In today’s post, I tackle a topic which I think many of us can relate to: how to eat healthy on a limited budget. Particularly in the economic times of today, spending the money that it takes to eat right has become increasingly more challenging. As unemployment rates continue to rise and people struggle to make ends meet, many families are no longer able to afford healthy food. In addition, the corporatization of our modern food systems have turned food commerce into commodifiable big business, in doing so re-contextualizing the accessibility of “healthy food” into one of exclusivity and privilege.
No longer the cottage industry it once was, the modern food business is now a multi-billion dollar entity. Long gone are the days of being able to walk to your local farmer and get quality, organic produce for pennies on the dollar; or getting milk delivered to your doorstep from the neighborhood milkman that is from hormone-free, grass-fed cows. Nowadays to gain access to such fare, you damn near have to pull a 6-figure income. In our current economic climate, healthy food is no longer an assured staple to all members of society, instead functioning as somewhat of a status symbol for affluence. Collectively as a culture, accessibility to quality and nutritious food has become synonymous with the marker of the “good life.” Specialty food stores like Whole Foods and Sprouts continue to gain popularity in upscale marketplaces as a niche and esoteric commodity, similar to high end designer fashion stores and car dealerships. In today’s society, the reusable cloth Whole Foods bag has replaced the expensive handbag as a way to illustrate your wealth.
But what about those families that are unable to shop at these places or do not have access to healthy, affordable food? Because good food is so expensive, so few are actually able to afford eating right, resulting in the rise in food associated illnesses nationally. As the statistics show, every year the number of obesity and weight-related diseases continue to grow in this country; and a large reason stems from poor and inadequate diet. And in a lot of these cases, the issue is not one of a lack of effort, but lack of necessary resources. In my personal experiences observing as a nutrition and fitness coach, the reasons that I have heard for people unable to lose weight and eat healthier have run the gamut. From a lack of time, to various injuries, to sickness, there always seems to be something; although the majority of the time the issue is never one of commitment, but rather a lack of funds. And while I noticed this predominately with the younger generation, it was not exclusive to this group, as anyone can be affected by economic hardships at some point. Because let’s be real, at the end of the day, life happens… A husband loses his job, a family member becomes sick and is unable to generate income, an unexpected circumstance arises, the list can go on forever.
More importantly, when economic tumult arises, typically the first thing that people neglect is their individual health (i.e. fitness, nutrition). This becomes problematic because when they eat unhealthily and do not exercise, cortisol levels in the body rise, creating systemic inflammation thus making them more stressed out and susceptible to disease and sickness. In the long run, they end paying for it on the back end due to increases in health care/medical costs, lower quality of life, etc. However, by simply making health and nutrition a priority, one does not have to go bankrupt to eat a nutritionally sound diet. In fact, it can be done relatively easy, it just takes some planning and a working knowledge of what to look for.
So with all of that being said, in today’s post I offer a number of different strategies and approaches to eat healthy on a limited income. Drawing from my personal experiences, interviews with other trainers, and researching a number of stores and markets, I have compiled a list that can function as a plan of attack. However, as you take these strategies into consideration, it is important to understand that it may not be possible to purchase everything top dollar (i.e. grass-fed, organic, free-range, etc.). What I am simply doing here is offering the best alternatives for the price to help make the healthiest decisions possible.
*As a ballpark figure, the strategies below are based on a budget I had in my head of $40 or less per person per week in the household.
Food prep is a must: Regardless of individual income or budget, when it comes to eating healthy, food prep is a must. However, it is ESPECIALLY important if you are doing so on a limited budget. Don’t think you are going to be able to eat out every meal and make it work. If you try to subsist on McDonald’s for breakfast, Subway for lunch and Chick-Fil-A for dinner, most likely you will run out of money before the 2nd day. Conversely, buying two-dozen eggs, a pound of blueberries and four avocados will only run you about $12 at Costco (and will last you more than a week’s worth of breakfasts). Along with being more economically efficient, food prep ensures that you get high quality food with every meal and takes the guesswork out of making the right choices, particularly in the face of social pressure.
Personally, when it comes to food prep, I am a huge advocate of buying in bulk: 1. because you can get a lot more for the price and 2. you have the option of storing the unused portion. Places like Costco, Sam’s Club and Food 4 Less carry a lot of high quality meats and veggies, as well as a considerable amount of organic products for relatively cheap. For example, on a $40 budget you can get a 7 lb bag of chicken thighs for around $15, a 3 lb bag of broccoli florets for about $4, and a 25 lb bag of organic brown rice for about $16 (Costco, 2015), saving you leftover money for gas or whatever else you need.
