Is healthy eating a luxury?

This is sort of a hot button topic and one that I hope sparks some conversation.

I hear all too often that healthy food is just too expensive and time consuming.  I understand that it is very hard to get ahead these days; Josh and I struggle as well.  For most of us it takes at least two incomes just to get by, let alone start a family.  This is especially true if one of you is in the airline industry – regional airlines specifically.  I also understand not everyone lives in a meca of health food stores and farmers markets.

But, is healthy eating a luxury, or are we pretending like it is so we do not have to act?  By writing healthy fare off as too expensive and time consuming, without really doing our homework, we automatically give ourselves an excuse to continue on the same path without having to step back and take inventory of where our health is, where the health of our loved ones is going and to more or less pretend as though we have no power over this aspect of our lives.  We can then just throw our hands up and remove all accountability from ourselves.

So, lets look over some of the details.  Is healthy eating really more expensive and time consuming and therefore a luxury?

While this does depend on a multitude of factors, lets first just look at pound for pound animal foods v.s. plant foods.  This will vary from place to place but on average the cheapest beef and pork options for 2014 (including factory farm raised animals, which pains me to even include, however most meats are factory raised, especially if you are not purchasing from an ethical source and/or if you are eating out) come in at about $4-5/lb (due to government subsidies) as well as milk, cheese and ice cream averaging the same or a little more.  Now, for the plants; dried beans cost just over $1/lb and grapes and peppers were the most expensive items on the list, still coming in at under $2.50.  So lets be conservative and say you replace 4 meat meals a week at a savings of $3/meal (again conservative as most cuts of meat will cost over $4-5/lb) with a cheaper protein source such as lentils, peans, split peas or whatever else (keep in mind I am talking about the dry beans, this will make much more when cooked).  That equals over $600/year.  Now, lets take it a step further and say you replace 14 meals a week with a non animal source.  The savings then go into the thousands with at least 1,200 – 3,000/year saved.

Also, take into consideration that animals are not efficient when it comes to converting the food they eat into the food their body’s produce for others to eat them….In other words, they eat more food than they produce and use a large amount of resources such as land, food, water and energy.  Basically, the animals we eat, eat plant products, so we can eat them and get the nutrients of the plants they ate…so, why not just eat the plants and get it first hand without any loss of nutrients?  According to a well-fed world ( “Eating 1,000 calories of meat can easily use more than 7,000 calories in plant-based foods, plus the associated use of natural resources.”  They go on to say: “A majority of the ‘extra’ food is redistributed away from those who need it most and used as animal feed to produce meat for those who can afford it most.”

Where you shop and what you buy (packaged foods v.s. whole foods). At first glance it would seem that healthy eating really is too expensive and only for the rich or upper middle class.  But to eat healthy, meaning a diet high in nutrients and low in calories, low in saturated fats and low in cholesterol is not too expensive.  Some of the most nutritious foods are the cheapest.  For example: Cabbage (possibly the most bang for your buck when it come to nutrition/antioxidants and price…purple is best), whole fruits, whole vegetables, gourds/sweet potatoes, bulk items such as legumes, whole oats, whole grains (quinoa, amaranth, millet etc.), split peas, dried soups (lentil, black bean, pea),  frozen veggie and fruit packs.  The list goes on with foods high in nutrients and filling fiber while being very inexpensive;  generally not ranging over a few dollars per pound.

It is when you start buying the “healthy” packaged foods that you get in trouble with cost.  We have even gone so far as to cost compare Whole Foods, Safeway, Good Earth (an all organic local grocery store in Marin) and Delanos (a local grocer).  Guess who came out on top as far as cheapest for whole foods?…Meaning, whole veggies, fruits and bulk items?  Whole Foods Market and Good Earth.  No kidding.  However, they were much more expensive when it came to buying packaged foods such as crackers that were pre-packaged (canned beans and tomatoes aside).  This is my point exactly.  Most of the packaged foods drive up the cost and are not healthy and should not even be eaten anyway.  That is why when you are used to getting crackers from Safeway and go to buy them at Whole Foods you notice a huge price increase.

