On the surface, healthy eating seems like an easy enough task. After all, the most nutritious foods come straight from the earth; pure and unprocessed. But fresh whole foods are not always accessible to everyone. With obstacles like food deserts, expensive organics, and high-priced meats, eating healthy on a budget seems nearly impossible.
According to Amrit Devgun, naturopathic doctor and applied ayurvedic practitioner at Northwestern Health Sciences University, healthy eating falls on a spectrum. Like exercising, eating well can start with small steps. For example, introducing conventional produce into your diet is better than not eating fruits and vegetables at all. “If you can’t afford fresh organic produce, shop for pesticide-free fruits and vegetables in the freezer aisle,” she says. “If expensive meats aren’t doable, substitute with tofu or other alternatives, like beans or lentils.”
Pack Your Pantry
When trying to save on your grocery bill, start by filling your pantry with shelf-stable items like beans, rice, and lentils. Dried foods, devoid of water, cost less because they are cheaper for manufacturers to store and ship. Packed with essential vitamins and minerals, these kitchen staples last months in your cupboard and yield substantial portions.
Shopping for nutritious food on limited funds requires a bit of strategy. Pay close attention to grocery store sales so you can stock up on discounted staples. Big box stores like Target and Costco offer easy-to-use digital coupons for their growing stock of organic and health food products. These large retailers usually provide private label options that eliminate marketing costs associated with household name brands. For the same reason, buying in bulk saves money—and without packaging costs, bulk foods are discounted even further.
Weekly meal planning is another cost-saving measure that will pay off in spades. Spending just 30 minutes preparing for the week ahead helps you spend less money and waste less food. Instead of throwing away leftover sauteed veggies, add them to your eggs the following morning. Grill chicken for dinner and save some to pair with leafy greens for lunch. And, consider which fruits and vegetables are in season. Food grown closer to home is less expensive. Importing grapes from Chile or peppers from Peru in the winter will increase the price dramatically.
The Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen
The World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Agency for Research of Cancer (IARC) lists five commonly used industrial pesticides as probably and possibly carcinogenic. Glyphosate, the main ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup, is the most widely used agricultural pesticide in the U.S. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), “250 million pounds of glyphosate are sprayed on American crops” each year. These toxic pesticides are so prevalent that researchers have even found residue of pesticides in breast milk.
“If you buy conventional produce, use a vegetable wash or drop of soap and water to remove pesticides on the surface. For harder foods, like potatoes, you can clean the skin with a food brush. Removing the skin works too, but you lose some important nutrients in the process. It’s a balancing act.” Amrit Devgun, Northwestern Health Sciences University
Reducing your exposure to harmful pesticides is as essential as ever. While it may seem overwhelming, community organizations like EWG can help you make informed decisions that protect your health and the health of your family. EWG publishes an annual “Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce.” Named the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen, these lists make shopping for safer, conventional (non-organic) fruits and veggies simple.
Once home, you can further decontaminate your food. “If you buy conventional produce, use a vegetable wash or drop of soap and water to remove pesticides on the surface,” says Devgun. “For harder foods, like potatoes, you can clean the skin with a food brush. Removing the skin works too, but you lose some important nutrients in the process. It’s a balancing act.”
When deciding whether to invest in organics, Devgun suggests a shift in perspective. “With our exposure to the high amounts of pesticides in some of the foods we eat, many of us develop serious health issues. We end up spending significant amounts of money on health care,” she says. “If you can, why not invest in the prevention of disease instead?”
Shop the Rainbow
A rule of thumb when shopping for healthy foods is shopping the perimeter. This strategy keeps you away from the temptations in the snack aisle and focuses your shopping trip on rainbow eating. Full of phytonutrients, colorful fruits and vegetables protect us from illnesses such as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. Each color has disease-fighting superpowers, so eating the whole rainbow is ideal.
A Rainbow of Health-Boosting Phytonutrients
- Red foods are chockful of carotenoid lycopene, which destroy free radicals that damage your genes and lead to diseases like prostate cancer. Examples: Red peppers and raspberries
- Orange and yellow produce is rich in beta cryptothanxin, which may protect us from heart disease. Examples: Carrots and bananas
- Green vegetables and herbs harness the power of sulforaphane, isocyanate, and indoles to fight cancer. Examples: Spinach and broccoli
- Blue and purple foods use potent antioxidants to prevent blood clots and slow the aging process of cells in its tracks. Examples: Eggplant and blueberries
- White and brown staples provide antioxidant flavonoids that contain anti-tumor characteristics. Examples: Onions, garlic, and mushrooms
*Pro Tip: Growing your fruits and vegetables is one of the cheapest ways to get variety in your diet. With minimal care, a backyard garden is plentiful in the summer months. For apartment dwellers, a windowsill is a perfect place to grow fresh herbs. When neither works, you can share the cost with neighbors and build (or find) a community garden. At the end of the growing season, you can freeze or can your bounty for winter cooking.
Prioritize Plant-Based Eating
As Michael Pollan famously writes in his book, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Devgun couldn’t agree more. “Plant-based diets bring the best results for overall longevity and quality of life,” she says. “Eating a plant-based diet is cheaper and helps us prevent chronic disease.”
When prescribing a healthy diet to clients, Devgun often suggests cutting down on meat. “By reducing meat consumption, you naturally decrease your toxic burden.” Plant-based eating optimizes your health by reducing inflammation, boosting your immune system and decreasing your cancer risk. It also helps you maintain a healthy weight.
Located in Bloomington, Northwestern Health Sciences University is a pioneer in integrative natural health care education, offering degree programs in chiropractic, acupuncture, Chinese medicine, massage therapy, medical assisting, medical laboratory programs, post-bac/pre-health, radiation therapy, and B.S. completion. Its Bloomington Clinic is open to the public and provides chiropractic treatment, acupuncture, Chinese medicine, massage therapy, naturopathic medicine, and cupping.
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