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Strategies for creating healthier food

World Health Day is Sunday and this year’s commemoration focuses on high blood pressure.

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that one-third of adults worldwide have high blood pressure, and one in 10 adults worldwide has diabetes.

While there are multiple causes of high blood pressure and other chronic diseases, poor diets are among the most significant. The world today is facing a food paradox. There are nearly 1 billion people hungry and 1 billion people overweight, and in many countries these problems now exist simultaneously. Although they may seem to be opposite problems, reports have linked both hunger and obesity with diets lacking in nutrients.

During the past 50 years, the modern agriculture system has had great success boosting crop yields around the world. However, the Organic Center reports that the amount and variety of essential nutrients in many crops has declined. The result is that the same amount of sweet corn, potatoes or bread now has far less zinc, calcium and iron than it did a half century ago. At the same time, global emphasis on calorie content has increased access to high-calorie, processed foods around the world, even as access to nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables has declined.

For example, a new study from the Union of Concerned Scientists found that, as a result of the food industry’s demand for refined grains and sugars, only 2 percent of U.S. farmland is used to grow fruits and vegetables.

The following are Food Tank’s recommended strategies for creating healthier food and agriculture systems:

1. Eat more vegetables and fruits. Less than one in three Americans meets the minimum goal of eating two servings of fruit and three servings of vegetables each day, as recommended by the United States Department of Agriculture.

2. Strengthen soil. Intercropping with legumes, including alfalfa or peas, helps return nitrogen to the soil and support healthy plant growth. Using cover crops, which can be plowed into fields after harvest and return nutrients to the soil, is another strategy that helps increase the amount of nutrients in food. Planting trees on farms – or agroforestry – also can help keep nutrients and water in the soil.

3. Know your nutrients. Kale, sesame seeds, dried figs, salmon and broccoli are excellent sources of calcium. Dark green, leafy vegetables also are rich in vitamin K, which is similar to vitamin D in the way it helps the human body make the most of the calcium in food.

4. Support family farmers. Small and medium-scale family farms are more likely than big farms to produce nutrient-rich crops, using practices that help keep nutrients in the soil. Family farmers also produce more nutrient-dense foods, including fruits and vegetables. Buying food at farmers’ markets and joining a Community Supported Agriculture effort can be good ways to support family farms and help build the local economy.

5. Choose whole grains. Whole grains are valuable, low-cost sources of protein and fiber, and can help reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer, Type-2 diabetes and other diseases.

6. Eat out less. The Natural Resources Defense Council reports that some American restaurants serve portions up to eight times those recommended by the USDA. Eating home-cooked meals is an easy way to manage portion sizes and calories.

7. Buy and grow organic. The Environmental Working Group publishes an annual Shopper’s Guide assessing which fruits and vegetables have the most pesticides. Last year, apples, celery and sweet bell peppers were in the top three; onions, sweet corn and pineapples were among the safest foods to buy as conventional.

8. Choose grass-fed meat. Lean meat can contain many valuable nutrients that support a healthy diet. Grass-fed meat usually has less fat than conventional corn- and grain-fed meat products. When choosing animal products, two of the best labels to look for are “organic” and “pasture-raised.”

9. Support indigenous, heritage and heirloom. A study from the University of Texas found that the amount of nutrients in 43 different food crops have significantly decreased since 1950. The researchers concluded that the most likely causes were changes in the plants themselves. Heritage breeds of farm animals and heirloom plant varieties, which have not been bred for increased yields, have the potential to be much more nutritious.

Food Tank ( is a think tank focused on feeding the world better.