This is the thirteenth post in the ABCs of Homesteading series. Click here to read the rest of the series.
Even before I started homesteading full-time, and raising and growing my own food at home, I lived on a diet of mainly local, farm fresh vegetables, fruits, meats, and other products. I almost never ate packaged foods and I exercised regularly. Yet I still wasn't healthy. In fact, I was sick all the time from asthma, allergies, stomach ailments, headaches, and back pain.
When we first moved to our homestead, it would take me whole day to dig a few holes to plant grapevines or to prepare one row of our garden. And I had to rest frequently to get it done. Now I can easily dig 10 deep holes, install a fence, and prepare several rows of our garden beds in half a day's work. Then I can milk goats, haul hundreds of pounds of water around our homestead, toss around 50 pound feed bags like a Scottish Highlander hurling trees, and more. My asthma symptoms are even infrequent now.
I have more energy, strength, and stamina as a homesteader at 42 years of age than I did as an athlete at 18. So what changed?
Part of the dramatic improvement in my performance is simply that I have become more skilled in the years since we moved here. I also get a whole lot more exercise throughout the day, as a homesteader, than I did working in an office so I am more physically fit. But there are also less obvious, but equally tangible reasons why my health is so improved. I attribute quite a bit of it to some basic dietary changes that have happened as a result of homesteading.
The big prevailing lesson I have learned is that there's a lot more to nutrition than just what you eat. Nutrition is about supplying your body what it needs to stay alive. If you didn't already have nutrition, you'd be dead. But that's not what most of us are aiming for when we talk about “good nutrition”.
We want freedom from illness and radiant good health. To get that, you have to think well beyond just checking a box and supplying your body with calories, minerals, and vitamins. You also need to think about using your nutrition to help your body's vital systems achieve their peak performance.
One of the first things I realized related to my nutrition, as a homesteader, was that transmission methods really make a difference. For example, our skin is actually designed make vitamin D through exposure to sunlight. Taking a vitamin D supplement technically gives your body that nutrition. However, it's a bit like putting your heart on a bypass machine. Your body is no longer doing the work for you and so your overall quality of health is not likely to be the same.
To get the maximum benefits from Vitamin D, I know I must get it directly from the sun, by way of my skin. And the amount of time I need to spend outside to do this varies from day to day. On cloudy days or in winter, I may need to spend the better part of the day outside to get a sufficient dose and I may have to take off my jacket and expose my arms despite the cold.
Getting enough vitamin D from the sun at all times of the year can be difficult depending on where you live. The link below has some really detailed information to help you calculate and plan for your sunshine needs.
Your colon is literally like an internal compost pile. In a perfect world, stuff gets processed and moved out of there within 36 hours. To break things down that quickly, it's got to function a bit like hot composting on steroids – meaning it requires the perfect environment and a huge amount of biological compost helpers. And so, a healthy colon must be full of all sorts of biological critters like bacteria that decompose everything you send through your digestive tract.
Like your compost pile though, if you don't create the right circumstances for good bacterial decomposition, you'll just get a stinking, nasty mess. Eating a lot of fiber certainly helps keep your colon clear. But, from experience, I know that nothing is more effective at creating optimal digestive health than eating fermented foods.
Now I am not a scientist, nutritionist, or medical expert of any sort. But, a few years ago one of my family members was given some antibiotics that ended up making her have a three month run in with diarrhea. It was so bad that her life was actually at risk from dehydration. Her doctor put her on every kind of pharmaceutical antidote available with no effect. Finally, he told her to quit everything he had previously prescribed and start eating probiotic yogurt three times a day. A few days later her problem was solved.
That experience stood out in my memory. And since then I have encountered a lot of people who were advised by their doctors to up their fermented food intake, particularly yogurt, while taking antibiotics.
With this mainstream medical experience in mind, as we started homesteading, we also began experimenting with making our own ferments. Sauerkraut came first, then kimchi, kombucha, yogurt, radishes, mustard, arugula, mints, cilantro, cucumbers, beets, mustard, lemons...
We literally started fermenting everything just to see how it would turn out. Some of it we use as condiments like fermented cilantro on tacos. Some we eat with eat as sides like kimchi or fermented green tomatoes. Others we snack on like fermented pickles, beets, or radishes. Homemade yogurt goes in our smoothies or is slathered with honey and served as dessert. A variety of homestead vinegars go in our salad dressing or are added to water to make refreshing beverages. And of course there is wine and cider for weekends (those count too, right?).
Since we started using ferments in our every day diet, our overall health has improved. When we do occasionally get worn down and end up sick, we up our intake of ferments and recover faster than others who caught the cold or flu at the same time. We also tend to be more energetic and able to get our necessary tasks done while being sick.
