, and a PhD in epidemiology—the latter two from the University of Iowa. She has been at the University of Iowa for more than 15 years.

If we are what we eat, how do I know what to eat?

Organic, sustainable, natural, local, fair trade, free range, grass-fed. For many eaters, these terms have added a layer of complexity to food decisions and choices.

The primary focus of food choices over the past 15 to 20 years has been the specific nutrients that a food provides: is it high in fiber; does it contain omega-3 fats; is it a good source of vitamin C. Consumers remain concerned about nutrients but there is also a growing movement that encourages eaters to look beyond the nutrients their foods provide and consider where their foods come from. More consumers are asking questions about the production (organic versus conventional), processing (safety of farmers and workers), and transportation (local or regional versus international) associated with the foods they purchase.

Should everyone be concerned about where their food comes from? The simple answer is yes. But the question of knowing where your food comes from assumes that eaters are consuming food. What I mean by food: whole and minimally processed fruits and vegetables; whole grains; nuts and seeds; beans and peas; and meats, fish, and poultry. Food should contain naturally occurring nutrients without being full of preservatives, hormones, or antibiotics.

If you are already eating food, the next step is to consider where your food comes from. Often this involves decisions about organic, local, fair trade, free range, etc. It has been established that food choices can influence personal health. Recently a greater focus has been placed on how food choices may also lead to a healthy society, environment, and economy. Improving access to food for all in a community can impact the health of that community. Purchasing food that was produced in a way that protects soil, water, and air as finite resources impacts the health of the environment. Purchasing local or regional food can positively impact economic health as well.

Consumers can use several strategies to begin eating food and gain an understanding of where it comes from:

Spend less time in the middle of the grocery store and shop the perimeter. Consider where the majority of real food in the grocery store is found—it is often around the perimeter. The interior aisles are filled with highly processed food impersonators.

Visit the farmer’s market. Spend time buying food and talking with the farmers who produced it. Consider asking questions about how the food is produced. Organic food production is important for the health of the environment but the cost of certification can be prohibitive for many small farmers. Many small farms utilize organic practices without being certified.

Familiarize yourself with the many terms associated with food choices. Organic is defined by federal law whereas natural is not. Several nonprofit organizations’ web sites provide definitions and information about regulations for the various terms.

Purchase fruits and vegetables and make them the base of your diet. Reducing meat consumption is an important strategy to improve personal and environmental health. If possible, purchase more fruits and vegetables than you need and then can or freeze them so they are available during the winter.

These various strategies can assist consumers in making food choices that improve health: personal, social, environmental, and economic.