Working in garden yields multiple benefits

This year, I greatly enlarged my vegetable garden. I enjoy it, but it’s a lot more work than I realized. People tell me that gardening provides a lot of health benefits. Like what?

The health benefits associated with gardening are well documented.

First, growing your own fruits and vegetables increases the chance that you’ll eat the amount of produce recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans: 2-3 cups of vegetables and 1.5-2 cups of fruit each day. People who garden at home or at community gardens sometimes even report that they base their weekly menus around the produce they are able to harvest. There’s a large body of research that indicates adopting a largely plant-based diet, which encourages consumption of plant foods in their whole form (especially vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, seeds and small amounts of nuts), is associated with less risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

To get the most out of your garden, plant a wide variety of produce. Cool-season vegetables such as lettuce, onions, spinach, beets, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, peas, radishes and turnips thrive in the spring and provide an early start to the season. Many can also be planted again after the peak of the summer heat has passed and soil temperatures cool down again. Throughout the summer months, enjoy tending tomatoes, green beans, zucchini, cucumbers, okra, kale, Swiss chard and eggplant.

If you plant a wide variety of vegetables, you’ll eat a wide variety, too, and that’s important for making sure you are consuming a broad range of nutrients and health-promoting phytochemicals.

Gardening may also help you become more physically active. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends 2.5 hours of moderately intense activity a week (that’s about 30 minutes a day, five days a week) to reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes and some types of cancer and to strengthen bones and muscles. General gardening is considered a moderately intense activity.

In addition, several studies show gardening improves physical functioning in older adults. And a 2009 Kansas State University study indicated that gardening can help seniors’ hands keep strong and nimble.

Finally, despite the work — and possible worry that a visiting rabbit might nibble away your harvest — gardening can ease stress. A 2010 Dutch study in the Journal of Health Psychology compared self-reports of mood as well as levels of stress hormones between those who spent a half-hour reading indoors or gardening outdoors after participating in a stressful activity. The gardeners were significantly better off than the readers. This study reinforces research dating back to the 1980s that shows being around nature has restorative benefits, including lowering blood pressure and boosting immune function.

So, rest assured you are harvesting more than food for your dinner plate. You’re reaping multiple benefits that will pay off for years to come.

Chow Line is a service of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH 43210-1043,

Editor: This column was reviewed by Colleen Spees, assistant professor of medical dietetics in The Ohio State University’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences and with Ohio State University Extension. OSU Extension is the outreach arm of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences at Ohio State.

For a PDF of this column, please click here.

’Tis the season to stay healthy

451431143One of my friends is inspiring me to stay healthy over the holidays. She is making extra efforts to drink a lot of water and to walk more between now and New Year’s. What are some other healthy holiday ideas?

What a great way to celebrate the holidays — giving the gift of healthy living to yourself.

One of the keys to making it work is attitude. Don’t act like Scrooge when you decide not to have that second Christmas cookie. Instead, smile as you realize that you can enjoy the holidays without eating and drinking so much that you become bloated.

Your friend’s tactics are motivating in part because they’re simple. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Choose MyPlate offers other healthy holiday ideas that don’t require a massive effort, including:

  • When planning appetizers and snacks, choose crackers that are whole grain. Offer hummus, which is high in protein and a good source of fiber as well as vitamins and minerals. Serve whole-grain bread rolls instead of those made with white flour.
  • Water is always a great choice to quench your thirst, and you can dress it up for holiday parties. Get some carbonated water and serve with slices of lemon or lime, or flavor with a splash of fruit juice. Enjoy a cup or two before you fill the wine glass.
  • Consider fruit for dessert. Instead of pie, try baked apples with cinnamon and just a sprinkle of sugar, or serve fresh berries with a dollop of vanilla yogurt and a spoonful of granola on top.
  • For holiday cookies and other baked goods, try using apple sauce or pureed bananas in place of butter or margarine to reduce fat and calories. Just use a one-to-one replacement.
  • If you have a recipe that calls for heavy cream, try evaporated skim milk instead. It won’t be as rich, and it doesn’t whip or thicken like cream does, but it can be a great substitute in many recipes.
  • Prepare two (or more?) vegetables for holiday dinners, and be sure to fill half your plate with them.
  • When serving meats, trim away fat before cooking, or be sure to do so on your plate before eating. And go easy on the gravy and sauces: A little goes a long way.

You might not think all of these ideas will fit with your holiday plans. But choose a few. And remember, even if you include healthier ingredients in your cookies, it is best to load up on fruits and vegetables and limit desserts. Small steps can have a big impact and help set you in the right direction for the new year.

