Eating Affordably & Nutritiously
Let’s be honest. Eating well is not easy at best and can be categorically difficult at worst. Even if we were certain about what foods to eat when (we have an idea, but we’re still learning), or had identified beyond any doubt the optimal human diet (we haven’t), eating nutritiously would still be challenging for most of us.
We do know some foods are more likely to sustain and promote health than others, but decisions aren’t made in a vacuum and food choice is not as simple as selecting the healthiest available option. Consciously or not, we’re all susceptible to variability in taste preferences, convenience, food access, cooking skills, and perhaps above all, cost. As one of the biggest drivers of food decision-making, let’s spend some time discussing how to eat well and affordably, which is especially important for people with COPD.
At risk of oversimplifying, eating seasonally is one of the most effective strategies for eating well and affordably. Anyone who has ever tried to buy asparagus in September or blueberries in January can attest to this. Where I live, blueberries in the winter months can cost up to $5 per pint. In June, I can find them for a dollar. If you live in North America, you can go to this “Eat the Seasons” site to see what is currently in season. The list is continuously updated based on the time of year. For a more localized approach, try SustainableTable.org’s Seasonal Food Guide, where you can enter your specific state and the current month, though you should be aware that in many northern states in the US, it will show little or nothing in season during the winter months. That doesn’t mean – and it shouldn’t stop you – from buying what is produced seasonally from outside your state.
Seasonal eating has its limitations. It is most effective for those products subject to changing seasons, such as fruits and vegetables. Milk, eggs, meat and pantry items will not vary in price to any significant degree, if at all. It is usually the products grown near you that drop most drastically in price when in season (if you live in a dry arid climate where no food is grown, you may not see such drastic seasonal price cuts).
Choosing nutrient-dense foods
Energy density and nutrient density are two important concepts in eating well. Energy dense foods are those which provide a significant amount of energy, which is measured in calories. Nutrient-dense foods may or may not provide significant amounts of energy, but they do provide many important nutrients. French fries are an energy dense food, but they provide little nutrients and thus rank low on nutrient-density. Comparatively, cabbage is nutrient-dense, but provides relatively few calories (energy).
Not all energy-dense food is bad, but try to emphasize nutrient-dense foods wherever possible. From a biological perspective, French fries provide very little nutrition and too many calories. That is not a good use of our money.
Some research has taken the concept of nutrient-density and mapped it against cost to determine a food’s ability to provide nutrition affordably1. The most nutrient-dense and cheapest foods from several key categories are highlighted below:
- Proteins: Eggs, then dry beans and legumes, then meat/poultry
- Fiber: Dry beans and legumes, then nuts, seeds, and vegetables
- Calcium: Milk, vegetables
What this means is that if you need more protein in your diet and money is a concern, eggs are the cheapest way to get that protein. If you need more calcium and you’re already eating multiple servings of other calcium sources such as leafy greens, then adding milk to your diet will get that calcium more affordably than eating more greens. It is not a perfect system, but it does give us some evidence to make an informed decision.
Any discussion on eating well and affordably would be incomplete without also considering where you purchase your food. There is certainly nothing wrong with supermarkets, and if your local market has a great selection and fair prices, please do continue to use them.
If they are available in your area, explore farmer’s markets or and local farms, especially for produce. Some vendors may be priced too high for your liking, but many will be competitive to supermarket costs. The added bonus associated with markets such as this is that, generally-speaking, the food is likely to be nutrient-dense. Fresh food is more nutrient-dense than stale or older food. If you can purchase apples picked yesterday at your local farmer’s market, they will likely be more nutrient-dense than something that has taken days to be shipped across the country or internationally.
Though it may sound strange to do so, consider shopping online for food items. You probably want to be able to see and select your produce first-hand, but there is nothing wrong with purchasing pantry and other shelf stable goods online where you might find cheaper prices. Canned and dry beans and legumes such as lentils, grains such as oatmeal, and dried fruit are a few examples. Some vendors I’m familiar with are below, but this list would be best developed through crowdsourcing, so please do post names and/or links of vendors you have used in the comments section. [Editor’s note: please only post vendors with whom you have no commercial interest, per our Community Rules.]
Above all else, remember that there are many strategies for eating well and affordably.
The 3 above begin the process but they are not comprehensive. If there’s sufficient interest, we can address additional approaches in follow-up articles.
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- Drewnowski, A. The Nutrient Rich Foods Index helps to identify healthy, affordable foods. Am J Clin Nutrition. 2010;91(4):1095S-1101S.