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Can living off the land benefit your health?

Dandelions may be considered weeds by many, but they have a great nutritional profile.
Dandelions may be considered weeds by many, but they have a great nutritional profile.
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Those who choose to live off the land are often looked upon with skepticism. Preppers, survivalists, homesteaders -- whatever you want to label them -- why would someone choose off-grid living over the conveniences of modern society? We wonder if they're preparing for an upcoming apocalypse. Is giving up a mainstream lifestyle for the simple life really better? Do these people know something we don't?

One part of a backwoods existence is living off the land. Goodbye highly processed, genetically modified megaportions. Hello pesticide-free homegrown vegetables and foraging for wild edibles. And if you do it right, it might also be a healthy lifestyle choice.

The two most common vegetables Americans eat are potatoes and tomatoes; oranges and apples are the most common fruits they reach for (but the majority of that is orange juice, not the whole fruit). Wild edibles -- many of which you probably consider weeds -- such as nettles, wild black cherries, dandelions and wild pecans not only add flavor to your diet, they add variety to what you're probably already eating at home. And that variety of fresh fruits and vegetables also balances out the nutrients contained in your diet. (Note, though, that if you don't know how to identify what's edible, living off the land could turn from healthy to deadly; educate yourself about toxic plants before you eat.)

Living off the land doesn't have to equal a life of nuts and berries, or even vegetarianism -- hunting, fishing, and keeping small livestock (such as chickens and goats) keep deprivation at bay for meat-eaters. Even if you're a novice fisherman, forage fish – small schooling fish such as anchovies and sardines that are often meals for other fish -- are packed with protein as well as omega-3 fatty acids, calcium and other important minerals . And raising animals for food means you'll know your milk and eggs are fresh and free of pesticides, antibiotics and added hormones.

Doctors and other health experts extoll the virtues of eating foods that are local and in season. While the plant-based, healthy fats-oriented Mediterranean diet is popular for its sound health benefits, some cardiologists are now touting the benefits of the Nordic diet (also known as the Noma diet), which emphasizes choosing seasonal, sustainable foraged foods for weight loss and overall good health [source: ESC].

When you make your own farm-to-table experience, you're active. You walk, balance, bend, reach, dig and carry. You see the pattern here -- you're moving. And all that aerobic and muscle-strengthening activity is good for maintaining a healthy weight as well as lowering your risk of developing cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers. When you put all this together, you might just live healthier -- and maybe even a little longer -- because of living off the land.

Author's Note: Can living off the land benefit your health?

One of my very favorite forage foods is fiddlehead ferns. I'm also fond of ramps and morels -- and I am blessed to live where matsutake mushrooms flourish. They're supposed to taste like a combination of asparagus and okra with the snap of green beans, although I find they really have a unique flavor of their own. Unfortunately harvesting them in my own yard proves difficult; not because they don't grow where I live (they do), but because one of my dogs is also quite fond of ferns.

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  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Physical Activity and Health." Feb. 16, 2011. (Sept. 5, 2014) http://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/everyone/health/index.html
  • European Society of Cardiology. "After the Mediterranean Diet, Now Try a Nordic Diet." ESC Congress News. Aug. 31, 2014. (Sept. 15, 2014) http://www.escardio.org/congresses/esc-2014/congress-news/Documents/sunday.pdf
  • Haspel, Tamar. "Is organic better for your health? A look at milk, meat, eggs, produce and fish." The Washington Post. April 7, 2014. (Sept. 5, 2014) http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/is-organic-better-for-your-health-a-look-at-milk-meat-eggs-produce-and-fish/2014/04/07/036c654e-a313-11e3-8466-d34c451760b9_story.html
  • Platt, John. "Going off the grid: Why more people are choosing to live life unplugged." Mother Nature Network. Nov. 14, 2012. (Sept. 5, 2014) http://www.mnn.com/lifestyle/responsible-living/stories/going-off-the-grid-why-more-people-are-choosing-to-live-life-un
  • Smith-Spanger, C. "Are organic foods safer or healthier than conventional alternatives?: a systematic review." Annals of Internal Medicine. Vol. 157, no. 5. Pages 348-366. Sept. 4, 2012. (Sept. 5, 2014) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22944875
  • Tufft, Ben. "Move over Mediterranean diet, the traditional Nordic diet could be key to losing weight." The Independent. Sept. 2, 2014. (Sept. 5, 2014) http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/news/move-over-mediterranean-diet-the-traditional-nordic-diet-could-be-key-to-losing-weight-9706389.html
  • United States Department of Agriculture - Economic Research Service. "Oranges and apples are America's top fruit choices." May 19, 2014. (Sept. 5, 2014) http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/chart-gallery/detail.aspx?chartId=40075#.VATWIfldVbw
  • United States Department of Agriculture - Economic Research Service. "Tomatoes and potatoes are the most commonly consumed vegetables." Nov. 4, 2013. (Sept. 5, 2014) http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/chart-gallery/detail.aspx?chartId=40452#.VATV-vldVbw
  • Voderbreggen, Mark. "Benefits of Foraging." Foraging Texas. November 2008. (Sept. 5, 2014) http://www.foragingtexas.com/2008/11/benefits-of-foraging.html