Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Eating Well Without Killing Your Budget

Recently I wrote about eating well without ruining your health. After reading the article, a dear friend asked if I had advice about how to eat healthier food on a tight budget. It is possible to eat healthy food on limited money, but it requires a large measure of discipline. The goal must be to maximize real nutritional value while carefully controlling total cost. This requires an incisive look at the way food is marketed, knowledge of sound nutritional principles, and willingness to cook food yourself.

Marketing 101

My years as a retail sales girl taught me a lot about the manipulations involved in marketing. Those lessons reshaped the way I view consumer behavior (my own included). In America, we let marketers guide our food choices rather than selecting natural food based solely on the guidance of our senses. Health-conscious consumers are just as vulnerable to subtle manipulations of their judgment as fast food customers. Make no mistake about it -- marketers manipulate all of us, often with such delicate subtlety that we don't even notice. An effective food marketing strategy not only entices desire, but also guides a consumer's value judgments and perception of a food's affordability.

Companies use a two-fold strategy to manipulate a health-conscious consumer's value judgments: they advertise nutritional factoids to drive perception of quality, and use pricing strategies that reinforce those perceptions. A overstimulated consumer is vulnerable to vague advertising claims such as "natural." These claims create the perception that a particular food is healthier than alternatives. Consumers generally equate price with quality, so high prices can actually reinforce perception of nutritional value. Consider this anecdote about a man who wanted to get rid of a perfectly good refrigerator. First he put it in his driveway with a sign that said, "Free." Days went by, and no one took the refrigerator. He concluded that people must think the free fridge was an old piece of junk that didn't work. He put a sign on it that said, $50. Within a couple hours, someone stole the refrigerator. (By the way, that's a true story.)

A budget-conscious consumer will not only assess a product's nutritional value, but will also ask, "Can I afford this?" The answer to that question depends on an imprecise mental equation that is profoundly affected by price anchoring. A price anchor is the baseline price a consumer uses to assess affordability. Comparative price anchoring is a core factor in food selection. Most people are familiar with this internal debate: "Well, if I get the cheapest one it will cost $5, or I can spend $2 more to get the better one." The consumer then debates whether to spend $2 or not. The real question is not whether to spend $2, it is whether to spend $7. However, market research shows that people who want a product mentally commit to the cost of the cheapest one. Then, they evaluate whether they can spend extra money to buy a better one. Someone who feels "broke" but still wants the product will usually purchase the cheapest option. However, many people will justify a small price increase to get a higher quality product. Analysts review market data to determine how big an increment is acceptable to the average health conscious consumer, and price their "high quality" products accordingly.

It does not make sense to let marketers guide food purchase decisions. Their goal is to maximize consumption and charge the highest price consumers will swallow. The goal of a budget and health conscious shopper is to carefully control total cost but maximize nutritional value. A consumer must make a conscious choice to assess total price instead of using increments to drive food choices. Additionally, the half-truths of advertisements and diet trends must be ignored in favor of sound nutritional principles. I think it's worthwhile to consider nutrition in a cultural context, letting the wisdom of ages serve as a nutritional guide. With that approach in mind, I will offer a few general suggestions about how to choose healthy, nutritious foods that won't break your budget.

Tricks for Controlling Total Cost

When I'm on a really tight budget, I find it useful to organize my shopping trip in order of priority. I start with core foods I feel I can't do without: staples like grains, fresh produce, dairy products, and meats. Then I add personal care items and general groceries like toilet paper. Finally, I consider whether I have money left to buy luxury items like wine or sweets. I mostly shop the perimeter of the grocery store and rarely venture down the aisles. With few exceptions (like grains and spices), most truly healthy foods are located around the perimeter of grocery stores in the produce, dairy, meat, and bakery sections.

I round real prices up or down to numbers that are easier to sum in my head. If a bag of rice costs $4.39, I round it to $4. If I underestimate a particular item's cost, I'll overestimate the next one. So, say the next thing I grab is a block of cheese for $3.49. I'll round it up to $4 also, then sum $4 + 4 = $8. The real cost  is $4.39 + 3.49 = $7.88, so my estimate is very close. As I walk through the store, I keep a rough running tab in my mind. If I pay attention throughout the whole trip, my mental estimate is usually within 5% of the real cost. When I'm buying a taxable item, I always round its price up or add a little extra to my running total. If I get close to breaking my total budget, I look at my cart and figure out what items should go back on the shelf. Just because it's in the cart doesn't mean I have to buy it.  

