The U.S.A. is a land of plenty, but despite unprecedented access to cheap, abundant food, many Americans suffer from poor diets characterized by inadequate nutrition. Studies consistently show that Americans eat too few whole plant foods and too many processed, high-fat foods chock full of simple carbs.
In nature, carbs are usually complex, meaning it takes the body much longer to break them down and release their sugars. Although fruit supplies higher concentrations of sugar, it invariably comes with plenty of plant fiber to slow the absorption of the sugars. This helps keep blood sugar levels steady, and combats the hunger and overeating that can be promoted by consuming too many simple carbs too quickly.
The Whole Solution
Essentially, eating healthfully involves nothing more complicated than eating plenty of fresh, whole foods. Cooked or raw, simply or more elaborately prepared; it hardly matters. What’s important is to focus on whole foods. Whole foods are foods that come to us more or less direct from nature. Think fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, whole grains, beans, and other largely unprocessed foods. The challenge for many Americans on a tight budget has more to do with access to these types of foods than their cost.
Some neighborhoods are virtual “food deserts” where it’s difficult to access these types of fresh, perishable foods. Sadly, people in these neighborhoods must often settle for packaged, processed and preserved foods of limited nutritional value. Assuming you have access to fresh produce of reasonably good quality and selection, it shouldn’t be too hard to shop mindfully and stay within a budget, while also providing excellent, healthful meals for your family.
Start with beans. Many markets now offer “pulses,” meaning beans, lentils and other legumes, in bulk. They’re remarkably inexpensive, incredibly nutritious, and surprisingly easy to cook. Choose from among many different varieties, ranging from black beans (favorites throughout the Caribbean and Central and South America), red beans (where would we be as a nation without New Orleans-style red beans and rice?), pinto beans (southwestern favorites), navy or cannelloni beans (indispensable to northern Italian cuisine), or more exotic varieties like cranberry beans, chickpeas, or mung beans.
And don’t forget lentils, peas and all the rest. They’re all extraordinarily good sources of fiber, protein, complex carbohydrates, and vitamins like folic acid. For vegans, beans are an important source of complete protein, containing all eight of the essential amino acids.
Then add whole grains. Think brown rice, black rice, quinoa, or wild rice. Brown rice, especially, is an inexpensive whole grain with the bran—and key nutrients—still intact.
White rice, in contrast, is also cheap, but it supplies nothing more than simple carbohydrates. Stick with whole grain.
Hunt and Gather
When it comes time to shop, stick to the edges of your grocery’s hunting grounds. That’s where you’ll find most of the fresh produce and other whole-foods products. Interior aisles tend to be stocked with packaged, processed, ultra-convenient foods. Unfortunately, convenience and good nutrition seldom coincide. Exceptions exist, however. Think apples or bananas that can be eaten out of hand. Think drinkable yogurt with live active (probiotic) cultures. Even people who are lactose intolerant can usually consume yogurt safely, as the friendly bacteria that give it its probiotic halo will have consumed most of the milk sugars that might present a problem.
Organic versus Conventionally Grown Produce
Many consumers worry that the foods they eat may be laced with pesticides, preservatives and other artificial chemicals. Some of those concerns are not unfounded. According to the non-profit consumer’s advocacy organization, Environmental Working Group (www.ewg.org), certain produce items tend to be heavily laced with pesticide residues, while others tend to be so “clean” there’s no need to consider paying extra to buy them organic. The organization publishes an annual list of the “Clean Fifteen” produce items for a given year, as well as a list of the “Dirty Dozen” foods that tend to contain problematic levels of synthetic chemical pesticides.
Items vary from year to year, but certain items consistently make one list or the other. Sweet corn, avocados and asparagus usually make the “clean” list, while tender fruits like strawberries, grapes and cherries tend to land on the “dirty” list. Consider downloading these lists and carrying them with you on your shopping excursions. They can serve as a guide to how best to allocate your limited food budget dollars. You may decide that it’s perfectly acceptable to eat conventionally grown corn, for instance, but insist on organic potatoes, knowing as you now do that potatoes are consistently judged to contain high trace amounts of pesticides.
Buying organic is generally more expensive, but some shoppers may decide it’s worth the extra expense for the peace of mind that comes from knowing a given type of food is utterly safe to consume. Before you decide to allocate a portion of your budget for these arguably safer, yet more-expensive foods, arm yourself with EWG’s free guides. And note, too, that fresh produce, regardless of how it was grown, generally does not contain preservatives, additives, artificial colors, or other synthetic chemicals.
As noted earlier, vegans, who eat no foods that do not come from the plant kingdom, must work harder to ensure they’re getting complete nutrition. That means all essential amino acids, omega-3 fatty acids from vegetarian sources (e.g. walnuts, flaxseed, etc.), and all the essential vitamins and minerals. Certain B vitamins are difficult to obtain if not from meat, so these nutrients must also be monitored carefully. The rest of us can rely on complete protein sources such as eggs, beans, fish and lean poultry. Since you’re on a quest to save money, do yourself a favor and avoid buying red meat. Americans consume too much protein to begin with, and too much red meat. Numerous large studies have shown that eating more red and processed meats is associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease.