Growing My Own Food Helped Me Heal After Loss, and Now Science Says It Can Help You Too

"This study demonstrates that gardening can be very therapeutic for people trying to make a change in their lives."

Potted herb sprouts

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The first time I ever experienced digging my hands into the dirt and growing edible fruits and vegetables occurred six months after my Dad died. Though few studies pointed toward the scientific benefits of gardening at the time, what I remember most from my experience is just how healing growing food felt. And now, one university is validating this emotional response.

The University of Colorado Boulder conducted the first-ever randomized, controlled trial of community gardening, published in the January issue of Lancet Planetary Health. The study, funded by the American Cancer Society, followed nearly 300 non-gardening adults to determine the impacts of growing food. The findings showed that those who started gardening ate more fiber, increased physical activity, and significantly decreased anxiety. 

To conduct the test, lead researcher Jill Litt, a professor in the Department of Environmental Studies at CU Boulder, recruited adults, with an average age of 41, from the Denver area. More than a third identified as Latinx, and more than half came from low-income households. Half of the research group was assigned to participate in a community gardening group. The other half became the control group that was asked to wait one year to start gardening.

The newly appointed food growers received a free community garden plot, starter seeds, and seedlings and took a beginner's gardening class taught by the Denver Urban Gardens program. To track the study, both groups participated in surveys that asked them questions about their nutritional intake and mental health. Both groups also took part in periodic body measurements and wore activity monitors.

Litt, whose career primarily revolves around seeking affordable, scalable, and sustainable ways to reduce disease risk, explains to Food & Wine, "The evidence generated through this study demonstrates that gardening can be very therapeutic for people trying to make a change in their lives to improve their health and wellbeing." She continues, "The beauty of it is that people don't feel like it is a chore but rather something they love to do, and it doesn't have to cost a fortune."

This scientific breakthrough, Litt shares, is significant because solid science on the benefits of gardening has been hard to come by. Litt shares CU Boulder Today, "Without evidence, it's hard to get support for new programs." 

So, what exactly did the study discover? 

The study showed that the gardening participants started eating, on average, 1.4 grams more fiber per day than the control group. While this number may seem small, Litt says, "These changes are key to living a healthier life and reducing risk for chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and so on." 

The study shows that the gardening group also increased physical activity by about 42 minutes per week. With only a few visits to the garden per week, the study also showed that participants met 28% of public health officials' weekly recommended exercise requirement. (This makes sense because, if I remember correctly, pulling weeds is an intense workout.)

Lastly, and increasingly important as the nation continues to battle mental health diseases, the study showed that participants reported a significant reduction in stress and anxiety levels. Now, Litt hopes this study will be a win for community garden organizations everywhere. 

"I would like to see gardens become a primary and permanent natural space in communities, similar to playgrounds, public plazas, and other aspects of the social infrastructure of communities," Litt says. 

She continues, "Citizens and local organizations can make this a reality by working with local planners to update/amend master and neighborhood plans and zoning ordinances and advocate for long-term land leases for these spaces."

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