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Nine Ways to Eat Healthfully in an Economic Downturn

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Nine Ways to Eat Healthfully in an Economic Downturn

When money is tight, avoid the trap of fast-food and prepackaged meals.

Learn the why behind the headlines.

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For many around the world, the global economic crisis has produced bitter, grinding hardship. The meltdown of late 2008 and 2009, starting with the mortgage industry, was just the beginning of a downward trend that left millions without a job or income.

The Wall Street Journal published an article in 2009 in which the Federal Reserve Bank estimated, “U.S. households’ net worth tumbled by $11 trillion” and that, ultimately, “The wealth of American families plunged nearly 18% in 2008.”

A U.S. Census Bureau survey’s data reflected that the official poverty rate in the country rose 2.6 percent from 2007 through 2010, leveling off at 15.1 percent in the same year. This equaled about 46.2 million poor Americans at that time. By 2012, it had increased to 46.5 million.

At present, some sources consider the U.S. economy to be in recovery. However, many states still struggle with high unemployment. And official statistics do not always reflect the whole picture—for example, those who have given up on finding a job are sometimes not included in the unemployment numbers. So it is clear that the pain has not abated.

In fact, for many in America and beyond, it has intensified.

The Paycheck and the Pantry

Even in a “land of plenty” such as the United States, less money implies less food! This is where extensive governmental aid comes in for millions of citizens. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as “food stamps,” provides the needy with about $4 per day, per person, according to The Week.

But what will $4 buy?

Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman decided to find out, taking the challenge of living on food stamps for five days. She described what she ate on one of the days to the Las Vegas Sun: “Breakfast: 2 eggs and toast with jelly,” “Lunch: Soup and lettuce with tomato and dressing,” and “Dinner: Tuna sandwich with lettuce.”

This modest fare may seem like a starvation diet to many Americans. However, is this the type of food that most who rely on food stamps opt to purchase?

Anecdotal evidence shows that many of the poorest families tend to buy fast food or heavily processed snacks since they are more filling and provide the immediate gratification of “comfort food” ingredients—fat, sugar and sodium. And in some neighborhoods, there is virtually no other option—no real grocery stores to be found for miles. The National Bureau of Economic Research found that “a one percentage point increase in the resident state’s unemployment rate is associated with a 2-8% reduction in the consumption of fruits and vegetables.”

The fast-food preference is not confined to just one socioeconomic group. The New York Times reported, “No country has embraced the movement toward commercialized, prepackaged food as much as the United States. Americans eat 31 percent more packaged food than fresh food and they consume more packaged food per person than their counterparts in nearly all other countries.”

With such a large portion of the population living on ready-to-eat meals, it is no surprise that, during the recession, sales rose 7.1 percent for fast food companies such as McDonald’s, according to The Associated Press.

In pure monetary terms, it is a mistake to assume that fast food is the cheapest option. Many books and articles, and practical experience, demonstrate that it is possible to feed a family on healthy, fresh food for less money than it would cost to buy fast food at the nearest drive-thru.

Looking beyond short-term dollars and cents, author Eric Schlosser, in his book Fast Food Nation, stated, “The real price never appears on the menu.” He was referring to the long-range price—poor health. A nation that spent (according to Mr. Schlosser’s research) about $6 billion on fast food in 1970, and a greatly increased $110 billion in 2000, will see significant health effects in the long run.

Addictive, Available—and Bad for You

A number of other factors contribute to the enduring popularity of convenience foods.

A Scripps Research Institute study concluded that the “engineering behind hyperprocessed food” results in a product that is “virtually addictive,” further asserting that the “same mechanisms underlie drug addiction and obesity” (The New York Times).

Thus, we are conditioned to crave junk food rather than food that provides wholesome nutrition—and the junk is available most anytime. In the U.S., many small towns have at least one fast-food franchise. According to statistics published by the Guardian in early 2013, there is one McDonald’s restaurant for every 22,147 American citizens. Add to this count Burger King, Wendy’s, Taco Bell, KFC, etc.—and remember that many of these are open late.

