Ever since the dawn of junk food, countless school-age kids have had the mantra "You are what you eat" drilled into their heads. Yet many Americans still tend to dismiss this wisdom, turning instead to processed foods laden with preservatives and trans fats. Perhaps not surprisingly, heart disease and obesity are increasingly prevalent in our society. And in tough economic times, many people may feel that eating right isn't their top priority — or even economically feasible.
Nonetheless, as that dusty old phrase suggests, eating properly does make for a healthier body. Accordingly, Xpress spoke with a few local experts about healthy eating in belt-tightening times.
Make a budget
Leah McGrath is the corporate dietitian for Ingles Markets. When considering how to live healthfully on a budget, she takes a practical tack.
"Determine how much you are spending on food right now," says McGrath. "That would include not only what you are spending at the supermarket right now but also what you're spending on vending machines or eating out, or the coffee that you grab on the way to work."
Armed with that information, look for changes that could save money, she advises, then nail down a realistic budget and plan — and stick to it. "Make coffee at home and put it in a travel mug, or pack a lunch instead of eating out. Bring your leftovers from home."
Simple lack of motivation, says McGrath, can be a major obstacle to staying healthy on a budget. "People spend way too much money on convenience food rather than whole foods," she asserts. In the end, however, the costs may be even higher than consumers imagine.
"Oftentimes people go for the path of least resistance," says McGrath. "They grab whatever looks cheap, whatever they think is going to fill them or their kids up, without really thinking about the long-term effects of cheap, highly processed foods on their health — which, in the long run, makes them spend more money on things like doctors' visits or time out of work because they're sick."
Leah McGrath's tips for smart shopping and a healthier lifestyle:
• Start with small changes. "Learn to skip dessert or the soda." You'll save money — and your waist.
• Take the time to look for coupons. Just make sure that the deals are on healthy items.
• Make a shopping list and stick to it. Don't shop hungry — or with your kids, if you can help it. "Anything that distracts you from your mission — sticking to your shopping list — is going to end up costing you more money."
• Don't be seduced by "end caps." End caps flank the ends of an aisle. "They are for the lazy shopper who can't be bothered to go down the aisle. They aren't typically a great deal; they are just convenient."
• Look up or down. "Eye level is sometimes not the best buy for customers. Try looking on the top or the bottom shelf for bargains."
Do it yourself
Licensed nutritionist Denise Barratt teaches part time at Western Carolina University. In her private practice, she guides clients toward healthier eating habits. Much of her time is spent educating them about the art of cooking. "A lot of times people know how to eat," notes Barratt, "but not necessarily how to prepare things and how easily they could do it."
Knowing how to cook cheaper whole foods — grains, beans and vegetables, for example — is a key part of the process of getting healthy on a budget, she maintains. The prospect of cooking intimidates many people, says Barratt, adding that it's time to get over the fear factor. In an information society, she says, "There's really no reason why people can't figure this stuff out. Having the desire to do that is really important for your own health and for that of your family."
Barratt recommends cutting prepared, boxed mixes from the shopping list — think pilafs and red beans and rice — as well as prepared spice mixes. "Some of those can be so expensive, and also very high in salt and preservatives."
Instead, she encourages clients to visit the bulk aisle at Earth Fare, Greenlife, the French Broad Co-op or Amazing Savings to cobble together their own spice blends or gather ingredients for a homemade pilaf. "Even a regular grocery store like Ingles has bulk items," she emphasizes. "It doesn't have to be a natural grocery store."
Denise Barratt's quick tips for healthy eating on a budget:
• Plan ahead. Get a realistic picture of when and how your family will eat throughout the week, and plan meals accordingly.
• Think globally, eat locally. Joining a CSA or visiting a local farmers' market is a good way to eat healthy, local food on the cheap.
• Taste the rainbow. "Each color — whether it be red, purple, orange, white, yellow or green — has a certain set of elements called phytochemicals that are needed for good health." Make salads with lots of color instead of a heap of iceberg (it's prettier, anyway).
• Know the "dirty dozen" vegetables. Organic food can be expensive. If you want to be selective, learn when you really do (and don't) need to buy organic.
Food dollars vs. health-care costs
Lesley Edwards coordinates the child weight-management program at Mission Hospital. Not surprisingly, the registered dietitian believes the most important thing families need to keep in mind in considering food cost is its overall impact on health cost. "Although the value menu at McDonald's is going to be cheaper," she asserts, "it's not going to benefit their long-term health. They need to take that into account too. What they are paying for today is what they are going to be paying for 10 years from now."
Edwards admits that many of the children she works with balk at the idea of eating brown rice or whole-wheat bread. "I explain it to them like this," she says "When you cut your finger, it heals on its own without you having to do anything. Like that, our taste buds rejuvenate every two to three weeks. You have to give your body time to adjust to different flavors and textures. In two weeks you won't want that white bread anymore."
Healthy eating starts at home, she maintains. "Lifestyle changes have to happen first. You have to make the decision before you go through with it." And parents have to make the changes happen: Kids aren't going to do it themselves. Herself a mother, however, Edwards concedes, "Sometimes that's easier said than done."
Lesley Edwards' quick tips for healthy eating on a budget:
• Fruits and veggies are your friends. "They aren't as expensive as people make them out to be," she says. Boxed, processed foods typically provide only one or two meals, whereas the same amount of money spent on vegetables can yield a week's worth of meals. "It's more time-consuming, granted, but not more expensive."
• Don't get so fresh. "Frozen vegetables and fruits are just as good as fresh for those that worry about things going bad."
• Go for home plate. "Eating at home more is best for your budget and also good for familial health." Families that eat together, she says, tend to overeat less, because they're focused on their food instead of the TV.
• Healthy foods can be quick. "People don't feel like they have the time, but there are plenty of things out there that are convenient without being processed, like steam-in-bag veggies."
• Patrol the perimeter. Shop around the walls of the grocery store, not the middle, where all of the more expensive, processed items are.
It's your body
Liz Lipski holds a doctorate in clinical and holistic nutrition and is board-certified. The author of Digestive Wellness and Digestive Wellness for Children, she sees clients privately for nutrition and lifestyle counseling.
"The average person gets more than half their calories from white sugar, white flour, other processed foods and processed and restructured fats," Lipski points out. "When you look at that, there's no wonder that we are having more chronic health issues than ever before and at younger ages." To combat those problems, Lipski is a big believer in self-reliance.
"My role as a health educator is really to motivate and encourage people to take charge of their own life and their own health, rather than just saying, well, I have medical insurance and that'll take care of it." Preventive care is completely in our hands, she says, and eating well is a great start. "My advice to people is always that this is our body and our health, and no one can do this for us."
Liz Lipski's tips for healthy eating on a budget:
• Grow your own. "Even a small garden can save you a lot of money. Even tomatoes on a patio or a small patch of lettuce can save you money. It's so simple."
• Make your own. A lot of folks, she says, spend extra money on things like flavored oatmeal that comes in little packets. "I always just buy oatmeal and I cook it. It only takes three to five minutes to cook from scratch. I add a little butter, some maple syrup, some walnuts or almonds and maybe some dried fruit. Then you've got a quick, delicious meal that doesn't cost much."
• Self-preservation. Instead of letting things go bad, learn how to can or dry foods. The freezer is also underutilized. "You can always cut up veggies and freeze them in portions for later," she notes.
• Healthy meals don't have to be fancy. "Whole-grain bread with nut butters and jam makes a fine lunch. It's not terribly expensive, and it gets you a quick run-out-the-door lunch with some fresh fruit."
Freelance writer and chef Mackensy Lunsford has lived in Asheville for more than a decade.