10 tips for a balanced diet on a balanced budget

The mainstream media likes to lodge politically correct complaints that a healthy diet is too expensive for the average American. That’s simply not true. Sure, if you only shop at overpriced places like Whole Foods and other upscale food emporia, you can blow your food budget. But those money pits are not the only places to buy high-quality foods. In fact, it seems to me that overpaying for food has become the latest fashion statement by urbanites, suburbanites, and the politically correct who aren’t actually clued in to all the really important information about good nutrition.

Really, it’s not rocket science. In fact, your grandparents knew just about all they needed to know about nutrition by living on the family farm. And there was nothing fancy about the family farm.

So, how can you watch your expenses while staying right at your usual grocery store? Well, the good news is, most regular supermarkets have already responded to consumer demand by supplying sections with fresh, healthy, organic foods of all varieties. Many also offer produce grown within 50 miles, so you can support local farmers instead of big agri-business.

With that in mind, here are 10 simple tips for improving your diet without breaking the bank.

1. Forget all the fad foods. As with too many dietary supplements, the current “it foods” are hot because of hype, not nutritional science.

There is no reason to buy goji berries from the Himalayas at $14 a pound when raisins, for example, are filled with constituents like resveratrol, which have been better studied by science. And cleverly packaged pomegranate juice is good for you, but it’s no better than any number of fruit juices in terms of antioxidants.

If you want to drink juice (though I prefer water—check out #10 on this list), you can approximate the taste of pomegranate juice—at far less cost. Just mix cranberry juice with a little lemon, both of which also have a host of health benefits.

2. Choose your organics wisely. Organically grown foods allow you to avoid pesticides and other agricultural chemicals. Organic makes sense with fruits and vegetables that you can and should eat with the skin: apples, celery, cherries, grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, peppers, potatoes, raspberries, spinach, and strawberries. The skins have more vitamins. If a fruit or vegetable has a thick inedible skin, like bananas or pineapples, paying extra for organic doesn’t make sense. When it comes to meat, milk, butter, and eggs, organic makes a world of difference in both healthfulness and taste. So it’s worth the “splurge.”

3. Budget for beef. Despite years of government health “experts” trying to convince the public that red meat will kill us, the fact is, red meat provides bioavailable protein, B vitamins, essential minerals, and a host of other nutrients hard to get from other sources. So forget everything you’ve heard from so-so-called government “experts,” and indulge in a hearty steak—or bottom round, hanger, tri-tip, or shoulder cut. (Just make sure to budget a little more for the organic varieties. As I said above, this is one instance where it’s worth it—from both health and taste perspectives—to spring for organic.)

4. Don’t buy bagged lettuce. It may seem convenient, but bagged salad greens are ridiculously expensive and create unnecessary packaging and waste. Plus, the supposed convenience of not having to wash the lettuce disappears when you consider the fact that contamination appears to be more of a problem with bagged lettuce, as I pointed out in the October 12, 2012 Daily Dispatch It’s (not) in the bag.” Get your produce fresh, whole, and un-bagged. Another bonus: Un- bagged produce stays fresh longer, since grocers water it periodically.

5. Buy single ingredient spices in larger quantities. Spices are herbal remedies by another name and they’re calorie-free. So it’s definitely worth budgeting for them. But make sure you’re not paying more for packaging than for contents. Buy in bulk from natural food stores. Avoid expensive spice mixes and instead just use specific individual ingredients that are called for in recipes. Most spices will stay fresh for at least two years. (Powdered red spices, such as cayenne, chili, and paprika have a shelf-life of one year.)

6 Make your own salad dressings. There’s simply no reason to buy bottled salad dressings. In addition to being expensive, they are full of unhealthy ingredients, fats, sugars and/or salt that have no place in a healthy salad. A basic— but delicious—salad dressing takes seconds to make. Just mix olive oil with vinegar or lemon oil. Then if you feel like it, throw in some of those healing (and calorie-free) spices for added flavor. To reap the health benefits of olive oil, choose a high- quality oil and keep it fresh by using it within three months. (By contrast, vinegar can be kept around for years.)

7. Go nuts. Nuts and seeds are loaded with heart-healthy essential fatty acids and other bioavailable nutrients and minerals, and they have been shown to lower the risk of many chronic diseases. They also help you feel fuller throughout the day, making them a good snack food. Although they’re relatively expensive, a little goes a long way. Save by buying in bulk and keeping them in the freezer.

8. Keep cereal simple. Forget the pricey, high-calorie, pre-sweetened cereals, as well as the trendy (and spendy) designer granolas. Instead buy a big container of steel-cut oats. The only oats that are really heart-healthy are steel-cut, because they retain the healthy bran and not just the carbs.

Use the oats to make old-fashioned hot oatmeal and add natural sweeteners such as maple syrup, honey, molasses, or agave. Toss in some dried fruit and nuts to make a quick, delicious, and inexpensive breakfast.

9. Give your trash can a break. Americans waste 15 to 30 percent of all the food they buy. When tomatoes get a little soft, chop them and cook them to make your own tomato sauce base. When vegetables begin to limp in the “crisper,” use them to make your own vegetable stock. When bread turns hard, make breadcrumbs or croutons for your salads. When a recipe calls for egg whites, save and cook the yolk for a healthy sandwich or salad. When you buy a whole chicken, cook and consume the whole thing (for a recipe, see the November 22, 2013 Daily Dispatch, “The Russian Bear’s Cure-all Chicken Soup”).

10. Drink one thing. There is no need to consume any type of expensive bottled beverages, carbonated sodas, or juice drinks. You are paying for bottling, transporting, and stocking drinks that are 99% water—a highly wasteful use of packaging, energy, fuel, and space just to provide products that “replace” water. Many of these beverages also contain unhealthy, high-fructose corn syrup or artificial sweeteners. Studies show that instead of being a healthier option, artificial, zero-calorie sweeteners can actually be just as unhealthy for metabolism, obesity, and diabetes as is sugar.

Instead, you should get the fluid you need from water. Of course, since today’s public water sources are full of chlorine and toxic hydrocarbons, it’s important to invest in a good filter. And to truly get the hydration you need—at the cellular level—I recommend adding South African red bush to your water. You can get it in tea bags or opt for the convenient Red Joe powdered drink mix that I helped formulate. (You can learn more about red bush in the article “NFL gets into the ‘Red (Bush) Zone’” in last month’s issue—as well as here on my website.)