The High Cost of Eating Well

IMG_5338A little more than a year ago, I wrote a blog post about the surprisingly counterintuitive (to me, anyway) relationship between hunger and obesity, specifically, in South Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, where hunger and obesity are a growing problem, both independently and together. When I first read a Washington Post article shedding some light on this issue and the accompanying debate on whether food stamp purchases should be regulated by the federal government, I felt frustrated and appalled that this problem exists in the first place and wondered whether a potential solution could be found in something as simple as nutrition education.

In recent weeks, I have revisited the topic of food in my mind as M. and I have reached the final days of his nutrition challenge, in which we (mostly he, but I, too, for the most part) have overhauled our diets to include only whole, unprocessed foods with no added sugars or sugar substitutes, hydrogenated oils, dairy, grains, starches, or legumes. We have learned a lot in the last few weeks, and have made some unexpected findings about how a such a dramatic change in our diets has really affected our health, state of mind, and, most surprisingly, our pocketbook.

In the interest of full disclosure, I will say that M. was really the one who was fully committed to the challenge. It was his project, through his Crossfit gym. I went along for the ride, of course in solidarity to support his goal, and also simply because it was easier to prepare one meal within the limits of the challenge. I also figured a nutrition challenge could only bring good things to me, too. However, I still had my daily cup of tea with a teaspoon of half-and-half and sugar, a glass of red wine most evenings, and the occasional slice of toast and cheese. But for the most part, it was all whole foods, all the time. On three occasions, M. allowed for a “cheat” day, and we went out for dinner with family.

The results M. has experienced have been quite impressive. He kicked off the challenge with an initial body composition analysis, performed by a professional body composition testing provider. Twenty-eight days later, the same provider performed another body composition analysis, which showed an overall weight loss of 13.7 pounds and a 5% reduction in body fat. In addition, M. repeated the same Crossfit physical fitness test – a circuit of different exercises – that he had taken on the first day of the challenge, and completed it three minutes and 19 seconds faster. Fantastic results, if you ask me! I am very proud of him. And best of all, with the exception of the first couple of days, M. never felt like he was on a diet. He was never really hungry, and didn’t crave junky foods. In fact, we both agreed on our “cheat” days when we ate at restaurants that we felt heavy and lethargic, in spite of having enjoyed our meals.

We won’t talk about any results for me, mainly because I didn’t measure my “before” numbers and didn’t track my food intake the same way M. did. Although, I will say that I have picked up the pace a little bit on my easier runs, and they still feel easy. That’s never a bad thing.

What we noticed mostly, in addition to M.’s health and body composition results, was the nutrition challenge’s affect on how much money we spent on food. We swapped out sweets and sugar for organic, medjool dates, which are both extremely versatile in recipes and tasty on their own. We replaced peanut butter with almond butter. Instead of chips and crackers, we snacked on raw nuts and seeds. In general, we steered clear of products that even have a food label, but in some instances, such as with almond milk, coconut water, or a cured item like smoked salmon or proscuitto, it was important to read the labels because often, such products have added sugar or oil. Selecting the ones that don’t meant springing for the higher quality, more expensive items. All of this, in combination with our general practice of shopping for organic, responsibly-raised meats, wild-caught fish, and organic produce whenever possible, came with a high price tag. Much higher than we had anticipated.

I didn’t really notice until I left our local grocery store with a $176 receipt. For two adults. For the third week in a row.

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This is about $50 worth of food from our local grocery store. Part of the expense is the high cost of living area in which we live; part of it is our choice in quality.

I normally don’t pay a lot of attention to how much we spend on our food, especially when I know it’s nutritious and something we need. I try to buy produce that is in season and organic when possible. I buy the expensive eggs and the grass-fed beef and the free-range chicken because I’ve read and seen enough from the agriculture industry to want to support humane and eco-friendly farming. It is rare that I put something back on the shelf, declaring it “too expensive”. The way I see it, high-quality food is an investment in our health, a form of preventative care. We can pay for it now and hopefully avoid much higher health care costs in our later years.

The good news is, we have also found that we have wasted less than ever before. If you know me well, you know that I cannot stand to waste food. My mom is the same way; I probably got it from her. Or perhaps it comes from seeing too many people without enough food. Whatever the case, seeing food in the trash, spoiled or not, breaks my heart. Sometimes, unfortunately, admittedly, a small portion of our food ends up being thrown away because we don’t eat it quickly enough before it spoils. This has not been the case in the last 28 days. We have not thrown anything away, not once, perhaps because we have been more conscientious in our food preparations and careful to buy fresh food often, or perhaps because high quality food lasts longer. Either way, it has been a welcomed outcome of our nutrition challenge.

In the 1950s, the average American family spent about 30% of its annual income on food. Today, that ratio is closer to 10%. While food production has become more efficient, bringing the cost down, I have to believe that our collective “get more with less money” attitude has prioritized material purchases like electronics and cars over food. I am by no means an expert in this area, but it saddens me that as a society, we tend to place a higher value on smartphones and televisions than on what we put in our mouths. With big box stores that now sell lower-priced meats and produce competing with local and organic farmers, I can’t say I blame people for wanting to get the most our of their dollars, particularly when they have children to feed, but something about this reality seems to backwards to me. There is something strange about being able to buy a hothouse tomato from Mexico for 30 cents, while a locally-grown tomato costs three times that much. Something is not right when a family of four can eat McDonald’s for less than it costs to make a well-balanced meal of organic chicken and fresh, pesticide-free vegetables.

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On the left: 9.7 oz. of high-quality, unsweetened dark chocolate, $11.99. On the right: 12 oz. bag of Nestle’s Toll House semi-sweet chocolate chips, $2.99. The unsweetened chocolate is better for our health, while the chocolate chips are better for the pocketbook… or are they?

It is not lost on me how fortunate we are that M. and I can afford to buy the food that we eat. That wasn’t always the case, and I am grateful for that every day. We have made this choice in the interest of our health. We have one car between us, and a modest one at that. We don’t spend a lot on material things, and we don’t own much in the way of furniture and household belongings… owing in part to our foreign service lifestyle, but more so to the idea that a good diet makes for a healthy and strong body, mind, and spirit.

As we conclude our nutrition challenge, M. and I agree that while we will continue to make most meals at home with whole, unprocessed foods, going out to eat or having the odd bowl of ice cream every once in a while can also contribute to a healthy and happy lifestyle. And then, of course, there are these:

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These truffles, made with dates, almond butter, unsweetened coconut flakes, and 100% cacao, have no added sugar and are absolutely delicious! I found the recipe on the blog of American marathon runner Kara Goucher. We replaced the peanut butter with almond butter. Get the recipe!

Thank you for reading!

2 thoughts on “The High Cost of Eating Well

    • Thank you so much for your comment and for reading, Carl. I think peanuts are good for us, too- in moderation- and we missed peanuts and peanut butter during the challenge. I normally make my own peanut butter by grinding up roasted, unsalted peanuts in the food processor, since the store brands often have a lot of additives. There is some belief out there that peanuts and all legumes are only a mediocre source of protein, while they are very high in carbohydrates and may cause a negative glycemic response in some people. I don’t really agree with this school of thought, and I personally love peanuts and beans, but since they were on the “do not eat” for our challenge, we steered clear of them and opted for almond butter instead, which is packed with protein and has less saturated fat than peanuts. In Bulgaria, peanuts were like a food group for me- they were easily accessible, cheap, and filling. But I did gain 30+ lbs while there, so I am not the best model of healthy peanut consumption! 🙂

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