06/29/2012 06:33 pm ET Updated Jul 02, 2012

Table Talk: Dirt Can Be Good For You

This week's Family Dinner Table Talk, from HuffPost and The Family Dinner book:

Schools, offices, restaurants... Signs encouraging you to wash your hands (frequently) are everywhere. It's normal to buy pre-cleaned produce at the store and then rinse it off again at home. And moms and dads don't tend to like discovering that their kids have been playing around in the mud. But some people argue that dirt isn't always bad for us.

Writing in The New York Times last week, Human Food Project founder Jeff D. Leach defended the idea of "dirtying up our diets." We may have developed vaccines for diseases like polio and smallpox, but Leach says that our obsession with being clean could actually leave us vulnerable to other unpleasant conditions, including autoimmune disorders. (He's one of many dirt defenders.)

His argument is based on the idea that coming into contact with the microorganisms -- or tiny living things -- found in the world around us can help our bodies learn to protect themselves more effectively against disease. The more our bodies deal with microorganisms like those in dirt, he says, the easier it is for us to fight off the ones that might make us sick. At least, that's how many humans made it through before the days of "hand sanitizer and wet wipes." One of his practical recommendations: get produce from local farmers' markets instead of big-box superstores, when you can.

Of course, he's not saying that you should abandon cleanliness entirely. Leach simply seeks to point out that "too-shiny produce and triple-washed and bagged leafy greens" are not necessarily natural -- or even the healthiest on the market.

Questions for discussion:

  • How are our surroundings, and our sanitary habits, different from those of people who lived several hundred years ago?
  • Does Leach's argument make sense to you? Is it convincing?
  • Where do you normally get your food? What's the difference between the food you see at supermarkets and the food you grow in your garden or buy from local farmers?
  • When during the day do you get dirtiest?

In her cookbook, The Family Dinner, Laurie David talks about the importance of families making a ritual of sitting down to dinner together, and how family dinners offer a great opportunity for meaningful discussions about the day's news. "Dinner," she says, "is as much about digestible conversation as it is about delicious food."

We couldn't agree more. So HuffPost has joined with Laurie and every Friday afternoon, just in time for dinner, our editors highlight one of the most compelling news stories of the week -- stories that will spark a lively discussion among the whole family.