This approach has served me quite well through many tough times. I can remember lots of times in college when I only had $20-25 to feed myself for a week. After I realized the terrible food served on campus was making me chronically ill, I opted to buy cheap but wholesome foods like rice, whole chickens, bananas, and carrots. I think that choice probably added several years to my life.

Incorporate Traditional Staple Foods 

Most traditional cultures regard energy-dense staple foods such as cereal grains, rice, beans, peas, and root vegetables as the cornerstone of a healthy diet. These foods contain a high concentration of both macro and micronutrients. Pound for pound, they are among the cheapest sources of good nutrition available. They keep for prolonged periods of time without spoiling, and can be purchased in bulk to bring down the unit price.

For example, $9 buys a ten pound bag of oats at my local Costco. My husband and I can breakfast on this for months before we run out. That's a steal compared to a box of processed cereal, which would cost $3-6, yet could only feed us for about a week. Using the whole food (oats) as a base for breakfast instead of a processed food (boxed cereal) not only improves the nutritional quality, but is actually much cheaper.

A similar thing is true for foods like rice and other grains. Whole grains provide needed energy without the peak and crash effect of refined carbohydrates, and come prepackaged with essential micronutrients and fiber. They can be purchased in bulk and stored for a very long time without deterioration of their healthful properties, and then used as a base for a wide variety of delicious and nutritious meals. I can buy a ten pound bag of rice for about $7 -- enough for 50+ servings.  That is only about $0.14 per serving. Compare that to nearly any processed side item, and rice wins on both price and nutritional value.

Beans and peas are another excellent source of micronutrients, and also one of the best sources of vegetable protein. These can be used to make a variety of soups, stews, and sides. Incorporating legumes into the diet is a great way to feed a large family without breaking a tight budget.

Be Careful about Meat

Quality meat is very expensive compared to many other sources of nutrients. The unique benefit of meat is its concentration of easily absorbed micronutrients such as iron and zinc. I do not advocate total elimination of meat from the diet unless a person very carefully balances their intake of these essential micronutrients from other sources. That said, it is unnecessary to consume large quantities of meat to maintain health. Most traditional cultures use only small amounts of meat, and often treat it as food for special occasions like Sunday dinner or holidays.

If a typical American was asked to justify meat consumption, the justification would probably involve some comment about protein. While it is true that meat is a decent source of protein, it certainly isn't the only source. It is much cheaper to get protein from legumes. Eggs and dairy products are also a good source of protein and other micronutrients.

My personal food preferences developed in a very meat-centric culture, so I use meat in larger quantities than nutritionally necessary because I like the way it tastes. I recognize this as an indulgent behavior. Meat consumption is one of the first things I'd rein in if asked to eat on a much tighter budget again.

If meat is desired for its flavor more than its particular nutrient balance, small quantities may be used to add flavor to other foods. I'll sometimes fry up a couple bacon strips in a pan and then saute vegetables in a small amount of the leftover bacon fat, crumbling the bacon over the top. This is a quintessentially French approach to cooking vegetables. Also, many delicious Asian or Indian-inspired dishes can be made with large amounts of vegetables, rice, or noodles, but only small dices of meat.

When deciding between organic, natural, or conventional meats, it's important to consider that animals bioaccumulate environmental pollutants like pesticides and herbicides. A cow may concentrate chemicals at 300 times the level "generally regarded as safe" for human consumption. Eating the meat or byproducts of this animal then introduces high concentrations of these substances into the body. Additionally, the integrity of commercially-raised meat is damaged by the routine use of artificial hormones and antibiotics, which can unbalance our systems. Also, butchered meats are often injected with solutions or sprayed with chemicals. For example, commercial mass-produced chicken is commonly washed in chlorine to kill pathogens like salmonella.

After reading quite a bit on bioaccumulation of chemicals and associated degenerative diseases, I do not consider it safe or healthy to consume additives, artificial hormones, and chemicals regardless of what the FDA says about them. For this reason, I usually opt for natural or organic meats and animal byproducts whenever possible. These are more expensive than conventional options, so it is necessary to consume less of them to stay on a budget. That said, the concentration of nutrients and lean protein is higher in healthy animals, so you don't have to eat as much to reap the nutritional benefits. A pound of grass-fed organic beef is not nutritionally equivalent to a pound of conventional corn-fed beef.

For best health, choose limited quantities of high-quality organic or natural animal foodstuffs. Eggs, plain yogurt, and whole roasting chickens are among the cheapest, most nutritious options for people on a very tight budget.

Conventional vs. Organic Produce

Very few people can justify a 100% organic diet because organic food costs so much.  Questions about sustainability and environmental stewardship aside, I feel there are a few important nutritional points worth discussing.

