Why I'm All for This 100-Year-Old Wartime Activity

Big government can be meddlesome... no matter which party is in control.

But that meddling sometimes leads to big benefits for average folks. We saw this happen in the last century in the form of victory gardens.

Faced with the threat of food shortages in the U.S. and Europe during World War I, the U.S. government churned out propaganda that encouraged Americans to grow their own fruits, vegetables, and herbs in their backyards and in community gardens. Slogans like "Food Will Win the War" and "The Seeds of Victory Insure the Fruits of Peace" peppered newspapers, ads, and posters across the U.S.

These "war gardens" or "liberty gardens" weren't exclusive to the U.S. – other countries like Canada and the U.K. had them, too. But they weren't officially referred to as "victory gardens" until the war was winding down. That moniker came courtesy of Charles Lathrop Pack, an American businessman and philanthropist who had also set up the U.S. National War Garden Commission.

Victory gardens became so popular that they reappeared during World War II when Americans faced food shortages again. By 1943, victory gardens spanned at least 20 million gardens in the U.S., which accounted for 40% of America's produce in the following year. In total, roughly 8 million tons of food came from these gardens during the war.

Mary Carpenter, who grew up in Nebraska at the time, had fond memories of her neighborhood's victory gardens... "Everybody had one," she said. "We grew everything — asparagus, potatoes, tomatoes, black raspberries, pears, even grapes. That's what fed us and supplemented our food."

Over the next few decades, victory gardens fell out of favor as Americans leaned more on grocery stores and, eventually, supermarkets. But a global gardening boom resurfaced in recent years when the world faced a new battle with COVID-19.

Folks stuck at home found themselves turning to gardening as a new hobby to connect to nature and relieve stress, according to a 2022 report from the University of California, Davis. During the summer of 2020, researchers surveyed nearly 4,000 gardening enthusiasts in the U.S., Germany, and Australia. The report mentioned that gardeners felt a "sense of control and security that came from food production" and that gardening "heightened experiences of joy, beauty, and freedom." Plus, respondents said that gardening was an opportunity to socialize safely in the open air.

More research regarding the benefits of this meditative, relaxing activity has been emerging, thanks to renewed interest in at-home gardens. And it isn't just our mental health that gets a boost... According to a University of Colorado Boulder study published in January, folks who got into gardening were more physically active and ate more fiber than the nongardeners.

The small randomized, controlled study involved 291 folks (mostly middle-aged) in the Denver area who hadn't gardened for the past two years. Half of them received a lesson in gardening, some seeds, and a plot of land for a community garden. (The control group, of course, didn't participate in community gardening.)

Researchers collected data from the participants three times during the study. It included surveys on mental health and diet and body measurements, as well as activity levels measured by a device worn on the thigh.

The study showed that folks who gardened reported feeling less stressed and ate more vegetables and fiber (about 1.4 more grams) each day, compared with folks in the control group. It also showed that the gardeners were more physically active, too, engaging in moderate-to-vigorous levels of activity for roughly six more minutes a day, versus the non-gardeners.

I agree with the researchers... Gardening is terrific for protecting yourself from chronic diseases and cancer. After all, high-fiber diets can lower your risk of getting cancer (like breast and colon cancers). And reducing your stress and anxiety levels keeps high inflammation (which leads to metabolic diseases like diabetes) at bay.

One of my researchers has parents who love growing their own blueberries, cherry tomatoes, beets, romaine lettuce, red leaf lettuce, kale, and spinach, to name a few. Below is a photo of some of those leafy greens...

They plant various fruits and veggies in their allotted section of a public garden within their retirement community. And recently, they started an indoor hydroponic garden to grow lettuce for fresh salads during the fall and winter. Plus, they've also been able to keep off the extra pounds thanks to activities like weeding and watering.

As for myself, I love gardening. It embodies the health and wealth ethos of this newsletter perfectly... Growing my own pesticide-free produce means that I don't have to spend extra coin on the organic stuff at the supermarket (especially during these inflationary times).

Some of my favorite herbs to grow are oregano and basil. I use these fresh in my dishes instead of using the dried-out stuff in shakers. I also love getting my antioxidant fix from my tomatoes for sauces, salads, and salsas. Whether you call them fruits or veggies, tomatoes are rich in antioxidants like lycopene. This chemical compound in plants gives foods like watermelons and tomatoes their red color. And it can also reduce your risk of prostate cancer and stroke.

If you're new to gardening, don't worry... Plenty of foods are beginner friendly. Some of these easy-to-grow foods include blueberries, strawberries, herbs, radishes, and scallions. (If you live in an area with deer, though, buy a roll of wire fencing at your local home-improvement store to stretch over your plants.)

You don't have to have a backyard, either... City dwellers can grow fruits and veggies in pots and indoors, too. Head on over to this YouTube channel on urban gardening for tips if you're tight on space.

You can also check out this list of some fast-growing vegetables for an early harvest right here. It includes one of my top four foods that fights Alzheimer's. Subscribers to my Retirement Millionaire newsletter read all about my favorite brain-friendly foods in this month's issue. And if you aren't a subscriber, you can give Retirement Millionaire a trial run right here.

Thankfully, we're not at war these days, and the COVID-19 pandemic is over. But the risk of developing chronic diseases will always remain as we all age. So try starting your own victory garden today, in a fight for better health.

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Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
April 25, 2023