Overarching, the main complaint when it comes to food prep is that it is boring and time consuming…GET OVER IT. The same way that working out is hard and challenging, it still has to be done. Get up an extra hour early or go to bed an extra hour later and prepare your meals for the next day. Really, it is not as bad as it seems. In fact, once you get into a habit of doing it, it becomes routine. The problem is just getting started. So go to Wal-Mart, get your new Tupperware, get your meals in order and get started!
Buy fattier cuts of meat: I know when we typically think of what it means to eat healthy, we have been programmed to envision boneless chicken breasts along with 95% lean ground beef and turkey cuts. However, if you plan to make it on $40/week, get that thinking out of your head (in fact, you should get that thinking out of your head anyway). With 1 lb. of lean chicken breast costing around $6 and extra lean beef around $7-8/lb., buying a week’s worth would take up most of your budget by itself. Instead, use your budget to your advantage. For example, opt for fattier cuts of meat. Things like chicken thighs, “bone-in” meats, and cheaper cuts of red meat and organ meats are all relatively cheap and provide a better nutrient profile than the traditional leaner meats. Also, look for fattier cuts of fish and seafood, as they provide more of the beneficial omega-3 fatty acids than leaner fish.
As current research has illustrated, fat is not the devil that it has been marketed as over the past couple of decades, rather quite the opposite. Additional fat in the diet has been shown to increase weight loss, improve body composition and increase testosterone production in men (Bornstein, 2014). Just be sure that your additional fat consumption comes from “healthy” monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats such as avocados and nuts.
When possible, always buy in bulk: When you are shopping on a budget, whenever possible always try to buy in bulk. Not only does buying in bulk save time and money in the long run, but you have the option of storing/freezing the unused portions, giving you much more than your weekly allowance of food. Another benefit of bulk shopping is that you can find exclusive, high end foods at a fraction of the retail cost. Particularly when it comes to organic produce, most typical warehouse food stores have secured flat-rate deals with their purveyors, allowing them to offer organic products in bulk to their customers at a much cheaper rate than the traditional boutique and mom and pop food outlets. If you are willing to do your research and compare prices, you can come up on some pretty nice discounts at these stores. However, you have to pay attention because certain products have better values than others. Particularly in terms of health food products, things like olive/coconut oil, peanut butter, eggs, meats, frozen fruit and veggies you can get at over 1/2 off of the prices at supermarkets. But other products, such as pre-packaged meats and certain dairy products are not as cost friendly.
Only buy whole foods/refrain from processed foods and snacks: All things considered, when it comes to food shopping, unprocessed foods are typically cheaper and more nutritious than processed foods. Namely because the majority of whole foods come with minimal packaging and marketing frills, so you do not have to pay extra for the added manufacturing costs. More importantly, they also give you complete control of the ingredients. So what do I mean by “whole foods?” Essentially a good rule of thumb to abide by is if the ingredient list is larger than one, you probably do not want to purchase it. An added benefit of this form of shopping is that you do not have to obsess over nutrition labels and package contents (because whole foods typically do not have packaging or a label at all for that matter). An easy way to get more whole foods in your diet is to opt for fruits and veggies for snacks instead of “health bars” and other processed snack foods. Particularly if you buy in-season produce, you can save a good amount of money every week on this alone.
Only drink water (and tea): To get the most out of your food budget plan, try to only purchase food products. Especially if you are working on a budget of $40 or less, spending $4 on a 12-pack of coke or even a couple of dollars on fruit juice will put you in the red quick. Don’t pay for your hydration! By buying juices and soda, not only will you be less satiated, but it is easy to over-do it when consuming them because we typically do not see them as calorically-dense as food products. However, by simply firing all liquid calories out of your diet, you can drastically improve your waistline.
And this is particularly true when it comes to “healthy drinks” (i.e. 100% fruit juice, Jamba Juice etc.). For a lot of people, the common theme is “if I buy 100% juice, it is the same as eating the actual fruit,” while in actuality could not be further from the truth. This is because when fruit is made into juice, it is stripped of all of its fiber, the micronutrient responsible for slowing down digestion. Consequently, the sugar from the fruit goes directly into the bloodstream, offering a surge of energy followed by a glucose crash and inflammation response. Long term, this can lead to type-2 diabetes and other related dietary related illnesses. Furthermore, when it comes to fruit juice consumption, most people drastically underestimate the amount of sugar that they are ingesting. For example, an 8 oz. glass of orange juice contains over 24 grams of sugar, with high fructose corn syrup constituting over half of the sugar content (Walker et al., 2014).