First of all, there is no significant difference between the macronutrients found in conventional produce versus those in organic produce. An organic apple and a conventional apple have roughly the same number of grams of carbohydrate. The nutritional differences exist at the micronutrient level. Plants absorb and concentrate nutrients from the soil and water. When soil is poorly tended and becomes stripped of micronutrients through over-farming of the same few (government subsidized) cash crops, plants grown in it become vulnerable to pests and disease. This drives farmers to use pesticides and anti-fungal treatments to keep bugs and fungus from destroying crops. Unfortunately, these chemicals do further damage to the soil's integrity, yielding plants that are even more vulnerable to pests and disease. This situation leaves farmers totally dependent on chemicals to prevent crop failure. (Historical note:  Biochemical agents originally designed to kill humans in warfare were re-purposed to kill insects post-WWII.) Today's crops have fewer micronutrients than ones grown a century ago because the soil has been so grossly abused.

Micronutrient deficiencies combined with environmental pollutants have produced rampant chronic health problems in the American population. Think I'm exaggerating?  Look at the explosion of cancer, reproductive health problems, digestive system malfunctions, asthma, and allergies in modern America compared to our not-too-distant past, or compared to more traditional cultures.  The differences in overall public health are stunning. Politicians and corporate talking heads are quick to dismiss the links between health issues, environmental toxins, and damaged food, but I think the evidence for this position is quite compelling.

Some types of conventional produce contain fairly high amounts of residual chemicals. Though the FDA generally considers these chemicals "safe," their judgment does not consider bioaccumulation and the slow damage caused over a lifetime of consumption. Sure, eating a tiny amount of poison won't kill you, but building up several pounds of it your cells over many years probably isn't a great idea. I find this guide put out by the Environmental Working Group to be tremendously helpful. It is a user-friendly summary of pesticide concentrations in common produce, and the list is updated annually based on new lab testing. If your primary reason for choosing organic is to avoid chemical pesticides, this guide is a big help.

Within our mass-distribution food system, it's hard to know which farm grew any given piece of produce, and nearly impossible to know the real story about the soil. When produce is labeled "certified organic," there is at least some standard for very recent soil cultivation practices (organic treatment for at least 3 years). Since farmers can't use highly toxic pesticides and anti-fungal treatments on their organic crops, they pay a lot more attention to soil composition. Careful soil cultivation is the best way to produce naturally disease-resistant plants. Organic produce generally has higher concentration of beneficial micronutrients because it is grown in better soil, but there is a significant degree of micronutrient variability between one piece of organic produce and the next. Taste, visual appearance, and smell are the best indicators of truly healthy organic produce.

The organic label should not be confused with a pleasing pastoral image of a neighborhood family farm. Most commonly available organic produce is grown alongside conventional produce by large-scale industrial farms. A lot of it is transported very long distances just like conventional produce. It does not make sense to assume this type of industrially-produced organic produce is nutritionally superior to conventional produce. Nutrients break down when produce is transported long distances, and excessive handling increases the risk of pathogen contamination. Organic food that was shipped halfway around the world is not necessarily any healthier or safer than conventional produce.

I believe the best way to "opt out" of the industrial food model and all its problems is to find a local community supported agriculture program or farmer's market. We support Full Circle Farm and our local farmer's market. I know exactly how much my box of produce will cost each week, so I can budget for it accordingly. I can also limit spending by taking only cash to the farmer's market.

Eat Seasonally

There are many additional costs associated with food grown off-season in greenhouses, or shipped from faraway locations. If you can't patronize a farmer's market, look for the seasonal "sale" items in grocery store produce sections. Compare the cost of strawberries in summer to their cost in winter, and you'll see a big difference. Here is a helpful guide to seasonal food. It has data for most (but not quite all) of the 50 states. Purchasing produce with awareness of the proper growing season helps keep expense down, and also improves the nutritional quality.

Be Smart about Processed Foods

Recognize that all processed foods (organic or not) are convenient time savers, not nutrient-rich wholesome foods. The primary benefit of an organic processed food is not superior nutritional value, but reduced number of chemical preservatives, food dyes, and other harmful additives. In my opinion, highly processed organic foods aren't much more nutritious than their conventional counterparts. Most of the micronutrient benefits of organic foods are destroyed during processing. I don't perceive many real nutritional benefits of organic processed foods other than avoidance of additives and residual pesticides.

