Tuesday, May 31, 2011

9 Ways to Eat Healthily (and Cheaply)

Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read.

Groucho Marx

9 Ways to Eat Healthily (and Cheaply)

By Joe Wilkes

By now, most of us know what we should be eating—fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, and fish, among other foods. But anyone heading off to the supermarket with a shopping list of the best recommendations for a healthy diet is in for a bit of sticker shock. Over a 2-year period, a recent University of Washington study tracked the costs of "nutrient-dense" foods (foods high in vitamins and minerals and low in calories) and "energy-dense" foods (foods high in calories and low in vitamins and minerals—aka junk).* The nutrient-dense foods rose in cost by almost 20 percent while the cost of junk food declined. The study found that getting your average day's worth of 2,000 calories from the junk side cost $3.52, while getting your 2,000 calories' worth from nutrient-dense cuisine would cost $36.32. Since the average American spends about $7.00 a day on food, you can see where the rise in obesity might come from.

Veggies on a Fork and a "Healthy Life, Next Exit" Sign

Other studies have shown similar findings. While the percentage of Americans' incomes spent on food has decreased dramatically over the last few years, the obesity rate has risen even more dramatically, as has the incidence of type 2 diabetes, an obesity-related disease. And the obesity rate has grown the most in the most impoverished sectors of society, further emphasizing the connection between the rising costs of nutrient-dense foods, the declining cost of junk food, and the rise in obesity rates. If you've checked out what a nice piece of Chilean sea bass with a side of asparagus costs compared to the latest offering from your local fast food joint's dollar menu, it's easy to be tempted by the dark side—especially if your budget is shrinking more than your waistline.

It is possible, however, to eat healthily and still have some money left over. Even on the tightest budget, you can do a little legwork and research to make the most nutritious choices for you and your family. And even if you're fortunate enough to have the cash to eat whatever you want, whenever you want, as my grandfather would say, "There's no point putting your paycheck through your stomach." (And he lived to be almost 100 . . . but that was before the advent of dollar menus.) Here are nine tips for getting the most nutritional bang for your buck.

  1. Woman Shopping at Market'Tis the season. Eating seasonally is the best way to get the most delicious fresh fruits and vegetables. When harvest time comes around for your favorite fruit or veggie, the market is usually glutted, and following the time-honored supply-and-demand curve, the prices of those fruits and veggies plummet. And not only is it cheap to eat fruits and veggies that are in season, it's the best time to get the most flavor for your money. Most fresh fruits and veggies sold in the off-season are either shipped from faraway lands or produced in greenhouse factories and don't have nearly the rich flavors produced by Mother Nature. It's a good time to stock up, eat what you can, and freeze or can the rest for a rainy day. If you're fortunate enough to live in a community with a decent farmers' market, it pays to get to know the men and women who are selling the produce. They can let you know when the best time to buy the best stuff is and give you a preview of what's coming up harvest-wise so you can plan your menu accordingly.
  2. The big freeze. Speaking of freezing and canning, these are great ways to save money and still have your nutritional needs met. Not only are frozen and canned foods way cheaper than fresh foods, in many cases, they're more nutritious. Fruits and vegetables are usually preserved within hours of harvest, when they have their maximum vitamins and minerals. Fresh fruits and vegetables can take days, or even weeks, to make the journey from the field to your table. Add to that any time spent lingering on supermarket shelves and in your fridge's crisper drawer, and suddenly fresh doesn't seem so fresh anymore. And in many recipes, frozen or canned might even be better than fresh. A pint of fresh off-season blueberries can cost more than $5.00 while a one-pound bag of frozen blueberries can cost less than $3.00. And the frozen berries will be a lot better in your morning smoothie. Any chef will tell you about the virtues of canned tomatoes over fresh ones when making your favorite pasta sauce. The only thing to be wary of is the sodium and sugar content in many canned goods, or frozen veggies that come with high-calorie sauces or other not-so-healthy ingredients in not-so-healthy amounts.
  3. Woman Checking Cereal BoxShop around. Smokey Robinson was right: It does pay to shop around. Check out the supermarket circulars that keep getting stuffed into your mailbox. Every week, your supermarket advertises "loss leaders," including fruits, veggies, lean meats, and fish. Their hope is to lure you into the store with these bargains that they don't make so much money on and tempt you to buy extra high-profit stuff while you're there. But if you stick to your list, you can fill your cart with the loss leaders and save a ton of money. Plus they'll usually be items that are in season, because these are cheaper for the store to buy. Also, signing up for your supermarket's club or rewards cards can help save you money. It's better to monitor sales and promotions rather than clipping coupons, because coupons generally apply to processed, less healthy foods, although you can sometimes find good coupons for canned and frozen produce (like the tomatoes and berries we just talked about).
  4. Get to know your grocer. And your butcher, your produce manager, etc. Find out on which day produce is delivered to the store, so you get maximum freshness for your dollar. Ask the store's butcher how soon before the printed expiration date they place meat, poultry, and fish on the "buy it fast!" discount shelf. These items are still fresh enough to consume, and if you cook or freeze them as soon as you buy them, it's no different from having bought full-priced cuts and leaving them in your refrigerator for a couple of days. Only your pocketbook knows the difference!