In the end, human health is negatively affected by food with a high caloric, fat, salt and sugar content. A 2012 American Heart Association report stated, “Obesity (body mass index ≥ 30 kg/m2) is associated with marked excess mortality [increased death rates] in the U.S. population,” and “one in every six deaths” in the nation is caused by coronary heart disease.

Consider: approximately two-thirds of American adults—155 million!—are classified as overweight or obese, compared to just 15 percent of the population in 1980.

Worldwide, an estimated one in 10 people are obese, with the highest-ranking countries after the U.S. being Mexico, New Zealand, Chile, Australia, Canada, United Kingdom, Ireland, Luxembourg and Finland.

The trend in weight gain has resulted in an increase of ailments such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, arthritis, dementia, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. In addition, poor nutrition has been linked to increased levels of stress, fatigue, mood swings, dental problems, joint pain, insomnia and depression.

Are you battling any of these conditions? Do any run in your family?

Has the current state of the world economy squeezed your personal economy and made it challenging to eat healthfully?

Even in the face of financial difficulties, you can trade convenient, empty nutrition for a diet that will keep you healthy but not break the bank. The following are nine tips for eating right even when money is tight.

(1) Plan Ahead

This can be difficult, especially when working more than one job or facing other serious time demands. But it pays dividends!

Know exactly how much money you have, and determine what kinds of healthful food you can afford. It may help to develop a weekly or bi-weekly meal plan. This does not have to be complicated.

For example, plan dishes and buy items that you can use as ingredients in different meals throughout the week. You may wish to get a large container of spinach and use it for salads with lunch for the first few days and then spice it up and cook it with chicken for dinner on the fourth day.

Proper planning will help you buy what you need once you are at the store and reduce impulse spending. Be sure to compare prices of different brands. Also, avoid shopping when hungry.

In certain countries, using coupons can reap great benefits. Be careful, however, not to buy something simply because you have a coupon for it. Many discounted and advertised products are not nutritious. Remember, your health is at stake!

(2) Buy Fresh Produce

While this concept may go against conventional wisdom for those on a tight budget since fresh food has a shorter shelf life, the health benefits you reap far outweigh the fact that a given product cannot sit on a shelf for very long.

One fresh produce strategy is to buy items that can be eaten raw or cooked later. For example, kale can be eaten fresh in a salad and sauteed later if it starts to wilt slightly. This also applies to tomatoes, peppers, and green beans, among others.

Even though eating fresh produce sooner is best, it is versatile. It can be used in a salad, cut up and frozen, added to a soup, roasted and so on. Once vegetables are cooked, they often last longer. Roasted vegetables, for example, can last up to a week.

In addition, buying fresh produce grown locally has a number of benefits. When this is unavailable, frozen produce can be your next best option.

(3) Incorporate Protein

Science has shown that protein is critical for brain and muscle development, and can provide better stamina than carbohydrates alone. Protein is also filling, which helps limit total caloric intake.

While it is somewhat more expensive than other types of food, strive to incorporate sufficient protein into your diet. Certain fish (e.g., wild-caught salmon and tuna) are high in nutrients such as vitamin C and essential fatty acids, making them an investment that will boost overall health.

Eggs are another good protein source. Unlike meats, they have a fairly long shelf life. A Men’s Health article labeled eggs “the perfect protein”: “The protein in eggs has the highest biological value—a measure of how well it supports your body’s protein needs—of any food, including our beloved beef.”

Get the most from eggs by adding them to a casserole filled with vegetables such as summer squash and carrots, which are available almost everywhere and are inexpensive.

While beef also contains protein, be careful what you buy. The most commonly available varieties are laden with antibiotics and hormones, and can be higher in fat and cholesterol.

Other options for protein are chicken, turkey and plant proteins such as quinoa, beans and nuts.

