Original Post Date: November 8, 2010
Semi-Coherent Thoughts on the Pursuit of Health on a Budget.
I spend, probably more than I should, a great deal of time reading blogs, magazines, books and articles all related to food, fitness and overall health. Alongside those readings, I also follow the work of various nutritionists and personal trainers. Doing so has been a developing side effect of losing a great deal of weight and trying to permanently change the way I approach eating and exercising on a daily basis. Once I caught the health bug, it was kind of hard to shake. And really, it's less of a "bug" and more of a great fascination.
Within these readings (and I'm primarily referring to those centered around health and not so much those that write about food simply as pleasure), there is almost always talk about obesity. The causes, the consequences and of course, the "cure." While many experts have the best of intentions in providing remedies to this growing health problem, I've noticed a regular trend of setting too high of standards in defining a healthy lifestyle to the average person. Logic would dictate that if the average person is overweight, then the solution should also be average and achievable. The solution should be within that person's means.
So what are these high standards I'm referring to? Regarding food: "Go organic." "Go local." Less so, but still prevalent (especially with more high-profile trainers like The Biggest Loser's Bob Haper), "Go Meatless." Are these all great options for improving one's health? Absolutely! Are they the best, most obtainable and desirable options for the typical obese person, currently on a mid-to-low income, likely supporting a family? Probably not. Is there still hope for this person? You bet.
To better "fight" obesity and its associates (diabetes, heart disease, cancer, etc.), I think alternative, more forward-thinking approaches need to be in order. While it's all rainbows and unicorns to go organic, eat local, grow your own garden, etc., it's not the most practical option for most people looking to eat healthier. By implying that the only way to eat healthier is to go organic/local/meatless, a high bar has been set. A bar that may discourage many of those who are more or less eating themselves to death.
Again, I have nothing against organic/local-based nutrition plans. How can I, from a health perspective? There's no argument, really. But from a budget perspective, well, that's where I start to take issue. But instead of surrendering my dollar to a frozen fried chicken entree because it can't pay for the 2.99/pound organic apples, I choose to work with what IS available to me, without sacrificing my health.
So what is available to the overweight person who desires to eat healthier on a budget? Quite a bit, actually. Eggs. Store-brand staples like brown rice, pasta, beans and tuna. Frozen vegetables. Oatmeal. Peanut butter. Milk. Nothing fancy; no specific name brands, not necessarily organic or local, but all a great deal better for me than fast-food and any other highly-processed crap. And for the record, yeah, I buy the staples at Wal-Mart, not Whole Foods. Do I have anything against Whole Foods? Aside from not being able to afford the majority of their products, no, not really. But I don't hold that against them. Whole Foods is a company. Target, Safeway, Kroger/King Soopers and Albertsons are all companies. Wal-Mart, too is a company. All of the aforementioned stores are out to make money. Some have better shopping environments, marketing tactics, business practices, pricing strategies or ethics than others. But they all have options. Let your wallet and desire to eat healthier be your guides when shopping for food, not your personal politics. You'll be doing yourself a favor in the long run. Make *you* and *your health* top priorities (and your family's health as well, if applicable). Be selfish. Your life depends on it.
Yes, I went off on a bit of a tangent there, but because my personal budget is so tight, I take saving money on food quite seriously. And because I have managed to let that level of seriousness become standard with every shopping trip, I have no doubt that others can too. It takes a little extra time and effort, but that's about all. No whining necessary.
So what about fresh meats and produce? Still options available. Of course, organic and free-range/hormone-free would be the ideal way to go. And if you can afford it, please do so. But if not, don't give up so easily. I'm aware of, unfortunately, the health and environmental risks associated with eating meat that contains hormones, was butchered in a batch job and packaged for national distribution. It seems shopping for food these days comes with a lot more loaded ethical questions than it did several decades ago. And while I'm sure it's open to debate, I still personally feel that buying chicken breasts on sale, labeled as "natural" but not necessarily "free-range," is better for me than opting for McDonald's or your average frozen entree, loaded with preservatives, sodium, sugar and a hefty list of unpronounceable chemicals. Call it the lesser of two evils. But instead of referring to guilt when shopping, simply go for what is clearly the better choice. Because there always is one.