    Another tip? Many butchers will custom-grind for you at no additional charge. If a package of factory-ground turkey breast costs $6.00 a pound and a whole turkey breast costs $2.00 a pound, why not buy the whole breast and ask your butcher to grind it for you? You'll save a lot of money, and you'll actually know what went into the turkey burger you're eating.
  5. Woman Shopping for Organic ProduceThink outside the big box. Instead of always going to the big-box supermarket chains, check and see whether there are any farmers' markets and/or food co-ops in your area. The food will be fresher, cheaper, and hopefully not as coated with pesticides, waxes, or other unsavory elements. It's a good way to save money while supporting your local community's resources. Here you can get organic produce for the same price or cheaper than traditionally grown produce. It's also worth it to check out how your state defines "organic." Organic food is great, but if you're trying to save money, traditionally grown food isn't any less nutritious than organic; it may just need a little more scrubbing.
  6. Start your own farm. If you have a yard, start your own vegetable and/or herb garden. With a little online research, you can find out what grows well and easily in your neck of the woods. And if you're an apartment dweller like me, you can get a lot out of a container garden. I have big pots on my balcony that keep me in tomatoes, peppers, and fresh herbs all summer long. And if you don't have a balcony, you can grow small pots of herbs in your kitchen—decorative, tasty, and economical!
  7. Plan ahead. Take some time on Sunday to plan out your menu for the week for all your meals and snacks. Find out what's in season and on sale in your area. If you can only make one shopping trip for the week, front-load your menu with fresh ingredients and stock up on canned and frozen items for the latter half of the week. One of the areas where my budget always falls apart is not having either some kind of plan or the ingredients I'll need to make dinner; I end up grabbing takeout or having food delivered—either of which can tend to be unhealthy and expensive. Just by planning ahead and not wasting money on spur-of-the-moment restaurant meals, you might find you have a lot more money to spend at the grocery store, which means you won't have to cut as many corners for the mealsyou prepare.
  8. A Water Faucet Filling A Glass Full of WaterTap into tap water . . . not your wallet. Instead of spending big money on bottled water, try switching to tap water, which is subject to a lot more regulations than bottled water and isn't shipped in from Fiji or Norway, making it good both for your health and for helping to reduce your carbon footprint. And it's practically free! Plus it's a lot better for your waistline and your wallet than multiple trips to the soda machine. If you're concerned about impurities or don't like the taste of your local tap water, consider getting a simple, relatively inexpensive filtration system—one that either attaches to the tap itself or is located in a separate pitcher. Ounce for ounce, it'll still be cheaper than bottled, and just as good for you.
  9. Take your vitamins. Here's the easiest, most economical way to help ensure that you meet your basic nutritional needs: Take a good multivitamin and fish oil supplement. They'll help you get many if not all of the same nutrients you'd get from whole-food sources (often without spending nearly as much money)—and fish oil supplements are especially good for those who don't care for fish.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read.

Groucho Marx

Summer Reading: 3 Book Reviews

By Denis Faye

I'm going to go out on a limb here and assume you're thiiiiiis close to reaching your summer fitness goals. That means you're almost ready to hit the beach, pool, or front lawn in that sexy new bathing suit and let the world see what you're made of.

