Fit and Frugal

Photo: CA Walnut Commission

Original Content: The Washington Post

There is, I believe, one widespread myth in the world of food and nutrition that urgently needs to be debunked. That myth is that it is too expensive to eat a nutritious diet.

Lately, I’ve seen reports in the media that say eating healthy is very costly, but that doesn’t jive with my professional or personal experience. When my clients switch to healthier diets, they tell me their food costs plummet. When I was a poor college student and 20-something professional starting out, having little money to spend on food kept me healthier than ever! In today’s economic crisis, I and my clients are experiencing the same thing, cutting back on food expenses forces a person to eat healthier.

Am I just being naïve? Could my experiences be so off-base?

Some argue that eating healthy is expensive in several respects.

First, they say that 1,500 calories of McDonald’s burgers and fries is cheaper than 1,500 calories of healthy food. While this may be true, this argument rests exclusively on considerations of calories and neglects to take into account the quality and the health benefits of the calories consumed. It also fails to recognize the astronomical health costs of being overweight or unhealthy as a result of regular (though cheap) fast food dining.

Second, they contend that eating frugally, which requires shopping and cooking, is time-consuming and has significant opportunity costs; that is, you could be doing more valuable things with your time. I find this argument unpersuasive because I believe it both overemphasizes the time required to prepare a good meal and fails to account for the positive benefits of food preparation. Anyone who has strolled through the Farmer’s Market with a friend, cooked a healthy meal with family members and children chipping in, or felt the warmth and nurturing of sharing a home-made meal would dispute that these activities are wastes of time and have no value.

Third, some argue that inexpensive food doesn’t taste good. My personal experiences and those of my clients’ suggest that the exact opposite is true. Is there anything tastier than a summer watermelon? A crisp, Fall apple? Or a piping hot bowl of home-made chicken soup? These are some of the simplest, most healthy and inexpensive items you can eat, according to the US Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service (ERS).

I’ve been heartened by a number of studies which confirm my own experience and demonstrate it is possible to eat delicious, healthy food at reasonable prices.

Let’s take a look at fresh fruits and vegetables. I think we can all agree – and scientific evidence confirms – that a healthy diet can be largely defined as one which contains at least five cups of fruits and vegetables. But the price of fresh produce is often cited as too exorbitant for the average consumer and is one reason why Americans fall alarmingly short of the recommendation.

But the reality is fresh produce gives you some of the best bang for your buck. In fact, in June 2008, the US Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service studied the prices of produce throughout the country. They concluded “A person needing 2,000 calories per day could meet the dietary recommendations for fruit and vegetables for under $2.50 per day.”

Why the disconnect between perception and reality?

“Our advice to consumers is they need to be savvy. Don’t just consider the cost per pound, but think about the number of servings you’re getting,” says Jane Reed, Agricultural Economist with USDA’s ERS and co-author of the study.

The researchers said people may balk at paying $1.36 cents for a pound of peaches because they don’t realize they’re getting four fruit servings at just 37 cents per 1 cup serving. Some don’t mind paying 75 cents for a soft drink but would object to paying 75 cents for an apple. There’s a perception that these aren’t important foods, that they’re side dishes. But plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, are the foundation of a healthy diet, a Mediterranean diet, too, and should make up the majority of what you’re eating if you want to stay healthy.

Things to consider when you’re buying fruits and vegetables are seasonality, comparing the number of servings in the can or frozen container to the price. Canned vegetables, for instance, contain liquid which is included in the total weight, but the liquid is thrown out and not eaten. Many people find the convenience and shelf-life of frozen produce outweighs the small price difference. Throwing out rotted fresh produce, of course, is no savings, which is why planning your weekly meals and shopping with a list is always an important money saver.

Planning and organization is emphasized by all the experts as important for saving money. Take an inventory of what you have on hand and shop from a list based on your needs and weekly menu plan. And make good use of leftovers.

My clients call me the leftover queen. When I was in college, I first mastered batch cooking. I found that I could save money and time by making big batches which I could eat – and share with friends – through the week. I built my meals around beans, a very inexpensive, but excellent protein source. I ate plenty of vegetables, fruits and skim milk (it’s all I could afford!). Some of my favorites were a very tasty veggie chili, split pea soup with ham, chicken corn soup, carrot yogurt soup, lasagna, Asian chicken or tofu stir fries, and spicy bean- and grain-based salads. I made them in huge pots on my boyfriend’s two electric burners or my tiny group house kitchen– later my efficiency apartment. I had wonderful impromptu dinner parties and delicious leftovers for days! I couldn’t afford to eat out so there were no temptations there. Funny, I still batch cook and usually build meals around beans and other plant foods. It’s not only inexpensive, it’s healthy, delicious, and it saves time (my clients agree).

Shopping and preparing food at home is not only cheaper, but studies show people who lose weight and keep it off prepare most of their meals at home, so you’re killing two birds with one stone.

A study confirmed that when families switched to healthier diets and lost weight, their food budget decreased while protein and nutrient density of their meals increased.

The study, published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association in 2002, gave 24 families, each with an obese 8 – to 12-year-old child, lower calorie diets with increased nutrient density. After 12 months, the children and parents lost a significant amount of weight and the total cost of the diet significantly decreased.

Among the families, servings of unhealthy, high calorie, nutrient-poor foods decreased (high fat/sugar foods), and servings of low calorie, nutrient-dense foods increased (lean protein sources, fruits/vegetables, etc.). The reduced intake of the unhealthy foods had the greatest impact on the cost of the diet, according to the authors.

