Is Healthy Eating Costing You Too Much?

"I know I should take better care of myself and improve how I eat, it's just that healthy eating costs way too much." If I had a dollar for the number of times I've heard this statement or some variation of it, well, I'd have enough money to shop at Whole Foods or something.

Oftentimes, I would get this reaction just walking into a patient's room, before asking a single question. Didn't matter if the person was an upper class citizen, a single mom on Medicaid, or somewhere in between; I heard it from all income levels. That's how concerned and convinced people are that healthy eating is too expensive. Listen, I'm not here to refute this, in fact, I'm certain for many of us our idea of healthy eating is costing us waaaay too much. Yes.  It's costing us our hard earned cash, and more importantly, it's costing us an inordinate amount of our time and energy.  

Money, time and energy, these are our primary resources to give. We should be spending them on the things we value most in life. Most of us would say we value spending time with family & friends and helping others over maintaining a certain way of eating. So why do we disproportionately use (or think we have to use) our resources for healthy eating? I think there are a couple different reasons for this, but for the sake of this post, I'll start with one: everything depends on your definition of healthy eating. 

There are many who define healthy eating as eating mostly (or all) organic, whole foods. Still others hold that an entirely plant-based, vegan diet is the way to go. And let's not forget those who swear that a minimally processed paleo diet consisting of mainly meat and veggies is the only way to eat. For another person, ending the day with a calorie deficit through the use of diet foods and restriction is the ideal healthy diet. 

My dad always tells this story about his grandmother. She had three boys, and one of them was larger than the others. My dad says his grandmother would give this son extra helpings at meal times and parade him around the department store, loudly questioning the store clerk about where the "husky" section was. She was incredibly proud of her "well-fed" son. To her, it meant that she was succeeding as a mom, raising a "healthy eater." 

So to each person healthy eating has a different connotation. We tend to take the term healthy eating and define it as a "perfect" way of eating, one that we believe, leads to the "ideal body shape" and vibrant health. The problem is that there is no perfect way of eating. Nope, not one. And, *gasp*, there is no ideal body shape. There is vibrant health, but there is no "one way" of eating that leads to it. Beyond that, true health isn't obtained through nutrition and exercise alone.

Cost of Healthy Eating

Yet many of us are spending all of our money, time and energy on following sticking to a list of "healthy eating" standards. But healthy eating is not necessarily a product of how much money or time we throw at it. So, in the name of taking back our budgets and our time, let's look at a different definition for healthy eating.

Merriam Webster defines healthy as "beneficial to ones physical, mental, or emotional state". So healthy eating can be defined as eating in a way that positively contributes to our physical, mental or emotional state (Notice: not just our physical appearance). But still, there will be those that will take this definition and twist it to fit one diet or clean eating regimen, but that's not true. Every food has it's place at some point and in somebody's healthy eating experience. Let's look at cupcakes for example, one person might eat too many cupcakes and give themselves a stomach ache. Another person enjoys eating a cupcake and it's considered progress towards recovering from a deadly eating disorder.

There are certain truths about beneficial nutrition.  We know that a healthy diet provides carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins & minerals, and adequate hydration. It supplies us with macro and micro nutrients for energy, mental focus, and healthy bodily function, AND it provides enjoyment and opportunity for cultural and social connection. Does your ideal of healthy eating do all of these things? I would argue that if we're spending so much on eating a certain way, yet don't have the resources to spend on what we truly value, there's something unhealthy about our relationship with food. Healthy eating should be sustainable and enjoyable. This will look different for each person and family, doesn't mean it's not healthy. 

Let's look at a few myths about healthy eating that cause us to spend more than we need to.

1. Organic food is healthy (good), conventional food is unhealthy (bad)

This one has been around for a while. Research shows that there are no significant differences in nutrient content between organic food and conventional food. Pesticides? Did you know you can wash off 99% of pesticides with sink water? I'm not saying organic food isn't good for the environment, or that if you have the money and desire you shouldn't buy it. I'm just saying, look at your values and your budget. Conventional fruits and vegetables are still nutrient powerhouses, and you can rest assured they are far from harmful.

2. I have to eat high quality protein (meat) with every meal to meet my nutrient needs and maintain my body. 

Meat is expensive guys. Even if you don't buy grassfed, organic, etc., it is still expensive. You can definitely meet your protein needs with lower cost options. Eggs, dairy, beans, soy, nuts, seeds, whole grains, all of these have protein, and if you listen to your body and allow yourself to eat from all of the food groups, you will meet your needs. Besides, who has the time or desire to cook meat at every single meal? Also, even though I'm sure my hubby would eat a steak or bacon with every meal, there is a certain point where you just can't stomach any more meat (maybe it's just me). But I find that when people begin to give themselves permission to eat all foods (often this means adding back in grains and dairy) they find they don't actually enjoy 5 oz. of meat or eggs with every meal.

3. Fresh Produce is too expensive

Be flexible, buy produce that is cheaper (usually what's in season). Again, this comes back to being able to eat a variety of foods and not being stringent with your eating. Or, if it's not in season, buy it frozen. Nuff said. Produce does not have to be expensive, especially if you allow yourself to buy conventional produce, see point number one. Further, stop putting pressure on yourself to eat an insane amount of produce. Yes, include it with most meals. Yes, try new varieties. But by all means there is no need to eat 20 cups of fruit/veg a day. In fact, if this is the case there is a big chance you are displacing some other important nutrients in your diet with all that produce.

4. Processed food is unhealthy, I have to cook everything from scratch and spend all my time cooking.

The majority of your food is processed. That cut of steak, it was processed from a cow. Whole grain oats, they were processed from a plant. Frozen veggies, processed. Just because something is "processed" does not mean it contains harmful ingredients or doesn't provide beneficial nutrition. Here are some examples of processed foods I use that save me a ton of time: marinara sauce, old fashioned oats, frozen fruit and veggies, spice mixes, minced garlic, bread, canned beans, noodles, cereal. Plus, I'm not afraid to eat other "more processed" foods on occasion, because one or a few instances don't make up the majority of my diet and will not cause me to become nutrient deficient. Besides, not enjoying my favorite creamy dreamy swiss cheese chicken recipe that my mom makes because it has canned cream of mushroom soup and other "processed" foods in it might cause more harm than good. First it would just make me sad, second it could isolate me socially from my family, decrease my enjoyment of food AND it might lead me to be undernourished for that meal/day if nothing else is served.

There are of course more reasons why we spend too much on food, but the reality is much of it has to do with our attitude around eating. Do we view food as strictly good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, or are we open to the idea that all food can be nourishing and healthy in a certain situation or for a particular person?  By all means, let's cook balanced nutritious meals for our families, selves, and friends. Let's try new fruits and vegetables, add in more nutrient dense foods and do the best we can to feel good and promote our health. But let's remember that health is so much more than the food we eat or the body size we have. Let's remember to put our resources to the things that we value the most.

Each of us is unique in our needs and situations, healthy eating will look different for every person. If you need help figuring our what this looks like for you in your life, I'd love to work with you. I'm currently booking sessions for January and February; head on over to the contact me page and shoot me an email to get started!