(4) Schedule a “Cooking Day”

While this system requires some effort, it should result in less wasted food. Statistics from the United States Environmental Protection Agency showed that in 2010 alone, the total national food waste stood at 34 million tons—“14% of the total municipal solid waste stream.” You can reduce or eliminate your share of this massive amount of wasted food.

Once you plan what you will buy, arrange a time within your schedule to cook meals for the entire week. If, for example, you shop on Sunday mornings, set aside a few hours on Sunday afternoon to make sure that you have meals to eat throughout the remainder of that week.

This can include cooking a breakfast dish that can be eaten every morning, roasting any fresh vegetables that you do not plan to use in your salad that week, freezing coconut milk mixed with berries and honey for dessert, and baking several pieces of chicken to eat with the roasted vegetables for dinner. Anything that you do not use can be stored for later in reusable containers or frozen.

Having meals for the entire week also makes it easy to bring lunch to work or school, rather than resorting to heavily processed convenience foods, which negatively affect both your budget and your waistline.

(5) Use a Crockpot

Using a crockpot can help you eat a more wholesome diet while also saving time. For example, you can toss a bunch of vegetables into water with a little bit of salt and pepper or vegetable stock before you leave for work in the morning and by the time you come home, dinner will be ready.

One of the most popular crockpot meals is pot roast, which consists of a cut of beef, potatoes, carrots and onions. All of these ingredients can be simmered in a crockpot for more than 10 hours.

Another option for a hectic schedule is to slow cook frozen vegetables while you are away. But be sure to check out the ingredients: many frozen vegetables have added preservatives and chemicals that should be avoided.

Collard greens are an example of a vegetable that is easy to make in a crockpot. Just add a little water, olive oil, salt and pepper and set on low for several hours. Then enjoy all the healthy nutrients once you arrive home!

If you do not have a crockpot or the funds to buy one, visit a used-goods shop, where they can be found for as low as 10 percent of the original price. It is a worthwhile investment and the health benefits that you reap from your homemade food beat a microwave dinner any day.

(6) Skip Sauces and Use Spices

Most sauces contain synthetic additives or unnecessary sweeteners. A better idea is to create your own using spices and herbs. Many have health-promoting properties: “‘Technically, spices are vegetables in concentrated form,’ Wendy Bazilian, [registered dietitian], the nutrition adviser for the Golden Door Spa & Fitness Resort in Escondido, California, told Fitness magazine. ‘Like veggies, they contain thousands of healthy phytonutrient compounds, including antioxidants.’

“‘I think of dried oregano leaves as miniature salad greens,’ Bazilian says. One teaspoon contains not only six micrograms of bone-building vitamin K but also the same amount of antioxidants as three cups of spinach. And preliminary research indicates that oregano can help fend off stomach flu. ‘Bacteria often hitch a ride on the food we eat, and oregano may keep them from multiplying and making us sick,’ Bazilian continues.”

Skip sugar-filled barbecue sauce for your baked chicken and opt instead for a flavorful marinade of olive oil, salt, pepper and red pepper flakes.

In addition, try mixing a few pinches of dried basil into some olive oil with salt, pepper and a trace of lemon to create an easy Italian dressing. This is a welcome alternative to the substances found in most store-bought salad dressings such as polysorbate 60 (an emulsifier that conjoins ingredients) or “caramel color” (which can contain toxic contaminants).

(7) Opt for Nutrient-dense Items

Ultimately, nutrient-dense food is more filling and promotes satiety (the feeling of being satisfied after eating). It also helps cut down on how much you eat, aiding any grocery budget.

According to an article by the U.S. Department of Agriculture: “Dark green leafy vegetables are great sources of nutrition. Salad greens, kale and spinach are rich in vitamins A, C, E and K, and broccoli, bok choy and mustard are also rich in many of the B-vitamins. These vegetables also contain an abundance of carotenoids—antioxidants that protect cells and play roles in blocking the early stages of cancer. They also contain high levels of fiber, iron, magnesium, potassium and calcium. Furthermore, greens have very little carbohydrates, sodium and cholesterol.”

