9 ways to get a balanced diet on a balanced budget

The government tells us there is virtually zero inflation. Of course, that’s in the feds’ make-believe world of budgeting.

In the real world the rest of us live in, we’re certainly seeing prices go up. Take insurance, for example. Costs have skyrocketed over the last few years for auto, home, professional, and healthcare insurance—especially under the partisan “Affordable” Care Act.

And though the price of oil and gasoline has gone down over the past year, that’s done nothing to slow the rising costs of energy utilities in our homes and offices. Because, of course, the government keeps utility costs to consumers artificially high as a backhanded way to mandate “conservation” of energy. But ironically, the reason gas prices have dropped is because of a glut of energy.

However, while navigating through the fantastical world of government energy and budgetary policy, there is one area in which you cannot afford to skimp.

I’m talking about what you eat and drink.

Plenty of evidence shows that diet and nutrition is the single most important element for health promotion, disease prevention, and managing common medical disorders.

To some extent, you do have to pay more for better, healthier, tastier food—which is a sad comment on both “big food” and the modern agriculture industry, as well as our social values.

But the good news is that eating healthy does not have to break your budget. Just follow these 9 simple steps to cut out the waste. And as an added benefit, many of the same measures will help you cut back on your waist as well.

  1. Forget fad foods

Slashing your grocery bill begins with avoiding food gimmicks, fads, and flaky diet ideas.

Some food manufacturers learned long ago that it costs far less for them to make hyped-up claims about supposed “new, improved” products than to make real innovations or provide better quality. I’ve often found the cheaper the ingredients, the bigger the breathless (and usually groundless) claims.

Unfortunately, the same rule tends to apply as much in the “natural” products world as it does with big food.

Goji berries are an example. These dried fruits from Asia look like red raisins, and certainly are an acquired taste. At $14 to $18 per pound you can get much better value when it comes to antioxidants from actual raisins—not to mention one of my favorite fruits, blueberries. And think of how many pounds of other healthy, organic fruits and berries you can buy for $18.

Another example is the ridiculous price of pomegranate juice—about $25 for 16 ounces of the most popular brand, POM Wonderful. A UCLA study found that pomegranate juice does have more antioxidants than other juices, but researchers also rated the much less expensive concord grape and cranberry juices high in antioxidants as well.1

Of course, you do want to watch the sugar content of any fruit juice.  Have you noticed the small size of a so-called juice glass? There’s a reason. Juices from whole fruits without added sugars or artificial ingredients can be a healthy treat—but only in moderation.

Another healthy drink option is to add a little spice to your favorite beverage or cocktail with sauces made from different varieties of chili peppers. Like pomegranates, these fiery peppers are also high in antioxidants and vitamin C. But unlike pomegranates, a little bit of chili pepper goes a long way in terms of your budget.

  1. Substitute some spice

Part of avoiding overpriced foods and beverages is making smart substitutions when it comes to recipes. For example, you can usually use plain yogurt (check the nutrients label to make sure it’s low in sugar) instead of higher-fat, higher-cost ingredients like sour cream or heavy cream.

The same is true when it comes to spices. Some exotic Asian spices that require trips to specialty stores are priced as if sailing ships laden with them still had to travel thousands of miles to isolated locations—as was done by traders on the ancient spice routes.

Take pepper, for instance. There are all kinds of exotic, pricey types of pepper for sale today, but don’t be fooled. They all come from the same plant. Different colors are often related to how the pepper is cultivated, harvested, and dried. But all pepper, no matter how colorful, has essentially the same beneficial ingredients and taste.

So instead of paying for exotic peppers in fancy packaging, invest in a good pepper mill and buy whole, black peppercorns. Grind only when ready to add to food on the stove or at the table.

Why? Well, with pre-ground pepper you can’t really tell what you are getting. Plus, potency is rapidly lost when the natural shell or husk of the peppercorn is removed, cracked, or ground up.

When you buy whole peppercorns, and other herbs and spices in bulk (instead of pre-ground powders in packages), you also get better value. And you can buy more because most bulk spices stay fresh for one to two years. Powdered, ground spices typically last only six months.2

  1. Snack smart

When it comes to snacks, I’m appalled at how many people pay ridiculous prices to eat absolute junk—salt, sugar, and fats with artificial ingredients.

But that doesn’t mean you have to give up between-meal treats altogether. For instance, many of the spices I mentioned above can also be used to add flavor to healthy, inexpensive snacks.

