Eating Healthy for Less

I’m experiencing a tension between spending less and eating more healthy food. Last year, we changed our diet to eat organic. This means we spend a bit more $ on food than we did before. Also, we use raw sugar, honey, or 100% maple syrup instead of white sugar and artificial sweeteners. As a result of eating healthier, the pain that I felt in my hands and wrists – which I thought was caused only by keyboard usage – went away! White processed sugar can be an inflammatory agent to your joints. Our kids’ piano teacher experienced the same thing with arthritic pain. Also, not surprisingly, we have less plaque on our teeth. The average American consumes between 3 and 5 pounds of added sugar a week, adding up to 200+ pounds of added sugar a year per person.

Also, we now use whole wheat flour instead of white processed flour. White processed flour is just glucose; it’s stripped of the nutritious wheat bran and germ, leaving only the carbohydrate. The rise in American diabetes is probably due to the use of white processed flour. Many products say “Made With Whole Grains” on packages, but use dark brown colors and deceptive names; they actually have ordinary refined wheat flour as their main ingredient, since they are not required by law to disclose the percentage of whole grains versus refined grains. In fact, some processed flour has a harmful plastic called bromine. So we try to eat NO white flour products at all: pasta, bread, buns, muffins, croissants, pizza dough, almost all cereals, crackers, and flour tortillas. Instead, if we buy things from the store, we buy oatmeal, flax seed cereal, nuts, whole wheat pasta, and Ezekiel bread from Trader Joe’s. At Christmas we also bought a small electric mill that grinds whole grains into whole wheat flour. It was $250 but it saves us a little bit because we now make our own bread, pizza dough, and pie crust, which are delicious. (My pizza is pictured above, blueberry pie here…)

In general, I’m convinced that eating healthy will save us money in the long run, both individually and as a society. Our industrial food system is a long way from God’s good garden with fresh fruit galore. Anyone recommend good recipes that combine the values of eating healthy but spending less? Awhile back, I came across this on Huffington Post, and it had some decent recipes.

15 thoughts on “Eating Healthy for Less

  1. I think time for preparation is one of the biggest barriers towards eating better… I’m especially interested in recipes using good, whole ingredients that don’t take too much time or cooking expertise…..

  2. Thanks for the post, Mako!

    Matt and I struggle with balancing our values for good, healthy food and our values to live more simply (and cheaply). I think that there are many opportunities where these values overlap. Here are two ways that we’ve found to save money and still eat healthfully:

    1. We have some friends who also share similar values about food (eating mostly plants, limiting processed foods, choosing organic and humanely raised meat when one can afford to). We decided to form a meal-share with four other families. Now, we cook a large meal for eight people and divide it up for each family (including ourselves). Then, at church every week, we receive a bounty of healthy food from these friends. This turns into four prepared meals for the week, which saves us time that we would have been cooking/cleaning/shopping for food. Instead, we usually can eat these meals and even have a day for leftovers. For a small investment of time, we get four healthy meals; whereas if we were cooking for ourselves every night, we would have to invest much more time to get that many healthy meals.

    2. We also recommend a cookbook by the Mennonite Central Committee called “Extending the Table”. The recipes were compiled by missionaries from all over the world. We like this book for two reasons. One is that the recipes are often simple in design and execution. In other countries in the world, meat is often used as a way to give flavor a dish, as oppose to it being the main event of a dish (the main event is usually whole grains or vegetables). The second reason is that we get a chance to think about how much we consume, as Americans, compared to people in those other countries. Sometimes, we’ll make something from the cookbook and practically eat the entire meal, only to discover that the recipe was designed to serve 4-6 people (or in our case, two).

    I definitely agree that eating well within a budget is challenging; especially when processed food is drastically less expensive and for many people more convenient than whole grains or vegetables.

  3. I’ve tried to switch over to healthier rices, as it’s taken a much bigger place in my diet since moving to Korea. The normal, white rice, is overly processed and stripped of a lot of nutrients from what I understand. One type that I’ve grown particularly fond of is a “purple rice.” I’ve heard it’s called “forbidden” rice in China. It’s quite nice and would likely make eating a bit more interesting for the kids, as it’s something rather novel.

    A brief description about it.

    And a picture.

    The only real drawback I’ve heard is that it doesn’t last as long as white rice because the bran layer can go bad, but that’s supposed to be common with all non-white rice.

  4. We have also switched to primarily organic produce and eggs and also mill our own flour, and pondered the tradeoffs of trying to live frugally with the higher cost of organic/humane foods.

    Milling your own flour is actually a good example. We had been buying King Arthur Whole Wheat and All Purpose flours (not the organic versions) for our baking. We now buy organic wheat berries for a similar cost per pound, so we’ve “upgraded” to organic without spending more. Fresh milled flour is also higher in protein and, since you mill it as you need it, contains all the vitamins of the wheat berry rather than having to be “enriched.” (How can it be higher in protein if it comes from the same wheat berry? Commercial flour is processed into component pieces and then put back together in a way that extends shelf life. In the process, some vitamins and protein are removed/ruined, and stabilized vitamins and preservatives are then added).

    One note, though: bromine is *not* a plastic; it’s actually an element but what’s sometimes in flours is potassium bromate, a simple ionic compound. Potassium is ubiquitous in our bodies so the relevant part is the bromate. As far as I can tell, unbrominated flours are the rule these days anyway. Health concerns surrounding bromide consumption have led to its banning in some countries as well as California, but not in the U.S. in general.