The organization later stated, “Perhaps one of the most appealing benefits of dark green leafy vegetables is their low calorie and carbohydrate contents and their low glycemic index. These features make them an ideal food to facilitate achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight. Adding more green vegetables to a balanced diet increases the intake of dietary fiber which, in turn, regulates the digestive system and aids in bowel health and weight management.”

Compare this to the popular alternative—items filled with corn syrup or sugar devoid of nutrition—so-called foodless foods.

New York Daily News reported: “The average American eats a third of a pound of sugar every day—130 pounds a year.

“[California-based endocrinologist Dr. Robert] Lustig says his research proves that the sweet stuff causes heart disease and cancer, as well as Type 2 diabetes and obesity.

“And it’s not just the added sweeteners we add to our foods, like table sugar, or the desserts we eat.

“Sugar is everywhere in foods where we least suspect it, including breads, yogurt, peanut butter and sauces.”

Instead, Discovery News advised: “Turn to natural sweeteners for your drinks and food alike. Honey, organic maple syrup, molasses, date sugar, brown rice syrup, and stevia are just a few...”

Avoid items that contain bleached flour or empty carbohydrates. And be aware that even whole wheat has changed after decades of hybridization, prompting some to avoid it in favor of other grains such as quinoa and brown rice.

Other foods to consider adding as staples are almonds, apples, avocados, beets, beans, peppers, blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cranberries, oranges, strawberries, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes.

Finally, minimize consumption of packaged meals. A rule of thumb: if it is boxed, bagged or canned, it has likely spent extended time on a shelf and should only be a small part of your diet.

(8) Be Creative

Living on a budget can sometimes involve sacrifices, such as not eating as much of the variety of foods that you want. For example, a carton of eggs may not be the food of choice for breakfast or even dinner every single day, but it will supply needed protein and be filling.

Mixing tuna with brown rice for a simple meal or sprinkling cinnamon or nutmeg in your coffee instead of using creamer may not be the first choice in more prosperous times, but these small adjustments can be vital for staying within budget.

Another tip is to use what is in season. Seasonal foods are often more affordable.

Broaden your culinary horizons. Do not let old habits or the traditions of your particular country dictate your choices. If you have access to the Internet, type a vegetable name into a search engine and see what recipes result. Many people have come up with delicious ways to incorporate certain foods—at a fraction of the cost and in a much more healthful way.

(9) Forget Soda, Drink Water

While water is not food, it will help you feel full and keep your body running well. Some sources recommend drinking one ounce per two pounds of body weight daily.

“Water serves as a lubricant,” a New York Times Health Guide stated. “It makes up saliva and the fluids surrounding the joints. Water regulates the body temperature through perspiration. It also helps prevent and relieve constipation by moving food through the intestines.”

In many places, water is still free. By contrast, soda or other soft drinks are increasingly expensive and can be detrimental to good health given their high levels of sugar and salt. According to USA Today, Americans drink an average of 44 gallons of soda per person per year! Think of the health benefits and cost savings that would result if these drinks were replaced with water.

More than Food

This article has briefly addressed some ways to stretch your budget while building your health. To realize the full benefits of these strategies will require more research. A myriad of books are available for free at the library and online to help.

Our booklet God’s Principles of Healthful Living states: “God’s physical creation is governed by definite, physical laws. These include laws that regulate our bodies. To be healthy, you must follow them.”

“When a person breaks these principles and laws of health—whether through omission or negligence—the body suffers. Among the negative results are malnutrition, atrophy from inactivity, or exhaustion from lack of rest—simple cause and effect.”

Healthy eating is only part of the equation. While it will help your mind stay sharp and minimize illness, it takes a balance of proper diet, sleep, exercise, good hygiene, and certain other elements to maximize health.

These principles are discussed in greater detail in God’s Principles of Healthful Living. Thousands have put them into practice and are already living healthful lives with more vigor and vibrancy than they ever thought possible.

It can take time to improve your eating habits. But the health that you reap in the long run will be well worth it! 

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