We even use fermented foods to improve the health of our animals. The benefits of probiotics are pretty well-documented among chicken and goat owners. And they can be expensive to buy for those of us living on impossibly small budgets. But now that we do so much fermenting at home, I can just share what we use with our animals and cut my animal care costs.
I could spend all day citing the scientific and anecdotal benefits of ferments. But, rather than bore you with facts and data that you can easily research on your own, why not just try it? Ferment something, eat it daily for a couple of weeks, and see how you feel. You can check out my fermented pickle recipe for starters.
Yes – you do need to eat these daily for lasting benefits. But ferments are delicious, so why wouldn't you want to?
As Sharon Porter and Marjory Wildcraft, over at The Grow Network, often tell me, “Water is a nutrient.” And it is the one nutrient that an extremely large proportion of the population are dangerously deficient in.
If you aren't drinking at least half your body weight in ounces of water each day, you are probably dehydrated. Dehydration is highly correlated with almost every terrible chronic disease you can think of. Every single time you feel thirsty, there is a really good chance you have increased your risk for heart disease.
I just spent 54 hours researching and co-authoring a project about chronic dehydration and good hydration practices. So, I can say based on reading countless scholarly studies, and on my own experience with dehydration, that just because we don't always feel thirsty doesn't mean we're well-hydrated. And since absolutely nothing is more critical to the functioning of your body than water – or our planet for that matter since life could not exist without it -- drinking lots and lots of it matters for good health.
Other beverages can hydrate, but nothing is more effective at hydrating for good health than clean water. You also need to balance your electrolytes for good absorption and usage rates. Sodium and potassium are both essential for optimal hydration. Most of us have excessive sodium in our diets. The antidote to sodium overload is to drink more water. Potassium, however, is in short supply in many of our diets (particularly in the US).
Personally, since we raise goats, their milk makes up a large part of my daily calories. A cup of goat milk has almost 500 mg of potassium per serving, or about 1/6th of your daily total requirement. Between my heavy consumption of milk, yogurt, cheese, and using whey in soups and eating large quantities of kale, spinach, mushrooms, beets, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, asparagus, and cabbage that are high in potassium too – I usually get more potassium than the recommended dose. Prior to homesteading though, I probably never even came close to meeting my daily needs for potassium though. And I always felt dehydrated no matter how much water I drank. Potassium intake makes a big difference in hydration health.
Drink sufficient water and balance your electrolytes – particularly sodium and potassium – for good homestead hydration.
A final factor that has really made a big difference in my health is eating fresh harvested food of the best quality. Even when I shopped at farmer's markets before, I would often leave my fruits and vegetables in the fridge or on counter tops for days to weeks not realizing that these once fresh edibles began losing nutrients the moment they were harvested.
Now, because we grow our own food at home, we harvest most of our fruits and vegetables right before use. We do store some vegetables. Things like extra strawberries go straight to the freezer to preserve nutrients. Long-storing foods like potatoes, sweet potatoes, and onions are properly cured for nutrient preservation. We also grow year-round greens and ferment many of our vegetables while they are fresh to help preserve the vitamin and mineral content.
Freshness is not the only factor that contributes to the quality of our food. We grow in soils that have a regular supply of fresh compost. We use crop rotation and cover-cropping to ensure that the mineral content available to our food sources remains high. We amend with rock dust and wood ash to add trace minerals on a regular basis. Though no one has tested this theory in a lab, my body tells me that each bite of food eaten from our own homestead holds more nutritional value than most of what I can buy.
Now, there are a lot of really wonderful small farmers out there who grow vegetables for market using practices just like we do on our homestead. (I'm one of them!) Just make sure you ask about their soil, their use of compost, and other methods they use to ensure high vitamin and mineral content in fruits and vegetables.
There is obviously a lot more to good homestead nutrition than what I can cover in this blog post. So, I hope you will take these ideas as food for thought on your quest for maintaining radiant health on your own homestead.
Next up in ours series, let's talk about the “O” word. No...the other one. I mean Organic. Be on the look out for The ABCS of Homesteading: O is for Organic and Beyond!
Tasha Greer spent several years “practicing” homesteading in a suburban home in Maryland before moving to a nearly 10-acre rural paradise in North Carolina in 2014. Together with her partner Matt Miles, she raises goats, poultry, pigs, herbs, worms, and maintains an extensive edible landscape at the reLuxe Ranch. She is a master gardener volunteer with a focus on helping people grow their own food. Tasha also is also a contributing author for The Grow Network. Find Tasha at The Way Back , reLuxe Renderings, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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