The Cost of Health (April 11, 2013)

Either click here or keep reading for April 11th’s piece on eating healthy on a budget. The trick is to know where to spend, and where to save! Thrilled to be on the cover of the paper and my section.

The Cost of Health

The diet and exercise industry is full of cliches. From daytime TV doctors to talk show hosts and news anchors, I hear “it is just so expensive to eat healthy” at least twice a week. Everyone seems to agree that to eat healthy, you have to be ready to fork over some extra cash.

You don’t.

You don’t have to, anyway. It is easy to believe that healthy foods are more expensive and yes, there are some gleaming examples of extraordinarily inexpensive unhealthy foods (neon yellow mac and cheese for a loonie comes to mind). But not only can you avoid paying more to be healthy, you can actually save money being healthy.

The trick is to know where to spend money and where not to spend money. Don’t be tricked by clever marketing and excess packaging.

A prime example of this is the ‘100 calorie packs’. You’re paying more for less, period. Want ‘100 calorie packs’ of cookies at home? Buy a normal package of cookies, portion them out, and put them in baggies. Voila. Not only will you save money, but you’ll also save excessive amounts of packaging. The same goes for most individual portion items, especially the single-portion-frozen-veggie-steam-bags. They’re a ripoff, plain and simple.

Be careful not to be fooled by marketing. A product labelled as healthy, skinny, or light, is not necessarily actually healthy, skinny, or light. Cereal, energy or granola bars, and fruit juices tend to be the worst offenders in this category. Remember to read your nutritional labels.

Don’t be afraid to do some work to save money and keep healthy.

Pre-packaged and value-added foods are going to cost you the most. If food companies are doing extra work for you, you had better believe they’re charging you for it.

A bag of potato chips is about $4, but a 10-pound bag of potatoes is under $2. Cut those potatoes up, add some seasoning, and bake them for chips at home. If you make your own food, you’ll not only spend less, but you’ll be healthier. Pre-made food is generally full of preservatives, fillers, salt and sugar — all things you don’t want. Invest some time in your health, and you’ll be amazed with the results for you thighs and your bank account.

But even without all the work, there are loads of inexpensive and truly healthy foods just waiting for you at the grocery store.

Some of my favourites?

The produce aisle is home to some superstar bang-for-your-buck health foods. Scoring nutritional and tasty greens can cost a pretty penny, but you can take home a large green cabbage for less than two dollars. Full of healthy phyto-chemicals, anti-oxidants, and over half of your daily vitamin C and K needs, cabbage is a great vegetable to keep both your wallet and waistline in check.

If cabbage isn’t your thing, move a couple shelves over to the beets. While many grocery stores sell already trimmed beets, try to get your hands on beets still attached to their beet greens. It’s a healthy 2-for-1! Throw your beets in a chopped salad for lunch, and saute the beet greens with your dinner. And before you leave the produce aisle, don’t forget some bananas. Not only do they make great snacks, but they’re fantastic in healthy baked goods and desserts.

Cheap and healthy protein? I’ve got you covered.

A package of tofu costs about a loonie, and with 11 grams of protein and 120 calories per serving, it’s hard to beat. Other great options? Chickpeas, lentils, black beans, and kidney beans are all under the $2 mark, and all provide a healthy, fibrous protein source to add to soups, stir fries, salads and anything else your heart desires. Don’t forget about eggs. At about 70 calories, 7 grams of protein, and about 23 cents apiece, eggs make for a perfect inexpensive meal or snack.

For lunchtime, look no further than canned salmon and canned tuna. Easily seasoned (I love mine with a splash of lemon and sprinkle of pepper), perfect in a salad and full of protein. Just resist the temptation to add mayonnaise.

Healthy carbs like squash and brown rice are quite inexpensive, and don’t forget about oats. While you want to steer clear of the premade oatmeal packets (which are full of sugar, artificial flavouring, and preservatives), old-fashioned oats are great for not just oatmeal, but for baking and as thickeners in things like smoothies and veggie burgers.

And the healthiest, most overlooked, cheapest option out there? Water. Stop buying fancy drinks at the store. Nothing will hydrate you better and more naturally than plain old water.

This is not to say, though, that you shouldn’t spend on anything. As I said before, the trick is to know when the extra expense is worth it.

You want to be paying for something truly beneficial, not for extra marketing and packaging. For example, I always spend the extra money to buy wild fish — especially if I’m buying salmon. According to an Indiana University study published in Science Daily, farmed salmon has significantly higher levels of toxins than it’s wild counterpoint. So much so, in fact, that researchers at the U.S. EPA recommend no more than one serving a month of farmed salmon. An extra dollar for the peace of mind that comes along with wild fish seems like a small price to pay.

Another high-cost, high-reward item is protein powder. Though it costs me about $30, it provides me with umpteen morning smoothies and a calorie-to-protein ratio that I simply can’t find anywhere else. And while I’m not a meat-eater, I do suggest spending the extra money on the lean cuts and grinds from the butcher. Animal fat is just not good for you; it is worth the 50 cents for the lean ground beef.

We’re all in a hurry, and few of us adore our time at the grocery store, but try to remember to use common sense. If you’re buying canned tomatoes to make a pasta sauce, don’t pay extra for the low-sodium tomatoes if you’re only going to add salt to your sauce later. Don’t buy the granola that claims to be skinny even though it has 20 grams of fat, and don’t pay $5 for 100 grams of shredded cheese when you could pay $5 for a 500-gram block. Be sure not only to read nutritional labels, but to read the price per gram of the item in question.

Finally, and most importantly, don’t use the oh-so-frequently discussed expense of healthy food as an excuse to eat poorly. The only person you’re cheating is yourself.

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