Chow Line is a service of Ohio State University’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH, 43210-1043, or

Editor: This week’s column will be the last for 2014. Look for Chow Line again on Jan. 9.

This column was reviewed by Carol Smathers, field specialist in Youth Nutrition and Wellness for Ohio State University Extension, the outreach arm of Ohio State’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.

Mindless eating’ leads to weight gain

I try to eat healthfully and normally do well during the day, but in the evening when I’m watching TV, I snack way too much, even though I’m not really hungry. Any ideas?

What you’re doing is so common that it has a name: “mindless eating.” Researchers, especially Brian Wansink at Cornell University, have explored this concept and have found that when Americans eat, we tend to rely not on internal cues, such as how hungry we are, but on other factors. And that leads to overeating.

One of those factors is eating while distracted — when watching TV, talking with family or friends, or eating in the car. When our attention is diverted from what we’re eating, we simply tend to eat and eat and eat — often not even really enjoying the food or the experience of eating it. Research at Yale University shows that viewing television food ads, especially those for unhealthy food, also triggers more food consumption.

Another external factor influencing how much we eat is serving size: If a larger serving is in front of us, we tend to eat more no matter what. Convenience and visibility of a food is another factor — if it’s easy to reach out and grab a food, we’ll be more likely to eat it. Even the way a room is lighted can cause us to eat more: Dim, soft lighting encourages us to prolong the eating experience and we eat more. Still other factors include stress, boredom or emotional reasons for eating.

The kicker? None of this has anything at all to do with how hungry we are.

So, how do you counteract these subconscious influences on eating? That’s a whole other line of study, called “intuitive eating.” Intuitive eating rejects restrictive approaches of dieting. It avoids the idea of “taboo” foods and encourages us to increase our awareness of what our body is telling us related to hunger, cravings and eating behavior. The idea is to actually pay attention whenever you’re eating, pausing to determine your level of hunger versus your feeling of fullness. The idea is to start eating when hungry, no matter what time it is or if others around you are eating or not, and to stop eating when full, no matter if there is more food at hand. Imagine a scale where 1 is starving and 10 is stuffed: Go ahead and eat when you feel like you’re at a 3 or 4 on the scale; stop when you’re at a 6 or 7. It requires thought and self-awareness, but prevents cycles of starving and binging, and also helps prevent emotional eating.

The concept of intuitive eating also lets people eat whatever food they want, as long as they pay attention to hunger/fullness cues. Research shows that such permission also reduces binge eating and is associated with a lower body-mass index.

First, focus on health, not weight

I’ve tried every diet under the sun, but I always gain back everything I’ve lost and more. Before I completely give up, what can I try next?

First, you know this already, but I’ll say it anyway: You are not alone. Most people who lose weight tend to put it back on. Studies suggest that we just tend to return to old habits that started the problem in the first place.

That’s why, for years, nutritionists have recommended adopting a lifestyle change rather than a “diet,” which people tend to think of as a short-term meandering off their normal routine. But adopting such behavior change can be extremely difficult, and is influenced by many things often out of your control.

That doesn’t mean giving up is your only option. Here are some things to consider as you find a new path:

Focus on health, not weight. Size and shape don’t necessarily reflect health. Eat plenty of vegetables (about 2.5 cups a day) and fruit (about 2 cups a day). Choose whole grains over refined, and lean proteins over fattier options. When you use fat, reach for oil instead of margarine or other solid fats. Get regular physical checkups and monitor your blood sugar, blood cholesterol, triglycerides and blood pressure. If they’re in normal ranges, you’re doing a lot of the right things.

Move more. We live in a sedentary society. Most of us spend too much time in front of a television or computer monitor, never approaching the 30 to 60 minutes of physical activity we should get five days a week. Take a good look at your typical day and see if there’s a way to add a 20-minute brisk walk to your regular routine. Whether or not you’re already physically active, taking these extra steps (literally) will help.

Eat less. That piece of advice is so simple it might sound, well, laughable. But portions have grown so much over the last few decades that it can be hard to tell what a real serving size should be. You might try a simple step: Fill your plate as normal — then remove one-third of the main dish and the starch (whether it’s grain-based or a starchy vegetable). See if you’re satisfied with the smaller amount; if not, have another serving of non-starchy vegetables to see if that does the trick.

At some point, you might try measuring a few foods you commonly eat to see if they’re within proper portion sizes. If you’re not sure how much of each food group you should be eating, download a PDF file of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Patterns at It has charts that show you how much of different types of foods are recommended for different calorie intakes. Then — step away from the computer and take that walk.

Chow Line is a service of Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH, 43210-1044, or