High fat and sugar, calorie-laden convenience foods such as bakery goods, snack foods, fried foods and sodas can be very expensive. A 10 ounce bag of potato chips is $2.59 (ten servings of a high fat/calorie, nutrient-poor food), which may seem like a cheap source of calories. But you could buy four pounds (16 servings) of fiber and vitamin-C rich fresh red potatoes – or three pounds (12 servings) of vitamin, mineral and beta-carotene-rich carrots – for the same price! In the long run, the nutritious food wins hands down. The calorie density is lower but the nutrient density is higher.

Also, when switching to a healthier diet, many people cut down on the amount and portion size of expensive, fatty meat cuts. Switching to smaller portions of leaner meats, poultry and vegetarian protein sources is not only a healthy savings, but often a cost savings, too.

This is all great news, but none of this research explains why the majority of Americans still don’t eat a healthy diet. There may be barriers such as inability or lack of desire to cook or, for some with lower incomes, difficult access to grocery stores. But, in my opinion, the studies and my own experience rule out expense as a barrier!

“Within the limitations of your budget, you can set a table that has variety and distinction. You can serve gourmet food… It is not the basic cost of the food but the care with which it is selected and prepared that makes it gourmet rather than pedestrian,” James Beard in “How to Eat Better for Less Money” (Simon and Schuster, 1970)

Shopping List
Tips for Healthy Inexpensive Meals

Plan before you go shopping by taking an inventory of what you have on hand and what you’ll need,

* Make a shopping list to avoid impulse purchases or costly mistakes,
* If your storage space permits, buy in large quantities,
* Buy store brands, as they usually cost less,
* Compare prices based on how many servings you’ll get,
* Build your meals around legumes and whole grains, less expensive, but nutritious protein sources,
* Buy seasonally. Food will usually be cheaper when it is in season,
* Buy locally. The less a food has to travel, often the less expensive it is,
* Buy cheaper meat cuts such as the beef round,
* Buy whole chickens and cut them up yourself,
* Batch cook, divide into servings and save the leftovers in the refrigerator or freezer for future meals,
* Bring lunches to work. Simple sandwiches, salads, soups, wraps and leftovers make terrific meals at work,
* Make sure each meal is balanced with at least four food groups, and plenty of fruits or vegetables at each meal,
* Compare the cost of a home made version verses a store- or restaurant-made version of the same dish.
* Try canned salmon or frozen fish filets to save money on seafood
* Compare the fresh, canned and frozen version of your foods. Buy the one which gives you the best price for the serving size,
* USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion has many ideas for saving money while eating healthy meals at http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/foodplans.html. For a copy of CNPP’s “Recipes and Tips for Healthy, Thrifty Meals,” call the government printing office at: 202-512-1800, $5.50 each (GPO Stock number: 001-000-04680-2).

Katherine’s Chile Non-Carne

excerpted from Diet Simple (LifeLine Press, 2004)

I love this simple, quick – ten minutes – chili recipe. Of course, there’s zillions of ways to make chili, most don’t need a recipe. But this one’s easy to follow and everyone loves it. It’s meatless but you don’t miss the meat because it’s so flavorful. You should use the amount of garlic or chili powder that appeals to you. I like it hot and spicy!

I double the recipe so I have plenty for the week. I use this dish as a lunch or dinner alongside a green salad. I also serve it at parties as a dip next to fresh tomato salsa, light sour cream and guacamole. It’s perfect rolled up in a tortilla or stuffed in a taco with some reduced fat cheese. Great for informal super bowl or Halloween parties.

Serves 4

1 Tbsp Olive or Canola Oil, or more
1 Large Onion, Chopped
3 Large Garlic Cloves, Minced
3 Tbsp Hot Chile Powder
1 Large Fresh Green Pepper, Chopped
1 28- oz. Can Italian Plum Tomatoes, Chopped, including the liquid
1 Pound Can Kidney or Black Beans, whichever is preferred
1/2 Cup Water or Bouillon (To Hydrate the Bulgur)
1/2 Cup Bulgur (Cracked Wheat).
2 Seeded Jalapeno Peppers, Chopped, if desired
Salt and Pepper to Taste

Saute the onions and garlic in the oil over low heat in a large pot until soft, 15 or more minutes. Add the chile powder and simmer for a few more minutes. Add the Fresh Green Pepper and cook until al dente. Meanwhile, soak the bulgur in the boiling water for 15 minutes. Add all remaining ingredients including the bulgur and simmer slowly over low to medium heat until flavors are well blended and vegetables are cooked to the desired consistency … a few minutes or longer, if desired. Adjust seasonings to your preference. Since many canned items were used, additional salt will probably not be needed.

Calories 320
Total Fat 7g 10%
Saturated Fat 1g 6%
Cholesterol 0mg 0%
Sodium 730mg 31%
Total Carbohydrate 59g 20%
Dietary Fiber 13g 54%
Soluble Fiber 1.59 g
Omega 3 Fatty Acids 0.07 g
Sugars 17g
Protein 12g
Vitamin A 70%
Vitamin C 120
Calcium 15%
Iron 30%

Call Katherine: 202-833-0353 or Email Her
For more fabulous tips and simple, effective ways to lose weight,
buy her book, Diet Simple!

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