I think I'm going to experience serious withdrawal now that I have to wait until February for new episodes of AMC's The Walking Dead. I'm a huge fan of all things horror, including zombies, but as a nutritionist one thing really struck me about last night's mid-season finale - these zombie apocalypse survivors sure do eat healthfully! Seriously, I know it's TV but that farm is incredible! Now, I'm certainly not wishing for a viral threat that turns humans into cannibal corpses, but nutritionally speaking there are a few lessons we could learn from a world with no more drive-throughs, fancy coffee shops, or restaurants that serve egregious dishes like fried mac and cheese balls:
Lesson 1: Eat seasonally
If you've ever eaten a tomato moments after it fell from the vine, you know how amazing uber-fresh foods smell and taste. And they're more nutritious because letting a food fully ripen before harvesting allows it to reach its nutritional peak. Today, most fruits and veggies travel about 1500 miles from where they're grown, so they're often picked before they peak, and the second they're harvested, they begin to lose nutrients. Fully ripe produce - like those gorgeous carrots Lori was chopping in last night's episode - is chock full of vitamins and antioxidants, which are partly responsible for taste, color, aroma, firmness, mouth feel, and even sound (e.g., the "snap" of a string bean or "crack" when biting into a crisp apple). Seasonal eating can also mean enjoying foods out of season that were dried, frozen or pickled when they were fresh, which preserves them while locking in nutrients.
Lesson 2: Know where your protein comes from
On the show, the characters primarily eat farm-fresh eggs from chickens raised by a veterinary and fresh-caught seafood (OK forget the part when Daryl ate the raw squirrel). That means no factory farmed animals treated with hormones and antibiotics. Today, roughly 80 percent of all U.S. feedlot cattle are injected with hormones, and the average dairy cow, which produced about 5,300 pounds of milk a year in 1950, now pumps out more than 18,000 pounds. Does that seem natural? We now know that hormones given to animals can enter the surrounding environment, and according to the World Health Organization, the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture has contributed to the rise in drug-resistant germs. Seventy percent of all antimicrobial dugs used in the United States are given to farm animals, and the Food and Drug Administration says over 70 percent of bacteria that cause infections in hospitals are resistant to at least one of the drugs most commonly used to treat infections. Now that's scary stuff.
Lesson 3: Earn every bite
Planting, harvesting and cooking food all burn significant calories. An hour of gardening torches anywhere from 250 to 300 calories, spending an hour cooking burns about 150, and washing dishes by hand for 30 minutes burns another 160 calories. That's all pretty significant considering that if you burned just an extra 100 calories a day without making any other changes you could lost 10 pounds of body fat in a year's time— that's the equivalent of ten 16 oz tubs of shortening.
Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV she's a SHAPE contributing editor and nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and . Her latest New York Times best seller is Cinch! Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.