Popcorn for one. It’s not only low-cal, but also a good source of fiber and the complex carbs your body needs to produce energy. You don’t need to add butter (and certainly not oil) to this tasty snack for flavor when hot peppers, herbs, or a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese can do the same thing with a lot fewer calories.

One thing to keep in mind, though: Essentially all yellow corn grown in the U.S. is genetically modified, so look for organic, non-GMO popcorn kernels. Blue corn is a good choice.

Nuts are also a healthy snacks. They can be expensive, but a little goes a long way. I’ve reported how study after study has found that just a handful of nuts a day can produce big benefits for your brain, blood sugar, and heart. Nuts are high in essential fatty acids and minerals, and they also help you feel full and satisfied—which can keep your weight down.

Also, while tree nuts (almonds, cashews, pistachios, walnuts) are relatively costly, the same health benefits have also been found for inexpensive whole peanuts. In fact, a new study reports that people who regularly ate peanuts were 21 percent less likely to die over a five-year period than people who didn’t eat nuts.3 And that was true even for the people who smoked, were obese, or had high blood pressure or diabetes.

One of the worst offenders when it comes to both your budget and your health are so-called “snack packs.” Many candy bars, chips, and cookies are available in a 100-cal snack pack. But why waste 100 calories—not to mention several dollars—on absolute junk?

The same goes for most “granola” bars, energy bars, and other candy bars disguised in pseudo-healthy packaging. How much is 100 calories of this kind of junk? About one handful. Just say “nuts” to that.

Another terrible idea is “lunch snacks,” or pre-packaged junk lunch meats with some crappy cheese product and crackers thrown in. In a March 15, 2013 Daily Dispatch, I revealed the horror story of how Lunchables were geared to the new generation of busy, working mothers and their children. The entire product category was 100 percent marketing and 0 percent optimum nutrition.

  1. Know when to go organic

As I reported back in 2012, the U.S. government has turned the organic label into another quasi-government bureaucratic process—not to mention a procedure for essentially shaking down the little grower (check out “Deep into organic” and “Big food takes over the organic market” at drmicozzi.com). Since then, big food has found even more ways to infiltrate and pervert the organic labeling process.

But that doesn’t mean the organic label is entirely unimportant for your health and nutrition. Every year, the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG) publishes its “Dirty Dozen Plus” fruits and vegetables that are most contaminated by pesticides. These are the foods you should always eat organic.

This year, the list includes apples, peaches, nectarines, strawberries, grapes, celery, spinach, sweet bell peppers, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, snap peas, potatoes, hot peppers, kale, and collard greens.4

I also recommend that if you eat corn and soybeans, choose the organic ones. Most of the conventionally grown versions are genetically modified. And you’ll avoid dangerous growth hormones and antibiotics if you choose organic meat and chicken.

But there are some foods for which you don’t necessarily need to pay extra for organic versions. Foods with peels, for instance. If you completely remove a peel before eating, you’re not likely to ingest any pesticides. Although there is still the environmental impact of using pesticides to grow that food.

Along with “peel foods” like avocadoes, onions, pineapples, kiwi, papaya, grapefruit, and cantaloupe, the EWG also put the following produce on its 2015 “Clean Fifteen” list for having the lowest concentrations of pesticides: sweet corn (although, as I said above, watch the GMOs), cabbage, frozen sweet peas, asparagus, mangoes, eggplant, cauliflower, and sweet potatoes.5

If you want to save money, buy conventional rather than organic versions of these foods.

  1. Bag the bagged lettuce and salad dressings

One of the most wasteful and dangerous (in terms of contamination) food products is prepackaged lettuce and salads. Why seal your salad in artificial plastic bags when you can buy lettuce and other greens out in the open—where they can breathe and are also watered regularly by the produce staff at your grocery store?

That’s why I always buy salad and other greens by the head. They’re not only fresher, but less expensive and safer than bagged salads.

As with flowers, you can carefully slice the ends off the heads of greens and place them in water to maintain a “fresh-picked” appearance and flavor for days. Just make sure to wash them so they’ll be free of salmonella and other contaminants that can make their way into salads that are bagged—and stay there.

Bottom line: bagged salads = bad idea.

Bottled salad dressings are also a bad idea .These expensive concoctions are typically loaded with sugars, fats, preservatives, and artificial chemicals. They’re also loaded with calories, which negates the weight-loss effect of the salads they douse.

