Health Benefits of Eating Locally


Madison McCurdy, UNH Extension Intern, Nutrition Connections
  • Fresh vegetables displayed at farm stand

What does it mean to eat locally?

The “localness” of food has been defined many different ways, with no unified definition. For simplicity’s sake, the geographical definition of food products coming from a 100–250-mile radius of being sold or the consumer’s home is often used to define local food.1-4  Eating local foods has slowly become a priority of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to strengthen rural economies, environmental health, food access and nutrition, along with agricultural producers and markets across America.2,5 Since it’s terming on Earth Day 2005, ‘locavore’ Google searches have progressed from a trickle to a surging current as more people have explored the diverse benefits that come from joining the local food movement or others that share a similar spirit: To support the planet and sustainable agriculture while eating healthier by including more fresh and nutritious foods.5-7 There has been abundant research focused on the various attributes to eating locally, but outstanding among the results are the health benefits of dining like a locavore.

So, what are the health benefits from eating locally?

  • Safer Consumption- Lately, consumers have started shopping for safe and transparent food products. As a means of doing so, local food has become the key piece in finding food free from harmful pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers that are standard in conventional farming practices.8,10 Consuming these can result in serious health complications ranging from headaches to cancer.9 Small-scale farms usually don’t use chemicals (food additives, enzymes, flavorings, and preservatives) to help improve their foods, and rarely do they package foods in materials that could contain chemical substances, as their foods don’t need to travel far.11 If you are curious, growers will probably be open to discussing their beliefs and practices, so don’t hesitate to ask.

  • Shorter Food Supply Chain- Locally sourced produce is usually picked within 24 hours of being sold.11,12 Less steps from farm to plate means less handling, meaning less potential for bacterial or viral contamination during distribution. When food doesn’t have to travel as far, produce is able to ripen naturally, resulting in higher nutrients, and not to mention, better flavor.13,14

  • Nutrient Dense- Choosing fresh foods means choosing whole, minimally processed foods. When produce is picked at peak ripeness, key nutrients like potassium and magnesium, phosphorus, and vitamins C and A can be found at higher concentrations.13,15 Antioxidants and polyphenols found in fruits and vegetables are particularly beneficial for your health, especially when a mix of fruits and veggies are eaten.15 Replacing processed with whole foods leads to less consumption of “empty calorie foods” that are often high in sodium, saturated fat, and sugar.16 This can improve your heart, blood, brain, gastrointestinal/digestion, and vision health.16

  • Physical and Social Possibilities- Buying from farmers in your community brings opportunity for walking in farmers markets, partaking in community supported agriculture (CSA), and possibly even learning to grow your own foods, which can be more physically active than shopping for conventional foods.17 Challenging yourself as a gardener, whether it’s in your backyard or helping a CSA down the road, can be as educational as it is physical work.19 Meeting new people while learning and practicing new skills can contribute to improved brain health and mental elasticity too.18

Why does this matter?

Often, talk surrounding local food includes a few common reasons to join local food movements like supporting the environment, local economies and growers, a safer food supply, and a healthier diet.1-7 Transportation distances, land use, crop yields, animal welfare, greenhouse gas emissions, farmer preferences and practices, among other influences contribute to local foods being beneficial.1,5 When compared with conventional foods, there are less greenhouse gas emissions from transportation and additives to keep items fresh, particularly in foods that are plant-based. Choosing regionally-sources foods encourages small-scale farmers to grow indigenous foods that thrive in the local climate. This then increases biodiversity and makes pesticides, herbicides, and unnatural fertilizers less necessary. Supporting local foods often means also supporting regional traditions and cultures that use environmentally motivated growing techniques. An example of this is a local farmer using organic growing practices but not being USDA Organic certified.

The sustainability attributes of eating locally tie in well with the health benefits, which is why the USDA, World Health Organization (WHO), Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and various international alliances have begun incorporating local foods into dietary recommendations. A diet that emphasizes cooking and eating plant sources like whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, oils, and herbs and spices has been found to be both sustainable not only for the environment, but also dietary habits, and preventative of heart disease, stroke, obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, Type 2 Diabetes, and many cancers.3,4,13,14,16,18,19

So, now you might be asking, how can I eat locally?

  • Sometimes the price of local produce can be higher, but the key to finding more affordable options is to buy products in-season.

  • Farmer’s markets are also often competitively priced compared to nearby retail prices to help keep them reasonable.

  • CSA’s offer subscriptions for weekly pick-ups of fresh produce for a fee or in exchange for helping with care or harvesting.

  • Look for roadside farm stores to stop by

  • Social media is a great way to find and reach out to local farmers

  • If you have the space, you can try growing your own foods in a garden or planter too!
    • If you have any extra garden space, consider planting a row for donation to a local food bank. UNH has the Plant a Row program that can help out with seeds and donation sites.