If trying to save money and maximize nutritional value, cut out as many processed foods as possible and select whole foods instead. For example, I think it is better to choose conventional rolled oats rather than organic instant oatmeal. Scan the ingredient labels on all processed foods, and skip foods that have lots of additives or artificial flavors. Those artificial flavors and additives aren't there for your benefit. They are there to mask the unappealing flavors, dull colors, and unpleasant smells characteristic of old, bland, or partially spoiled food.

Make Time for Cooking

Home-cooked meals are far more nutritious than processed or fast foods. That said, it's easy to understand why people get sucked into convenience food and find it impossible to cook their own meals. Modern Americans are some of the most overscheduled, overstimulated, emotionally maxed-out people in the world. We work ourselves to death, don't get enough rest, and fill up all the gaps in our days with obligations, entertainment, and distractions. On top of the massive cultural pressure toward perpetual busyness, people often don't have a basic knowledge of food preparation. The broader culture certainly doesn't offer much encouragement to cook your own meals. Corporations are perfectly happy to enable overly busy lifestyles, ignorance, or sheer laziness with ready-made meals and fast food.

If not accustomed to cooking, start with simple meals. Use websites like All Recipes for inspiration. I'll often type 2 or 3 ingredients into the search and see what recipes come up. Cooking for Engineers is also a good site for people want recipes with very detailed directions and lots of pictures.

I find it very valuable to approach cooking in a culturally-informed fashion. I try to connect to the local Seattle culture by incorporating lots of seafood into our diet, as well as experimenting with the Asian fusion cooking that is characteristic of this region. I also explore aspects of our family's European heritage when I prepare German or French foods. Approached this way, food preparation becomes a way to connect with your identity, not just a time-consuming chore. It's also a way to knit families tightly together, uniting everyone around a shared cultural experience.

If radical change seems impossible, start by cooking one or two meals per week. Large portions cooked at once can yield lots of leftovers, simplifying meals for busier days. I send leftovers to work with my husband every day so he can eat a healthy lunch. He also helps me in the kitchen on nights when I'm simply too busy or too tired to make dinner. We think the time spent on our food is worth it, not just for our health and budget, but because this approach promotes togetherness and shared experiences for our family.

Embrace Traditional American Values

I was once accused of holding "unAmerican" and "anti-business" positions on food by a friend who was not like-minded. I found this criticism amazing. My basic perspective is that good-quality homemade food produces healthy individuals and united families. I think it's unfortunate that good wholesome food is widely regarded as a hallmark of hippies, trendy eco-liberals, and elitists, while fast food chains that serve nutritionally worthless food are regarded as quintessentially American. What a perverse situation.

I do not regard modern food corporations as representative of time-honored American values (other than the basic desire to make money). In their drive to produce ever-higher profits, they often damage the food and the land, putting consumer health and the well-being of future generations at risk. Legalistic in the extreme, corporations consider what they can get away with rather than doing the right thing simply because it is the right thing. I think that's the wrong approach, and I don't consider this mentality representative of traditional American values. This same legalistic money-focused mentality was behind the financial meltdown of 2008, as well as every major corporate scandal in recent history. I consider this self-serving attitude morally reprehensible and believe it's a recipe for a fractured society. 

I think there is nothing more fundamentally American than respect for the land, support for the little guy, and love of Mom's home cooking. I support farmers who respect the land and the animals raised on it. I consider small-scale farms representative of America's can-do spirit. I believe food is a way to embrace cultural heritage and promote family togetherness. I advocate lifestyle choices that produce healthy, fit people who aren't plagued by chronic health problems. I find it tragic that this perspective could be regarded as controversial or polarizing.

Final Thoughts

I sympathize deeply with Americans who struggle to put good food on the table for their families. The best advice I can offer is to stop listening to corporations that are willing to distort reality to make a quick buck. Prioritize the purchase of foodstuffs that are truly needed and healthy when shopping at a grocery store, and keep total cost in mind throughout the shopping trip. Be disciplined -- put those non-essential items back on the shelf if you're going to blow the budget.

Throughout history, many people have survived extreme poverty through the use of nutritious and cost-effective staple foods. Don't get caught up in mere marketing hype about "organic" or "natural" foods, but instead consider real data if you're worried about chemical concentrations in produce. Skip highly processed foods in favor of whole foods. Take the time to learn about good nutrition and hone your cooking skills. I deeply hope these general principles help you get control over your personal budget situation and improve your family's health.

Consumption of good food is so fundamental to man that God Himself used it to illustrate a profound spiritual point. I would like to close with this: "Why do you spend money for what is not bread, and your wages for what does not satisfy? Listen carefully to Me, and eat what is good, and delight yourself in abundance." (Isaiah 55:2) 

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