  5. I’ve improved my diet quite a bit over the last few years, and it’s almost totally due to the influence of others like Mako. Because of him, Ming, and Dan, we eat hardly any white processed flour now. When Mike P switched to brown rice, we did too. When my wife Jodi quit eating refined sugar for Lent, it really impacted me too. So for me, community has been key.

    But that’s why eating well is hard or impossible in many places. Last week I was walking through our local Costa Rican grocery store, and of the five aisles dedicated to food, one was almost completely made from high fructose corn syrup, another was basically bleached flour, and a third was frozen processed food. Throw in the condiment aisle and there wasn’t much left. Unfortunately access to healthy food is limited to a privileged few in the world today.

  6. This journal article describes the growing trend of obesity in developing countries:

    “The relationship between obesity and poverty is complex: being poor in one of the world’s poorest countries (i.e., in countries with a per capita gross national product [GNP] of less than $800 per year) is associated with underweight and malnutrition, whereas being poor in a middle-income country (with a per capita GNP of about $3,000 per year) is associated with an increased risk of obesity.”

    Some of our immediate family live in Guatemala. They note how there’s a lot of cheap, healthy fruit and vegetables available throughout the year. The cows are mostly pasture-raised and many poor families can’t afford antibiotics or growth hormone for their hens. At the same time, there’s a ton of cheap, processed food that’s becoming more and more readily available. It seems like the more a developing country takes on a similar diet and lifestyle to that of America or other developed countries, the greater the risks for these diet-related diseases.

    I can’t help but feel self-centered when it comes to thinking about my diet. I like to hope that eating organic and fair trade means that the worker who is farming my food isn’t getting exposed to dangerous pesticides and can earn a living wage for their family. But I wish I knew other ways that I can respond to these health and diet disparities that are happening around the world (and in America too).

  7. Mako – thanks for the post! We can’t wait to get back to the States where it’s actually easier to find healthy food! Yes, we do have an abundance of cheap produce here in Costa Rica (like Guatemala), but I’ve heard that most of the produce is sprayed with pesticides and it’s hard to find anything organic.

    One way we have improved our diet is to mostly eliminate cereal. We used to eat a LOT of it (especially Gary who would go crazy every time it went on sale and fill our pantry with at least 20 boxes). But here in Costa Rica, cereal is very expensive ($5-6/box).

    So now we make our own granola (which Gary also eats in about 4 days – gotta teach him to make his own). Tastes great by itself or with plain yogurt and fruit.

    Here’s the recipe we use in case anyone’s interested:

    Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

    1/3 cup honey
    1/3 cup raw sugar (unrefined)
    6 Tablespoons butter, melted
    1 Tablespoon vanilla

    4 cups of oats
    1/3 cup of wheat germ (or other healthy ingredients like ground flax seed, fiber, etc.)

    Place in a glass pyrex dish (about 1/2 inch thick). Cook for 20 min.

    Remove and add sliced almonds on top. Cook for 10 min or until lightly brown on the bottom and sides.

    If you like it crunchier, cook a bit longer.

    Add whatever other ingredients you like – dried fruit, nuts, etc.

  8. Hi Mako,

    Good post – our family is also trying to eat more organic and justly produced food, and will agree it’s not easy to do.

    One thing I’ll add to other posts is how to live with these values knowing that our friends, community, and even our families have different values (sometimes slightly, sometimes worlds apart). Even as we share some of the knowledge that has affected our eating habits, we know there has to be flexibility in say, eating a community meal, or a holiday dinner.

    That has affected how we eat everyday, too – we went vegetarian for a while, but since we would eat so often with others where there was no good veggie options (and we didn’t want to or couldn’t bring our own). Since then, we now eat meat about 3-4 times a week.

    Of course, this is just one example – for us, it’s a balance of feeding our family and also being part of several different communities.

    Sarah has tried to record our eating adventures in a blog, which includes some recipes we’ve tried. She’s an awesome chef, and loves to experiment (and I’m a happy to be her guinea pig!).

  9. Since I have access to a farmer’s market, #2s, or second quality produce save me a ton of money while getting local organic foods and often just means a discoloration or bruise that needs to be cut out. I stock up and freeze seasonal produce to enjoy year round. Since freezers expend less energy when they’re full, keeping them frozen isn’t an additional expense.

    Growing a few of my own herbs also cuts costs a lot while serving the additional function of connecting even an apartment dweller to the food supply.

  10. Go Mako!

    And eating organic puts your money toward a healthier life for farmworkers too, not just eaters. People working to grow food are often surrounded by toxic chemicals, and even though we have a long way to go as far as fair wages & other labor standards, organic farms are much safer & healthier places to work.

    • While for many fruits and vegetables it may make a difference to the consumer, I probably wouldn’t be as convinced to buy organic/Fair Trade if it weren’t for the affect on the workers and the environment (where said workers live) as well. Not that all organic pest control is clearly ok, not that the system is perfect, but in the belief that our food comes artificially cheaply when we buy conventional produce and that organic & Fair Trade options are closer to “fair” “safe” “sustainable” “real food.” Otherwise I wouldn’t bother with an organic or fair trade banana or onion, in which the edible parts are less likely to be contaminated by pesticides or treated in the first place, respectively.

  11. Mako, love your thoughts on healthy eating, and thanks for your perspective on how to think about that in terms of saving money. We eat mostly organic also, avoid all unnatural sweeteners, colorings, flavorings and preservatives, as well as have a limited diet due to allergies. The grocery bill is significantly higher for us and that has been a struggle. We try to help the situation by shopping at the local farmer’s market, shopping the sales between 4 different health food stores in our area, and rarely eating out.

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