References:

  1. Cappelli, Lucio, Ascenzo, Fabrizio D, Ruggieri, Roberto & Gorelova, Irina (2022). "Is Buying Local Food a Sustainable Practice? A Scoping Review of Consumers’ Preference for Local Food." Sustainability, 14(2).10.3390/su14020772
  2. Gonzalez, C., & Garnett, T., Wahlqvist, M., Roos, E., Dibb, S., van Dooren, C., Baquero, D., Bhattacharjee, L., Lee-Gammage, S., Levy, L., Monteiro, C., Pearson, M., Seed, B., Williamson, D., (2016). Plates, Pyramids, Planet - Developments in national healthy and sustainable dietary guidelines: a state of play assessment. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations: Plates, pyramids, and planets. Retrieved March 7, 2022, from https://www.fao.org/3/i5640e/I5640E.pdf
  3. Frieler, B. (2017, May 1). 10 benefits of eating local food. Bastyr University. Retrieved March 7, 2022, from https://bastyr.edu/news/health-tips/2017/05/10-benefits-eating-local-fo…
  4. Honeycutt, E. (2017, December 21). Why buy local food? it's healthier for you and better for the environment. Food Revolution Network. Retrieved March 7, 2022, from https://foodrevolution.org/blog/why-buy-local-food/
  5. Low, S. A., Adalja, A., Beaulieu, E., Key, N., Martinez, S., Melton, A., Perez, A., Ralston, K., Stewart, H., Suttles, S., Vogel, S., Jablonski, B. B.R., (2015, January). Trends in U.S. Local and Regional Food Systems, AP-068. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service. Retrieved March 7, 2022, from https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/42805/51173_ap068.pdf
  6. Google - Google Trends - Locavore. Google Trends Explore. (n.d.). Retrieved March 7, 2022, from https://trends.google.com/trends/explore?date=all&geo=US&q=Google
  7. Randolph, L. (2021, April 13). What's a locavore and why you should care. The Spruce Eats. Retrieved March 7, 2022, from https://www.thespruceeats.com/what-is-a-locavore-5118259
  8. Chemicals in food. European Food Safety Authority. (n.d.). Retrieved March 7, 2022, from https://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/topics/topic/chemicals-food
  9. Abnet, C. C. (2009, November 25). Carcinogenic food contaminants. Cancer investigation. Retrieved March 7, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2782753/
  10. Rather, I. A., Koh, W. Y., Paek, W. K., & Lim, J. (2017, November 17). The sources of chemical contaminants in food and their health implications. Frontiers in pharmacology. Retrieved March 7, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5699236/
  11. Bihn, E. A., Springer, L., & Pineda-Bermudez, L. (2019, May 20). Local food safety collaborative needs assessment survey report. Local Food Safety Collaborative. Retrieved March 7, 2022, from https://foodsafetyclearinghouse.org/sites/default/files/files/2021_prod…
  12. Printezis, I., & Grebitus, C. (2018, June 15). Marketing channels for local food. Ecological Economics. Retrieved March 7, 2022, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0921800918304348?cas…
  13. Wunderlich, S. M., Feldman, C., Kane, S., & Hazhin, T. (2008, February). Nutritional quality of organic, conventional, and seasonally grown broccoli using vitamin C as a marker. International journal of food sciences and nutrition. Retrieved March 7, 2022, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17852499/
  14. Harvard T.H. Chan. (2021, July 7). Plate and the planet. The Nutrition Source. Retrieved March 7, 2022, from https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/sustainability/plate-and-p…
  15. Vigar, V., Myers, S., Oliver, C., Arellano, J., Robinson, S., & Leifert, C. (2019, December 18). A systematic review of organic versus conventional food consumption: Is there a measurable benefit on human health? MDPI. Retrieved March 7, 2022, from https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/12/1/7#cite
  16. Harvard T.H. Chan. (2021, March 3). Vegetables and fruits. The Nutrition Source. Retrieved March 7, 2022, from https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/vegeta…
  17. Leg rand, W., Hind ley, C., & Laeis, G. G. (n.d.). Food Biodiversity, local sourcing and consumers: Gastronomy as a critical interface. Ebrary. Retrieved March 7, 2022, from https://ebrary.net/211119/health/food_biodiversity_local_sourcing_consu…
  18. Darnton, J., & McGuire, L. (2022, January 21). What are the physical and mental benefits of gardening? MSU Extension. Retrieved March 7, 2022, from https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/what_are_the_physical_and_mental_benefits…
  19. Fairbank, S., Hirschi, J., Lipson, S., Letourneau, J., Olcott, D., Sasportas, K., Wendel, J., Wolf, D., (2019, February). Health lens analysis of urban agriculture policy. Cambridge, MA. Retrieved March 7, 2022, from https://www.cambridgema.gov/-/media/Files/CDD/Planning/urbanagriculture/cambridgehealthlensanalysis_final.pdf#:~:text=Urban%20agriculture%20has%20increasingly%20been%20recognized%20for%20its,activity%20and%20mental%20health%2C%20and%20deliver%20ecological%20benefits.
  20. Wadyka, S. (2018, July 12). Farmers market produce: Local vs. organic. Consumer Reports. Retrieved March 7, 2022, from https://www.consumerreports.org/fruits-vegetables/farmers-market-produc…
Madison McCurdy, Nutrition Connections Intern

Our specialists  help create healthy people and health places in New Hampshire. 

Featured Program this month

living well with Chronic Pain WORKSHOPS