Woman Reading on the Beach

Four Fish: The Future of The Last Wild Food by Paul Greenberg. Penguin Press, $25.95

Four Fish by Paul GreenbergIf you want a fun, snarky, educational first-person read, pick up Four Fish. Greenberg's extremely well-researched book tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the current state of seafood through a series of anecdotes regarding the world's four major fisheries: salmon, sea bass, cod, and tuna.

While there's no shortage of history and scientific explanation within, what really makes the book great is Greenberg's interaction with his subjects, whether he's smoking 400 pounds of salmon with a somewhat cranky 75-year-old Yupik Native American, or he's challenging Mark Kurlansky to a cod-tasting contest. (Foodie literary geeks know Kurlansky as the writer of the fascinating tome Cod, which launched the whole history-seen-through-a-single-foodstuff genre.)

Greenberg's writing is engaging and leaves the reader with plenty of ways to take action and help assure that the world's oceans remain safe, clean, and inhabitable for our finned, Friday-night-filleted friends. It should be required reading for anyone who eats seafood.

Food Justice by Robert Gottlieb and Anupama Joshi. The MIT Press, $27.95

Thanks to the organics movement, most of us have a handle on the importance of the quality of the food we put in our bodies. But that's a tiny part of the equation. Where did those grapes you're eating come from? How did they affect the people who harvested them? And what about the millions of people in the U.S. alone who don't have easy access to grapes or any other healthy food?

Food Justice by Robert Gottlieb and Anupama JoshiCombine these considerations with the aforementioned organics movement. Then throw in the locavore movement—folks who champion eating only locally grown foods—and the concern over the the widespread consumption of fast food. Now you're beginning to understand Food Justice, a movement seeking "to transform where, what, and how food is grown, produced, transported, accessed, and eaten."

While the notion of accountability in the food chain from seed to plate is new, each of the various links in the chain have been around for quite some time, from Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers championing the rights of grape pickers in the 1960s, to activism regarding the ethical treatment of farm animals, to recent attention drawn to "food deserts" in Los Angeles—where huge, low-income sections of the city are devoid of grocery stores. This book attempts to link these and many more issues together. Odds are, at least one or two of these topics will affect you directly. Only by knowing the whole truth can you create real positive change.

That said, if you're new to the various food movements, this might not be the book to start with. It's dense and can be a bit academic at times. (Given that it was published by MIT, this makes more than a little sense.) If you haven't read The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan or Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser, you may want to start there. But if you feel like you're ready for the next step, definitely check out Food Justice.

Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl. Beacon Press, $13.00

Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl's account of how he found the strength to survive the WWII Nazi death camps was first published in 1959, but it's still timely. "As long as people continue to struggle physically, emotionally, and mentally, the lessons in this incredible book are still important," explains "It'll give anyone perspective on how to improve their lives."

Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor E. FranklMan's Search for Meaning is divided into two parts. Part one details Frankl's time in four different camps, including Auschwitz. Even if you're familiar with the Holocaust, this highly personal account gives an intense perspective on the horrors in a way few have captured. The author's ability to see the humanity in his captors and pull lessons from the atrocities makes it hard not to pause every page or two and contemplate your own life.

The second part of the book is an explanation of Frankl's theory, logotherapy, which holds that our primary drive is the search for meaning in our lives. Essentially, the idea is that finding meaning in your life and its various aspects will go a long way toward helping you solve your problems.

Even if you don't feel you need perspective on an existential level, there are smaller lessons to be gained. For example, odds are you've had to deal with the pain of a fitness-related injury at some point. When this happens, it's easy to feel like a victim, beaten for no reason. But ask yourself, why does it hurt? Well, there are a few reasons. First, it's a way of protecting what needs to heal. Second, it's your body trying to teach you its limits. Once you're aware of your pain's purpose, it's not quite as bad. As Nietzsche puts it, "He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how."

The continual existential cycle of striving to overcome life's conflicts whenever they arise as presented in Man's Search for Meaning can help provide a great roadmap for anyone's life.