When it comes to health, everyone needs a conceptual filter. In other words, to begin determining whether something is good for us, we all need a way to place it on one of two stacks labeled “unlikely” and “promising.”
For me, that filter has always been evolution. If we’re discussing a practice or substance that human beings have never encountered in roughly 200,000 years of Homo sapiens’ development on earth, it’s unlikely that it will promote health, despite claims to the contrary. For example, synthetic pharmaceutical drugs begin as “guilty until proven innocent,” because they typically contain novel molecules and compounds with which we have no evolutionary experience. This does not mean they are worthless—they simply have a higher evidentiary hurdle to clear to prove their safety.
Similarly, the modern supermarket delivers food to us in a highly unusual way and should also be viewed skeptically. Pushing large carts down aisles full of highly processed foods is a very recent method of “hunting and gathering.” Because this food is so unnatural—and unnaturally easy to find, gather and overeat—our health suffers.
Conversely, what’s wonderful about locally grown food—particularly from one’s own garden—is that it conforms to patterns of behavior and nutrition that have nourished human beings for millennia. Specifically:
One must exercise to get it. In fact, the kind of exercise gardening provides —gentle, continuous, using all of the major muscle groups—is probably close to optimal for human health. Even a stroll through a farmer’s market in the sunshine and fresh air is healthier than trudging across vinyl flooring under fluorescent lights.
The food produced is unprocessed. No one has ever grown a Twinkie bush or a cheese-puff vine. The lack of processing means the food retains vitamins, minerals and fiber, all essential for good health. Relatively unprocessed food is also less likely to be over-consumed. It’s far easier to overeat corn chips than corn-on-the-cob.
It’s fresher. Foods in the supermarket’s produce aisle are often shipped halfway across the country, resulting in significant nutrient loss.
It’s pure. Backyard gardeners and most farmers’ market vendors don’t use synthetic pesticides or herbicides, many of which have been shown to have damaging health effects.
Finally, there’s an intangible benefit that may be the most important of all. I think there is a certain existential fear that surrounds the supermarket experience. Deep down, we understand that the store is at the end of a long, complex, energy-intensive and ultimately fragile supply chain. Knowing that the food we need for survival comes to us only through the perfect functioning of this odd system makes us wonder: Will it always work? What if it stops?
When you pick and eat a strawberry you grew yourself, you are likely to feel something very different: a visceral sense of security, a conviction that one is literally grounded. Planting a seed and eating its fruit mean your survival is supported by biological processes that are millions of years old, rather than economic forces —I am tempted to say fads—that have come and gone many times throughout human history.
I report all of this to you from deep, lifelong experience. I am 70 years old, and have been surprised, and pleased, to discover that at this stage there is almost nothing I would rather do than plant onions or dig potatoes. Every life holds its share of disappointment and compromise, but looking back, the time I’ve spent in my various gardens all adds up to one unalloyed blessing for myself, my friends—I always grow enough for a crowd—and the planet.
Take a break from the manifold distractions of the digital age. Join me, and your ancestors, among the rows. ✜
Andrew Weil, M.D. is the founder and director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine and a partner in True Food Kitchen.