KW resident George Harvey was diagnosed with dangerously high blood pressure when he was only 19 years old. This surprised George, as he was not overweight and assumed he was healthy. He was immediately put on betablockers and monitored closely. Eventually George was switched to diuretics, but was resigned to a lifetime of taking blood pressure medication, due to the severity of his condition. He had never been told anything different.
That was 10 years ago. This past summer, George and his wife Sheila decided to join the Healing Path Centre for Natural Medicine and over 100 Waterloo Region residents on 100 days of local eating. They purged their cupboards of all processed foods and other foods not grown within 100 miles. They then spent the summer enjoying fresh local produce from LOFT, Millbank Cheese, St. Jacob’s Market, Grassroots Organics, and their local butcher.
Within a month of starting the 100-mile Challenge, George and Sheila had more energy and were feeling great. And, curiously, George noticed that his blood pressure was normal every time he measured it. In fact, by the end of the summer, his MD gave him the go-ahead to go off his medication entirely! “If we knew 10 years ago that we could have CURED him with food…”, said Sheila “I still can’t believe it”.
A quick survey of participants from the 100-Mile Challenge reveals many similar stories of the positive health benefits of the 100-mile diet. By simply supporting local farmers, residents of Waterloo Region lost weight, had more energy and reduced their need for medications. This was exciting news for naturopathic doctors Rachel Vanden Berg and myself who launched the program without knowing how the summer would unfold. We did assume that eating locally for most people would have a positive impact on their health — less junk food and more fresh produce — that’s good, right? And the anecdotal evidence from participants like George and Sheila certainly supported our assumption.
Intrigued, I wanted to explore this further. Initial results seemed consistently positive. But could this be sustained in the long-term? Would life without foods like olive oil and almonds eventually results in nutritional deficiencies? So I did an experiment. I asked for three volunteers to help me figure out if the 100-mile diet was as healthy as it should be.
Each of the three participants (1 adult male and 2 adult females) recorded exact quantities and ingredients of what they were eating for three full days. I used nutritiondata.com to input the data, add all of the meals together and find the nutrient profile for an average day on the 100-mile diet. This is not necessarily statistically representative, but I think it gives enough data for us to make some comments.
The average calorie intake for the volunteers was 1652 calories per day. The recommended daily requirements for nutrition data are based on a 2000 calorie per day diet, so I was looking for at least 83% of the requirement met (1652/2000 x 100 = 82.3%) for all vitamins and minerals.
First off, the caloric intake of the volunteers was a little lower than average: 1652 calories per day. According to Statistics Canada (Data source: 2004 Canadian Community Health Survey: Nutrition), the average Canadian eats between 1514 and 2894 calories per day, depending on age category and sex. If 100-mile dieters were eating on average less than their non-local counterparts, it could account for some of the weight loss that some participants experienced.
Next we look at the macronutrient ratio of the participants: 49% carbohydrates, 32% fats and 18% proteins (plus 1% alcohol). Many people do well on a similar ratio, and it definitely falls in what is conventionally considered a healthy range. Looking further into the fats profile introduces a problematic issue. The omega-3 fatty acid to omega-6 fatty acid ratio of the participants’ diet was 1:15. Optimal healthy ranges are more like 1:1 or 1:4. Although, the participants’ ratio is not any worse that the standard North American Diet, the problem is that sources of omega-3s – fish and flax – on the 100-mile diet are slim, so improving the ratio can be difficult. Local fish is available but consuming too much on the 100-mile diet could results in mercury levels that exceed recommended limits. Ground flax seed is available, but does not contain as much omega-3 as the flax oil would, which is not available locally. Of the main oils available – canola and sunflower – canola is a better choice because it does contain some omega-3’s. The choice becomes complicated because the canola oild that is available is not organic and therefore could be genetically modified. The bottom line? Ground flax seed and canola oil (in small amounts) can improve the ratio, but it is likely not possible to reach desired omega-3 to omega-6 ratio on the 100-mile diet.
Now in terms of micro-nutrients – the vitamins and minerals – the 100-mile diet overall looks very good, with a few exceptions. Vitamin E, calcium and iron were a little low in the diets analyzed. Sodium is lower than average which is a good thing and could account for some participants’ lower blood pressure. Zinc is low – possibly due to the unavailability of some sources like pumpkin seeds. One participant noticed white spots on her nails after starting the diet – a sign of zinc deficiency. Vitamin D is low, which shouldn’t be a problem in the summer, if sun exposure is a possibility. In the winter, supplementation should be considered. Vitamin B12 is low in the participants, which brings up an interesting issue. Food sources include beef, cheese, milk, egg, chicken – all animal sources. I don’t think there are any local vegetarian sources of vitamin B12, so long term, the strict 100-mile vegetarian could run into a deficiency situation.
I’ve seen a lot of diets analyzed in this method, and overall, the 100-mile diet looks quite good. The focus on whole foods and away from processed foods is key to the health benefits. However, if this were a long-term lifestyle choice, I would recommend the following modifications:
- growing and harvesting seeds from sunflowers and pumpkins until they are available commercially; or eating non-local nuts and seeds (for vitamin E, calcium and other minerals, healthy fats);
- fish or flax oil supplementation (for omega-3s);
- Vitamin D supplementation, at least in the winter months;
- Vitamin B12 capsules for vegetarians;
- And many folks would benefit from multi-vitamin-mineral supplementation.
Interesting! With only a few modifications, the 100-mile diet looks like an excellent long-term lifestyle choice for your health — in Waterloo Region, anyway. George and Sheila and many others have experienced the benefits firsthand.
Local Sources of key vitamins and minerals
Calcium – milk and other dairy products, broccoli and dark leafy greens such as kale and swiss chard;
Iron – beef, dark leafy greens, and kidney beans.
Zinc – beef, turkey, dairy, potato, oats, legumes.
Vitamin E – sunflower oil, tempeh, peanuts and sweet potato.