OPINION | Home-grown healthy diets: Your garden could be the key to good eating habits

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Over the past century the number of people who suffer from deficiencies of essential nutrients have dramatically decreased.

Environmental hygiene, access to clean water, immunisation and improved health care have reduced the prevalence of many infectious diseases.

This has contributed to the increased life expectancy for South Africans. However, sadly, many people will not be as healthy as they could be as they age, as the number of people with diseases such as Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular (heart and blood vessel) disease and cancer are increasing.

These diseases are described as ‘non-communicable’, people do not catch them when germs are spread.

Many of the factors that contribute to the rise in the prevalence of non-communicable diseases are lifestyle factors, such as poor dietary habits, lack of exercise, smoking and abuse of alcohol.

These lifestyle habits and the resulting diseases account for 51 % of premature deaths of South Africans.

Researchers have asked people who know about the importance of eating plenty of vegetables and fruit why they do not do so.

Some of the reasons that are frequently given include the cost, lack of access or that it is not a habit.

Home food gardening helps to overcome all these barriers to consumption. It also provides the benefit of giving gardeners some physical activity, without having to go to a gym.

You do not need a lot of space to start a food garden, even a small one can provide produce to supplement what you buy.

No specialist tools are needed, basic equipment does the job. The choice of vegetables, fruit and herbs that you plant can take the nutrient content into consideration, but starting with produce most likely to grow in your area successfully can be a starter step.

My husband started our food gardening journey by planting fruit trees. At this time we were both working full time and there were many demands on weekend time.

These trees now contribute prolifically to our food supply.

The avocado, litchi and mango trees are well established and we get enough avocadoes to share with the neighbours. They then share their bananas with us.

The vegetable gardening is a more recent endeavour, but already very productive. Last summer we had butternuts galore, again enough to share.

The jam tomatoes were not a success, but the cocktail tomatoes provided a daily contribution to our meals.

Two granadilla vines were also successful, we enjoyed them fresh, I froze some pulp and we made granadilla jam.

The garden also produces plants for seasoning home cooked meals, notably chillies and sweet piquanté peppers.

These were turned into hot Louisiana sauce and preserved in sweetened vinegar, respectively.

Rosemary, thyme and parsley are the only success stories in the herb garden. Alas something seems to like the basil and little remains for me to use in cooking.

Luckily I did not expect every plant to be success so I will learn to cope with this in time.

The gardening has also been a journey to new discoveries, with friends and family contributing tamarillo and dragon fruit plants. These will hopefully provide fruit this summer.

I was raised eating healthy, home made, family meals. Including vegetables as an important part of meals is a practice that is part of how I eat.

Having ready access to our home grown produce has increased the quantity that we eat.

The produce was available so readily that it became a challenge to see how much I could manage to include in our meals.

I look forward to the coming summer months, the seedlings are waiting to be planted, and the water tanks are full of rain water collected from the roof.

As an aside, another benefit of home food gardening is making our own compost. All the plant waste from the kitchen goes to the compost heap.

This means it is not going to landfill, but rather back to nourishing our soil.

If you think that home food gardening is not for you, I suggest you start small, with something that will grow easily where you live, and with time the gardening bug will bite, and your meals will be brim full of fresh produce.

The quantity of vegetables you eat can increase, your nutrient intake will increase and your diet will help promote your health.

Happy gardening.

*Carol Browne is a Registered Nutritionist and spokesperson for the Nutrition Society of South Africa (NSSA).

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