“It’s easy for you to eat healthy. You’ve got money,” Lina said. I don’t think she meant it as an accusation, though I heard that way. I don’t really make a lot of money, but I earn more than she does, so I didn’t say anything.
Like most people, Lina knows how to eat healthy. If I gave her a list of foodstuffs and asked them to check which items they thought were healthy foods and which were not, she’d probably check off fish, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts and fruit. She wouldn’t tick cheeseburgers, pizza and cupcakes, which she eats more of than she knows is good for her.
The rules of healthy eating are quite simple, common sense really, and quite neatly articulated by Michael Pollan: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Real food, that is. Something not processed or containing ingredients that are several syllables long. Something your great-grandmother would recognize as food, as Pollan says. (Yes, she probably never saw quinoa, unless she was from South America, but she would definitely say, yes, that’s food, if she saw it cooked into a pilaf.)
Lina knows what it means to eat healthy but says she doesn’t have the time or money or skills to do so. “Hello, there’s a reason they’re called convenience foods,” she tells me.
I started wondering, what if she was right? What if eating healthy is comparatively so much more expensive and time-consuming and skill-demanding that it makes sense for most people—in a very short-term way and without factoring in the costs of later lifestyle illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease—to rely instead on fast-food restaurants and middle-aisle processed foods?
A few days ago I recorded my day’s meals on an online food tracker that gives detailed reports on a slew of nutrients for the foods you enter. I ate over 2 kilos of food, of which 60% was fruit and vegetables—broccoli, tomatoes, beet greens, green beans, a bell pepper, zucchini, radishes, an apple and an orange. The rest of the food came from fish, whole grains, eggs, yoghurt and olive oil. Despite this load of food, I didn’t make all the FDA’s nutritional guidelines. I fell short of the calcium threshold (71%) and the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for Vitamin E (86%) and just about made it for potassium (103%). Vitamin D was abysmal (though this was expected, since apart from sunlight there aren’t all that many sources naturally occurring in the food we eat). Granted, I did record two or three times the RDA for some other nutrients. But I don’t always eat a kilo or so of produce in a day.
The tracker’s results made me wonder how feasible is it to make the government’s RDAs, even when one consumes the recommended servings of veggies. And if it is, how much does it cost?
Lina isn’t the only one to think that eating healthy takes a lot more money than eating unhealthy. This argument has been advanced by anti-poverty activists who have called on governments to subsidize fresh produce for low-income families.
Research has been carried out on whether this assumption holds true. A study by researchers at Washington University found that meeting federal guidelines for potassium alone would tack on an additional $380 to the average consumer’s annual food budget.
I’m a data hound by nature and occupation, so I thought it’d be interesting to actually measure whether I could cook good food (because there’s no point in cooking healthy if you’re not going to eat it) on a budget and meet the RDA’s for a month—including guidelines for the intake of sodium, saturated fat, and cholesterol. And not lose or gain weight.
And that’s how 30@100 started, a blog project I’ve just started at 30at100. (In fact, this is the first post of the blog)
I’ll be recording what I cook and eat on an online food tracker and keeping a spreadsheet of the cost of everything. Each day I’ll post the day’s menu, the cost of the food, and nutrition results. More details on the project to follow in the next post on 30@100, along with Day 1’s menu and results. I only wish I were a better food photographer.
This is a project on eating well and healthy on a budget. Although there’s no single definition of what a “healthy” diet is, though much consensus on what it would generally look like, and it wouldn’t look so different from the heart-healthy DASH or traditional Mediterranean diets, which is more or less the way I eat anyway, and the menus will reflect that. So expect a lot of vegetables, beans, whole grains, and fish like sardines and mackerel, which also happen to be among the cheapest fish available. (That said, sausage will make a cameo appearance now and then). With regard to the RDAs, I’m taking the FDA’s nutrition guidelines as the gold standard, at least for the purposes of the project.
I’ll also be sharing recipes now and then, along with notes about issues of food shopping, food access and nutrition politics. They won’t always be my recipes. There are some fascinating and nicely written blogs on eating cheap and healthy, and I want to highlight these as well. I’m hoping there’ll be readers interested enough in the project to contribute ideas or recipes or even take on guest posts.
I’m eager to start. I wish us all an interesting month. Hope you’ll stop by.
Image: Robert Frank, Drug store – Detroit (1955)