Chicken. Shrimp. Lean ground beef. Lean ground turkey. Pork chops. You can eat meat on a budget. But there's a catch- you need to become BFFs with local grocery store ads and register for their savings cards, if applicable. Personally, I don't always buy meat or produce at Wal-Mart. They're great for staples and non-perishiables, but better deals on the fresh stuff are to be found at some of the smaller stores. But you NEED to read those ads. Most stores will e-mail the ads to you or at least let you view them online (on top of sending them to you in the mail for free), so there's really no excuse. View them all and make comparisons. Brush up on those basic math skills. Know the difference between Safeway's Buy One Get One Free deal on a package of chicken breasts priced at 5.99/pound and Albertson's more standard sale of chicken breasts for 1.99/pound. Buy a whole chicken and you'll save even more because it's then up to you to break it down, remove the bones, trim the fat and remove the skin. It's not that much extra work when you consider the extra money in your pocket.
Same goes for produce. You'd be amazed at the variety of fresh fruits and vegetables you can eat week to week without spending a lot. Again, learn to read and compare store ads and also brush up on what's in season. Don't feel like you're letting anyone down if you opt for the dirt-cheap regular carrots over the more expensive organic ones. Feel better (literally) by opting for the carrots over the Cheetos.
And if going meatless is your goal, that's feasible too, as long as you don't rely too much on pre-packaged, heavily processed veggie chicken nuggets. Waste of money and practically no nutrition, as far as I'm concerned. Tofu in its basic block form is cheap (99 cents for a 6-serving container at Sunflower Farmer's Market? Yes please!) and versatile. That, in conjunction with various beans, lentils, grains and produce? You're well on your way. Don't let the idea of going meatless fool you into living off of cereal and grilled cheese. Remember that any dietary change should be about your health first and foremost. Ethical and environmental reasons can follow after.
After learning about food (what's best for you, what's available to you and how much it costs), the final chapter is learning how to cook it all. Seriously. Just learn. If you're in your 20s (or 30s or 40s or 50s for that matter) and all you can "cook" are things like scrambled eggs, toast and cereal, you're only doing yourself a disservice. No need to become the next Iron Chef, but learn some basics. Go online. Go to the library. Watch Food Network. Don't get wrapped up in what Rachel Ray's making, which ingredients she has that you don't have, how much fat and sugar the recipe has- just pay attention to *how* she's making it. Look out for things like basic knife techniques, heat levels and proper storage techniques. Don't sell yourself short in the kitchen. Treat recipes like guidelines, not set-in-stone laws written by some faceless dictator. Create. Eat. Live.
And yes, I realize that this open letter has indeed turned into a basic (and hastily, somewhat poorly written) how-to guide, all done from my soapbox and based on my own personal experience. My apologies.
But do you get where I'm going with all of this? Do you, Jillian Michaels, with your All-Orangic-Or-Bust manifesto (a.k.a. her book, Master Your Metabolism)? Do you, Michelle Obama? Do you, Type II diabetic single mother of 3? We know what the ideals are. We know how much they cost. But what not all of us know is that there are alternatives. There is a better, healthier, tastier longer life around the corner and you don't have to go broke in trying to obtain it. It's not 100% organic, it may not support a local farmer, but ENOUGH WITH THE GUILT. It's unnecessary. It's unhealthy. Put the health of yourself and your family first, consciously, responsibly and feasibly. In a country where we're seemingly getting heavier and sicker by the minute, the messages we send out to the unhealthy masses need to be re-framed. No more all or nothing. More baby-steps. More meet-us-halfway. More DIY, less being fed, literally, by the makers of highly processed refined crap. Break the dependence. Break the addiction. Have that discussion, be it with yourself, your spouse, kids, whomever. Talk about how you feel now, taking those various meds to crawl through the days, eating up (and financially supporting) the convenience food industry. If you can justify it and are satisfied, *truly* satisfied with how you feel right now, by all means, keep things business as usual. It's all about choice. No matter what you choose, know that there are tools out there available to you to support your decision. And the beautiful thing about being an adult is that you can choose whichever tools you like.
Health experts and enthusiasts need to rethink the "Go _____!" approach, for the sake of our country. Sounds a bit dramatic, but it's true. Don't tell people to take on a new lifestyle based on a single idea. Better yet, don't tell people what to do, period! Don't set up an ideal (e.g., a healthier body) and then say that the only way to achieve it is by taking a single concept and applying to all facets of your life. Instead, *suggest* (heavily and frequently, I might add) the most basic, available, enjoyable options and let people run with them. Trust that if their situation improves a great deal, they'll decide on their own to take that next step in going organic, local and/or meatless. Don't make them feel guilty and incapable from the get-go. There's still time to reconstruct the message. And if you're on the receiving end of that message, know that there's always time to change, whether it's your whole approach to living from here on out or simply paying 10 cents for the banana instead of 50 cents for the Snickers bar next Tuesday afternoon.