A friend on mine recently asked me for some advice on eating a low sodium diet because she was recently diagnosed with high blood pressure. I realized as I typed up all my tips that a heart-healthy diet looks a whole lot like an Earth-friendly one. Just another reason to think about the foods we eat and to choose carefully in ways that will likely vary from the typical Western diet.
My husband’s father has high blood pressure, and my Dad did too, so because there is a genetic factor, I’ve been watching our salt intake since before I learned that what I eat makes such a huge impact on my carbon footprint. Here’s what I do:
Use Less Salt
This first one doesn’t have an environmental impact that I’m aware of, but it definitely has a health impact: I don’t salt anything until it’s at the end of the cooking time. A teaspoon of salt at the end of a dish will make it taste saltier than a teaspoon added at the beginning for some inexplicable reason, so you can add less total salt without compromising flavor if you add it toward the end of the cooking time. This is also helpful if it feels good to you to add salt at the table. My Dad would put salt on his dinner no matter how much salt we’d put in while we were cooking it, so we ended up just not salting things much during cooking so that he didn’t add too much salt at the table!
I try to add lots of other herbs and spices to make up for less salt. We use lots of fresh-ground black pepper, garlic, and Italian herbs (parsley, oregano, sage, rosemary, thyme, basil). Salt is a primary ingredient in a lot of rubs & sauces for meats, but you can add a lot less if you ramp up the other spices and it will still taste great. I almost always double the other herbs in everything I cook (especially garlic!) except rosemary and sage, which tend to have a pretty strong taste.
The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet is really similar to a sustainable diet, especially if you choose local and organic for all those great fruits and veggies. Take a look at an introduction to the DASH diet, as well as some more in-depth information, and recipes.
Avoid Packaged Foods
Here’s where the advice for a heart-healthy diet starts to look very much like the recommendations for a more sustainable one: Avoid packaged food where possible. Packaged foods are notoriously high in salt (even the kids’ organic Annie’s Mac N Cheese has most of a whole day’s worth of salt in it!), so you can probably cut your intake the most by avoiding them where you can. In addition to having the highest salt and fat content, packaged foods also have the most processing, which takes energy. Often these foods are also transported huge distances to get to your local grocery store as well, which also uses fossil fuels. They’re also the foods most likely to be wrapped in tons of plastic packaging, much of which is made from petroleum products and difficult or impossible to recycle.
This piece of advice is the hardest to swallow, I know. So if you’re looking to eat a healthier diet, or to eat easier on the Earth, but feel overwhelmed and discouraged by the prospect of making every single food item from scratch, try making one change per month. That’s essentially what we have done over the last two years or so and now we barely have any processed foods in our house. We started with avoiding canned foods due to the BPA used in the lining of the cans. I bought a crock pot and started making my own beans and soups, which were the two main things I bought in canned form. Next to go was canned/jarred tomato products. I started canning and freezing my own tomato sauce, and it tastes so much better than store-bought that this was a fairly easy change to make.
Another suggestion would be to start buying whole grains. The fiber is good for your heart and digestive track, and whole grain flour is generally less processed (I know there are exceptions) than white flour. Avoiding grain products with High-Fructose Corn Syrup (yep, some whole-grain products definitely still contain HFCS) is another step both toward heart health and a more sustainable, less processed diet.
Eat Less Meat
The research demonstrating that eating less (or no!) meat, and eating meat the is lower in saturated fats such as grass fed meats, can reduce high blood pressure and heart disease is fairly overwhelming. New studies demonstrate that this diet is also easier on the Earth, especially if the meat and dairy that you do consume is sustainably-raised. Sierra Club has some good information on their Food Consumption Fact Sheet.
Get Some Exercise
And I’m not talking about Wii Fit, folks. Getting outside and going for a walk, bike ride, or run, is obviously good for your health, but it also prevents you from doing something else requires fossil fuels (like trolling Facebook, playing Wii, driving someplace you could walk or bike to, etc.). As I’ve mentioned before, I hadn’t exercised one bit pretty much since I got pregnant with Gabriel six years ago, and I started in January with just taking the dog out for 15 minutes a couple of times per week. I built up REALLY slowly and now, 10 months later, I’m running 2-3 times per week and biking and doing yoga too! You don’t need to exercise that much to make a difference–even walking 30 minutes 3 times per week is supposed to be enough to get all the benefits. So if you can walk to the Post Office, or to a friend’s house, or to the park instead of driving, do it!
When Your Heart, and the Earth, Are Healthy, Anything is Possible…
I’m beginning to believe that all things are related and that things we think are disparate like wanting peace, health, or happiness, and wanting to live easy on the Earth, in harmony with your community, or in prosperity are really all one the same thing, part of one unified effort. This is just another example. Heart disease now affects nearly a billion people world-wide. No one wants to die from heart disease or lose a loved-one to it. No one really wants to destroy the Earth, even if we can’t all agree on the best course of action. What if solving both problems was as easy as making one change per month? What if making those changes also helped you become part of your local community because you’re vising with local farmers and artisans, getting outside more to enjoy your neighbors, and supporting those people closest to you with your hard-earned dollars? Food for thought, to be sure…