By Susan Bowerman, M.S., R.D., CSSD, CSOWM, FAND, senior director, Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training at Herbalife Nutrition
It’s a brand-new year, and resolutions are in full effect. Recently, my company conducted a global survey and found that the top resolution among respondents was to save more money (57%) in the new year. This was followed closely by the expected resolutions of eating healthier (55%) and exercising more (54%).
Everyone deserves the right to quality nutrition and, at the tail end of a pandemic, an impending recession and rising inflation, people are looking to save money wherever they can. But at what cost?
There is a consensus among many consumers that healthy eating comes at a great financial cost. However, the cost of prioritizing healthy eating is very small in comparison to the economic costs of diet-related chronic diseases, which could be dramatically reduced by healthier diets.
According to the latest Consumer Price Index report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, food prices have risen over 11 percent, with groceries increasing 13 percent. What’s even more discouraging is the price hikes on some of the most nutritious foods. This is where understanding the importance of nutrition density should play a part in your grocery shopping.
When your budget is tight, you should still aim to do what you can to ensure you’re shopping for items that will nourish you the most. Here are some ways to approach your next grocery run on a budget while getting more nutrients for your buck.
Often times it’s easy to turn to fast food because it’s convenient and typically more budget-friendly—but it’s not the most nutritious. To look and feel your best, your body needs the lean proteins, “good” carbohydrates in the form of whole grains, fruits and vegetables, modest amounts of healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals, as well as adequate fluids to stay hydrated, and a good dose of fiber, too.
“Nutrient density” is a measure of how much nutrition you get per serving or per calorie eaten. It’s an important metric to understand in order to choose your foods wisely. When comparing two food items with the same calorie amount, high nutrient-dense choices can provide your body with the protein, fiber, healthy fats, vitamins and minerals we need every day, while low nutrient-dense choices are often full of empty calories from sugar and fat with few other significant nutrients. This is why it’s so important to always read your food labels.
Pivot Towards Plant-based Proteins
Protein is an important component of every cell in the body, helping to support healthy bones, muscles, and organs. Lean meat, like poultry and fish, low fat dairy products and eggs are healthful choices when selecting animal proteins. To help your budget even further, consider shifting more towards plant-based protein sources such as beans or tofu.
Plant-based proteins are not only nutrient-dense but many are also good sources of fiber and the essential minerals iron and zinc. Trying new recipes or swapping an animal protein for a plant-based one are great ways to prevent boredom.
Beans and legumes are some of the most nutrient-rich ingredients you can use to create almost any dish. They also have a long shelf live, so it would be smart to stock up or buy in bulk for a better price value. Toss them in salads, soups or stews to increase the nutrition of any meal. They are also significantly less expensive than meat protein sources. The cost of eggs, for example, while still a nutritious and wallet-friendly option, increased 30% during the past year and we are still seeing the effects of inflation on these protein-rich items.
Fruits, veggies, beans, and whole grains are terrific sources of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients, and they’re naturally cholesterol-free. Most contribute a fair amount of fiber, too, so they help to fill you up and keep your digestive tract running smoothly.
Pile on the Produce
Even with a limited budget, you can still obtain many of the vitamins and minerals you need daily from fruits and vegetables. For even more savings, consider shopping for local and seasonal produce at a farmer’s market. And don’t neglect the frozen food aisle. Frozen fruits and veggies – as long as they’re packed without additional sugar, salt or sauces – are just as nutritious as fresh and are often much more economical.
Growing fruits and vegetables in your home garden is another way to ensure you have healthy produce on hand, and helps you avoid spending money on such items at the store. You can even consider trading with neighbors who may grow their own fruits and veggies for more variety.
Plan and Prep Your Meals
Studies, such as the one conducted by the University of Washington School of Public Health, have demonstrated that those who cook more at home have a diet that’s lower in calories, sugar, and fat, and is easier on the wallet compared with those who dine out more often.
When you have the right ingredients on hand and a few go-to recipes, feeding your family healthier meals can be less of a chore. Planning different recipes with common ingredients like the fruits, veggies, beans, and whole grains mentioned above, is helpful in both maintaining your health and budget. Plan your meals one week ahead by making grocery lists consisting of only items you need.
You can also prepare your own sauces and salad dressings in bulk. Most store-bought options contain sugar and preservatives that are best to avoid. Using whole ingredients like lemon, extra virgin olive oil and tahini, mixed with your favorite herbs and spices, is a great way to jazz up the flavor of your meals.
And don’t be afraid of the freezer. Prepping and cooking more upfront can help you save time and storing this food in the freezer is a great way to keep healthy, prepared food on hand for when you need it.
Supplement Those Nutrient Gaps
A good nutrition foundation will help you stay healthy, but even those who prioritize healthy eating can fall short on their intake of certain nutrients. In the US, many adults don’t need their daily recommended intake for nutrients such magnesium, potassium, calcium, and vitamins A, C and D. Having protein shakes and supplements on hand can help fill eyour daily nutrition gaps. While not to be used as a primary or sole source of nutrition, protein shakes can help benefit your wallet as well. While convenient breakfast foods like burritos, microwavable pancakes, flavored coffees and sausage sandwiches can run you anywhere from $5-$12, they also have limited nutrient content and are filled with sugar and fat that add unwanted – and unhealthy – calories. On the other hand, a nutrient-dense protein shake costs just about $4 per serving and adds value to your diet. A shake can be consumed at any time of day, customized to your unique needs, goals, and tastes, and can support a wealth of nutrition and dietary goals. And remember that not all supplements are created equal– choose a brand you love that has been tested for consumer safety and made with effective ingredients and be consistent.
New Year’s resolutions may fade with time, but that never means you should stop prioritizing your health—physical or financial. Use the new year to educate yourself on how to get more nutrients for your buck by reading labels, incorporating more plant-based foods, and cooking with your family to spark interest in developing healthier eating habits. Afterall, if we’ve been reminded of anything over these last few years, health is wealth.