In addition to saving money, drinking more water is one of the best you can preserve your health. Water not only helps with hydration, but also helps energize muscles, improves complexion, maintains your inner eco-system and balance of fluids as well as kidney and bowel function (WebMD, 2008). Moreover, if you do not get enough water, you actually end up spending more on food. This is because when you are dehydrated, your body goes into starvation mode, sending signals to your brain to eat more, when in actuality you just need more water. So start drinking more of it!
Be choosy on the organic products that you purchase: While in a perfect world it would be ideal to buy everything organic, this isn’t a perfect world (after all, we only have $40 for food). Organic meats and produce are typically $2-3 more expensive than their conventionally grown and fed counterparts. According to Sisson (2007), if you must buy organic, animal products like meat and cheese are your best bet. With produce, you typically have more room to mix and match organic and conventional food. As noted by Poliquin (2013), the priority when choosing produce is to search for local, ripe, and seasonal first, adding organic to that list when possible. To help with your decision making, the Environmental Working Group compiled 2 lists pertaining to pesticide levels in crops: The Dirty Dozen, which are the foods most contaminated by pesticides, and “The Clean Fifteen,” which are the least sprayed foods (EWG, 2015).
Limit your meals to the rule of “3”: In an effort to keep things relatively cheap and easy, limit your meals to 3 basic elements: a protein, a fat, and a vegetable. The main building blocks of the Paleolithic diet, this blueprint is calorically dense enough to keep you full, while at the same time simple enough to where you can experiment with different combinations and ingredients. Along with saving you money, this strategy will ensure you are getting your healthy fats, complete proteins and low carbohydrate intake, all while promoting a favorable blood sugar response.
An example of what these meals would look like:
- Avocado oil, eggs, mushrooms/ tomatoes
- Olive oil, beef, broccoli & red/green bell peppers
- Lettuce wrap burgers, egg, avocado/ tomatoes,
- Chicken stir fry, veggies, olive oil
Go to the farmer’s market at the end of the day: If you have access to a local farmer’s market, go about an hour or so before closing to secure the best deals. This is because most of the vendors are looking to get rid of their allotted consignment at all costs, and are more willing to work a bargain with you. Sometimes, farmers discount their produce as much as 20% by the end of the day just to get it sold so they don’t have to take it back to the farm (Nourished Kitchen, 2012). Granted the majority of the best stuff goes first and will already be picked over by the time that you get there, but you can still get some quality produce that will be much cheaper and more nutritious than anything that you can find at the supermarket.
Eat less total calories: It sounds simple, but by limiting your overall calories you save money in the long run. One of the advantages of being on a budget is that you cannot afford to be gluttonous. As long as you are making the right decisions, you can afford to reduce overall calorie intake and not wreak havoc on your metabolism or blood sugar response. This is because by cutting out all processed and sugary foods, your body is not affected by chronic inflammation and you maintain satiation on lower total calorie intake. By simply reducing your daily caloric totals by 250-350, you can save on average about $15-20 a day (T. Scott, personal communication May 7, 2015).
Make eating healthy an experience: As idealistic and hippy as it sounds, try to make eating an experience. Instead of being disappointed by having X amount of dollars to spend on food every week, find a way to be inspired and get excited about the opportunity to experiment with creative and new ways of eating. As the saying goes, “necessity breeds change,” so embrace the chance to try new things. Step out of your comfort zone and try out different ethnic and cultural foods, rare herbs/spices and diverse cuts of meat. Your taste buds will thank you! More importantly, when you make the switch to a more healthy diet, you gain a renewed vigor and zest for life because your body is now properly optimized. Along with increased energy and mental clarity, you become more in-tune with your body; almost assuming a holistic existence by being able to better identify your body’s internal communication signals and are less inclined to be influenced by external stimuli. For some, eating can become a meditative experience. So while you may be burdened with the adverse circumstance of a low budget, use it as a way to re-assess your relationship to eating and the values that you put on food.
I hope that some of these different strategies and approaches were helpful. When it comes to eating healthy, it really is much easier than people make it out to be. Although it can be difficult in the oversaturated and overmediated world that we live to fall prey to false or misleading information regarding nutrition, by adhering to a basic nutrition plan and a "simple is better" mantra, it is relatively easy to eat right even on a limited income. I think that the main problem comes from the emotional connection that we have to food. If we look back to ancient times, food was simply a way to fuel the body. The cavemen, for instance, did not care how something taste, only that it filled them up and fueled their body. In our contemporary society, we have to change our paradigm of thought to view food as fuel for the body, not as therapy or a way to make us feel better. By doing this, not only will we be healthier but also save a ton of money on the processing costs of food. Granted this is made much more difficult by the billions of dollars spent annually on food marketing, it is important to remember that at the end of the day, you have total control over what you put in your mouth. By simply having the awareness and motivation to eat healthy, it can be achieved even on a relatively on low income.