Complete diets improve our health and diversify our farmland

This post has been contributed by Margaret Smith, a graduate research assistant for the Appalachian Foodshed Project.  Margaret is a masters student at Virginia Tech in the Department of Crop & Soil Environmental Sciences.  She works with Dr. Steve Hodges.

Around the world and in our own backyards, the food movement represents a diverse array of people working to not only meet the fundamental needs of humans to eat, but to eat well and to responsibly steward the lands that feed us.  Nutrition and agriculture are obviously tied together, but national discussion and policy on these two critical issues are too often separated.  While productivity and efficiency have long been the focus of agriculture, addressing nutritional deficiencies and excess have been the goals of nutritional science.  In order to enhance food security in the region, complete, healthy diets from foods that are grown sustainably are needed and this calls for aligning the core goals and values of producers and food industries with the nutritional goals of consumers and health practitioners.

People in Appalachia working towards enhanced food security readily identify the connection between growing nutritious foods to raise strong, healthy families and sustaining the natural fertility and productivity of agricultural lands.  However, specific interactions between diet and agriculture, and people and the land, are much more complex and can be difficult to interpret on the ground or at the dinner table.

The case for considering complete diets is illustrated by the complex and, at times, contradictory science of the calorie.  Earlier this year, the USDA released a report hailing a net reduction per capita in calorie consumption.  This is big news in a nation struggling with the insidious spread of chronic diet-related disease.  Calories are a complicated topic, however, and are receiving criticism as a yardstick of the healthfulness of diets.  Growing numbers of dieticians, nutritionists, doctors, and policy-makers are advocating for using more complete diet measures, as calories alone are an incomplete picture of health and thus an incomplete picture for what farmers should grow locally.  Though an overall reduction in caloric intake is significant, it must be understood alongside gaps in availability and access of many healthy foods.

Since the late 1800s the USDA has released information on the latest nutritional knowledge.  However, many of these attempts from the Food Wheel of the 1980s, to the Food Guide Pyramids of the 1990s, to the most recent iteration (known as MyPlate) are admittedly skewed by the political influence of conventional agriculture and lobbyists for food products that are arguably not part of a balanced diet.  Approaching the dietary guidelines for Americans with the full knowledge of these fair criticisms, they nonetheless represent an important step in the right direction for public health insofar as they encourage people to consider consuming a variety of foods from multiple food groups.  Americans are consistently under-consuming healthy food choices and over-consuming added fats and sugars, and this is directly reflected in food availability.  The USDA reports that there is a deficiency in availability when it comes to healthful foods, such as whole grains, leafy green vegetables, fruits and vegetables.  Improving diets by improving food access and availability are a key way to improve health and reduce morbidity and mortality while increasing quality of life.

So how would Appalachian farmland look differently if it were allocated primarily based on the complete diet needed by its population?  Based on previous assessments from around the region, the short answer is that it would probably look a lot different.  Initial research indicates that much of the prime agricultural land in the region is currently used for economically-important commodity crops such as corn and soybeans and pastureland used for raising livestock.  If agricultural lands were to be allocated based on complete dietary need, much of this land would be reallocated to bolster the production of fruits and vegetables to adequately meet the dietary needs of these food groups.  Though many economists argue that these gaps in availability of certain foods will be increasingly met by foreign imports, strategies to increase their production and consumption locally and regionally should be considered for their ability to foster thriving local economies and the ecosystem services associated with agriculture.

This is only one way of looking at the complex issue of food, diet and land use in Appalachia.  While there is the need to approach agricultural land use from the economic perspective of food production as providing thriving, profitable enterprises to our region, considering agriculture in light of actual healthful diets provides context for the need to more holistically consider the triple bottom line of people, planet and profit.

If we are to consider diet in the more complete context, producers, activists and service providers must balance three important components.  First, the body’s need for many different nutrients from many different types of foods must be taken into account, not simply a caloric tally.  Second, a culture’s need for traditional and preferred foods must be considered, as people want to eat foods that have meaning and enjoyment.  Third, important environmental concerns, such as seasonality and locally-adapted crops, must be considered in order to think about diets that take place into account and respect natural limits.

Federal dietary recommendations give us a starting place to begin to think of how to adequately supply the food system with foods that compose complete, healthy diets for an active life.  These recommendations, along with multiple other factors–including agricultural policy, nutrition education, personal preference, food prices, preparation skills, availability and access–all influence the human diet.

Barriers to access and availability can partially be addressed by reallocating farmland to healthful foods, but serve as a compelling way to address food insecurity and injustice in Appalachia.  Complete diets are a key way to improve health and reduce morbidity and mortality while increasing quality of life.  Considering the need of Appalachians to address hunger and high rates of diet-related disease, it is worthwhile to imagine how to realign the goals of nutrition and agriculture as this could inform how our region decides how to best use our farmland.  Research and sharing of knowledge is needed to better understand the impacts on the food system, and specifically on Appalachian farms, if a complete diet approach is taken to inform the decisions of growers and policy-makers.

Interested in further exploring and discussing the interaction of the human diet and agricultural land?  Please contact Margaret Smith ( about contributing to the AFP Modeling Workgroup, which is developing a values-based, system-dynamics model for Appalachia.