All you really need to make your salad sing is a little red wine vinegar and olive oil (which is one of the healthiest foods on the planet). Don’t like vinegar? Try lemon juice instead. Add a dash of mustard (3 calories) and virtually any and all spices for extra flavor.

To keep olive oil fresh, buy only as much as you will use within three months.  Vinegar is already “aged” and can be kept almost indefinitely.

  1. Get more bang for your beef buck

Beef is expensive. But judging by its nutritional content, it should be. Beef provides essential fats, B vitamins, and bioavailable minerals, as well as protein—which most people don’t get enough of, especially as we get older.

The lost decades of government misdirection when it comes to beef (and also butter, cholesterol, eggs, and fats) are over—and the government finally admitted that its advice to avoid these foods was all wrong, all along. Now, we know it’s important to include beef and other meat, as well as fish and seafood, in our diets at least twice per week.

Even if your grocery budget is tight, you can still afford beef. Stay away from the filet mignon and choose bottom round, shoulder, or tri-tip cuts instead. You’ll get the same nutrition at a lower cost. These cuts can also be marinated in the same healthy spices, vinegars, and olive oil that add flavor to salads and other foods.

And, as I mentioned earlier, buy organic beef whenever you can. Also, research shows grass-fed beef is lower in unhealthy fats and higher in omega-3 fatty acids than conventional beef, which makes it good for your heart. It also has more cancer-fighting antioxidants than conventional beef.6  So it’s worth the splurge for this healthier meat.

  1. Make sure you know beans about beans

You can supplement your beef consumption with another excellent source of protein—beans. They’re also high in fiber and the B vitamin folate.

And dry beans can be bought for bargain-basement prices. Although they must be rehydrated and rinsed to eliminate natural anti-digestive toxins. Canned beans are more expensive, but still make it easily onto the budget list.

Slow cookers are a good way to make convenient bean casseroles and dishes. One of my favorites is beans, beef, and chili peppers—better known as chili con carne or simply chili. There are as many delicious chili varieties as there are chefs, and they make a good year-round meal.

  1. Don’t surrender in the battle of the beverages

You already know how important it is to avoid all bottled soda and soft drinks, whether they’re made with sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, or artificial sweeteners. They’re as harmful to your health and your waistline (even “zero-cal”) as they are to your bottom line.

Stick with water. For more information on what type of water, check out “The slimy secret water companies don’t want you to know: Bacteria, arsenic, and carcinogens all found in bottled water” in the July issue of Insiders’ Cures.

Or you can make your own fruit/vegetables juices with any or all of the healthy organic produce listed above. Investing in a restaurant-quality juicer will help ensure that you can juice just about anything.

  1. Remember there’s no downside to downsizing

In addition to choosing the right foods, controlling portion sizes is the single most important step to a healthy weight. Which, of course, helps promote a healthy life.

But portions of prepared foods at grocery stores and restaurants seem to keep growing and growing. I’ve found the best way to lessen the burden on your wallet and waistline is to share these supersized portions with another person—or yourself.

Cut your restaurant or grocery entrée in half and either share it with your dining partner or take it home. You will still get all the flavors, and you’ll find yourself satisfied with less. Plus, you can sample more types of food (for those who have a hard time making up their minds with the menu).

Do the same thing with meals you cook at home. Combining leftovers has led to some of the great inventions in cooking. Pizza, for example. Leftover vegetables can also be made into soups, or vegetable broth or stocks. And stale bread makes excellent breadcrumbs and croutons.

Another benefit to portion control is that you won’t waste food. Americans squander a whopping 30 to 40 percent of our food supply—the equivalent of 20 pounds of food per person per month.7

The mindless reading of expiration dates on perfectly good, unopened foods is another source of that waste. Don’t throw out foods that still taste and smell all right. Your nose knows. On the other hand, choosing the later expiration dates on packages while still at the grocery store will postpone the point at which you even have to consider this issue.

Above all, be creative with cooking and leftovers. The kitchen is a place where virtually everyone can express themselves—which is healthy for body and mind.

Sources:

1Comparison of antioxidant potency of commonly consumed polyphenol-rich beverages in the United States.” J Agric Food Chem. 2008 Feb 27;56(4):1415-22.

2https://food.unl.edu/safety/chart

3http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/peanuts-linked-heart-longevity-benefits-pricey-nuts-201503057777

4http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/dirty_dozen_list.php

5http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/clean_fifteen_list.php

6http://www.nutritionj.com/content/pdf/1475-2891-9-10.pdf

7http://www.worldfooddayusa.org/food_waste_the_facts