When it comes to nutritious food, anthropologists might say this country has a cultural narrative — a story line for how we frame our lives — and it goes like this:
It costs more money to eat healthy.
But this isn’t necessarily true, and it’s pushing us into a spiral of malnutrition.
“Sometimes we use that as an excuse,” says nutrition specialist Ricia Taylor, with health plan giant Kaiser Permanente’s Georgia region. “Ounce for ounce, it’s actually cheaper to eat an apple than it is a bag of chips. Oftentimes, for what we pay for french fries, we could get two pieces of fruit.”
There are common-sense exceptions, Taylor says, such as not buying every thing on your grocery list at a high-end natural foods store when some items can be found cheaper elsewhere. Or not buying produce that’s out of season — and, thus, more expensive .
But when it comes to convenience foods, she says, most of the time those products “are always going to cost you more money.”
And some of the most nutrient-rich foods are also the cheapest, says Trulie Ankerberg, a nutritionist whose website, AtlantaNutrition.com, offers advice on healthy living.
“Most of the year you can get collard greens very cheaply,” she says. “Their growing season is very long here.
“The DeKalb Farmers Market has a 10-pound bushel of collard greens for $2. So you can get many meals out of that $2 and still get the most bang for your buck.”
Also, she says, consider planning some meals around a different protein source: legumes.
“They have high amounts of protein and also good-quality carbohydrates because they’re slow-glucose response. Those are probably the cheapest source of protein around,” Ankerberg says. “So you can still throw together dinner in 30 minutes with a 49-cent bag of lentils.”
And forget the old myths about eggs and embrace their protein powers when , Taylor says.
“It is not the cholesterol in eggs that’s driving our health to pieces,” she says. “It’s the saturated and trans fat [from other sources].”
Both nutritionists say buying in bulk or family-size is a great way to save. Taylor says another strategy is to buy meat that’s discounted because its expiration date is approaching. Just take it home, portion it out and put it in the freezer for up to one year, depending on the type of meat.
Another myth that can mislead would-be healthy eaters is the reputations consumers attach to certain grocery chains. Try throwing your biases out the window about which one has the more nutritious food or which one’s more expensive.
For example, Taylor touts the enormous containers of spices you can buy at farmers markets — at a fraction of the cost for sizes usually found at major grocery chains.
“You will get lemon pepper seasoning, and the first ingredient is salt,” she says. “But at the farmers market it’s not going to have the sodium in there.
“I love the lemon pepper because of the twang of the lemon, and it tastes like you’ve added salt even though you haven’t.”
And discount chain Walmart has begun offering higher-quality fresh produce and a better range of frozen foods, Ankerberg says.
“You’re not going to get everything there, but for getting the basics and meeting your nutrient needs in the cheapest possible way, it’s a good option.”
She also recommends specialty foods chain Trader Joe’s for organic frozen fruit, nuts and seeds. For instance, a particular brand of almond butter, which can cost up to $15, sells at Trader Joe’s for $4.99, Ankerberg says.
“It’s really just keeping an eye out for your basic staples at different stores.”
Speaking of organic, how important is it to eat pesticide-free food?
“Personally, if I’m going to buy something organic, it’s something that I’m going to be eating the skin off of,” Taylor says. “In terms of overall health, if I’m on a budget, I pick my battles.”
Ankerberg says she’s seen people get so exasperated at buying expensive organic apples that they throw in the towel and buy potato chips.
“If budget is your No. 1 concern, then getting produce, period, should be your top priority. It’s still going to be tons better for your health, even if it’s not pesticide-free.”
When it comes to meals, a little preparation goes a long way, says Bill Mitchell, an Atlanta resident who’s lost 42 pounds in the past three years.
“Some people think you can’t be healthy and be cost-conscious,” Mitchell says. “But you can be both.”
He totes a packed lunch to his job as a senior director at Hotel SystemsPro, an Atlanta technology firm, spending about $15 a week on food. That saves him an estimated $600 to $700 a year, in addition to keeping his waistline trim.
“I know there’s 900 calories in that bag,” Mitchell says. “That’s all I need from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.”
Taylor agrees preparation is key when buying groceries. Determining a budget, making a list and then sticking to it will set you up for success.
“Proper planning prevents poor performance,” she says. “Once we get hungry and go to the grocery store, it’s all over.”
– By Lauren Davidson, Atlanta Bargain Hunter