Furthermore, I hear, it cannot be done at low budget stores such as Walmart and Target.  While they are not ideal for groceries, sometimes it is all you have and IT IS possible.  Josh ate successfully from Target and Walmart for 2 months while in ground school during winter in Salt Lake City.  Subsisting mainly on frozen veggie and leafy green packs heated and mixed with canned beans, canned tomatoes and spices.  They have whole fruits and vegetables as well as bags of dried beans and whole grains like brown rice and other healthy options if you know what to look for and have a full kitchen to prepare the meals in.  My point is, eating healthy is affordable and can even be done at the lowest budget stores around.

Super foods.  While we are on the topic of food cost and what you buy, lets touch on super foods.  This is where many people have gotten roped in and confused.  “Super foods” are wonderful, taste great and offer lots of nutrition in a small package.  However, they are expensive and not necessary for leading a healthy life.  In fact, there is no definition for a super food and it is mostly a marketing gimmick.  While some food might offer a little more nutritional bang for your buck such as goji berries and acai, they are not an essential component of a healthy diet (if you can afford it, great and by all means indulge but if you are on a budget have these as treats a few times a year).  Let me let you in on a little secret: Every fruit and vegetable is a super food!  Really!

Healthcare costs – A healthy diet dramatically decreases your chances of having to go on pills for high cholesterol, blood pressure, diabetes, ED and so much more.  Take into consideration more than $3 trillion were spent on Health Care costs in 2012.  As most of you know, type 2 diabetes used to be called Adult Onset Diabetes until our diets became so poor that our children started getting it at an alarming rate.  This is 100% caused by food choices.  Any money you could save in the short term by eating a poor diet from “dollar menus,” especially a window diet (drive though), will quickly be drained with healthcare costs or early death; the latter having no price tag.

Sick days – A healthy diet dramatically improves immune system function, which means less sick days and more income.  It also means more energy to stay focused and on task allowing you to accomplish the days tasks without being overwhelmed or sluggish.  On average it is estimated that at least $30 billion is lost for obesity alone with $3,800 income lost per obese person.  Not to mention the increased cost of about $5,500 more than the average person for medical costs.  That is almost $10,000 extra per year:  The food choices we make everyday at every meal have a direct impact on our wellbeing.

Time:  Time is a rarity these days.  In 2007, 47% of Americans felt as thought they did not have enough time to do what they wanted and 40% of Americans reported feeling stressed frequently (  I think we can all agree, things have only become more cumbersome in the 7 years since this study’s finding.  But is it really a lack of time or is it poor time management?  I am by no means minimizing the busy lives of most Americans.  As I stated above, it is terribly difficult to get ahead these days and requires a lot of work.  However, I think it is also important to point out that 49% of Americans also admit to watching too much tv, coming in on average at 2.8 hours a day and the average American will spend 9+ years of their life spaced out in front of it.  While it is important to have time to decompress, what about finding healthy alternative ways to let off some steam, like a walk or any other form of exercise?  Or, what about taking a fraction of that time a few times a week to cut up some vegetables for the week ahead or to prepare a meal with leftovers?  And if you do not fall into these statistics, is there any place in your life you can carve out a bit more time?  All you really need is about 30 minutes to prepare food for the week ahead or put together a healthy meal…I would argue, it could even be done in less time once you get the basics down.

And finally, the fact of the matter is, you make time for what is important to you.  Everyone makes choices throughout the day and these choices are no different, if it is important to you, you will make time for it.  There is no way around it, you will need to set aside a little bit of time to eat healthy and exercise if you want to be a healthy person.  However, I cannot agree that eating healthy takes more time than eating unhealthy.  For instance, our dinner tonight took about 5 minutes to make and it was delicious.  At first there will be a learning curve and a time commitment but once you figure it out, it is super easy.  And if you choose to go the plant based route, you do not have to worry about salmonella clean up or cooking things until they are done enough so you do not get a deadly bacteria or cross contamination.

Radiation:  This is one aspect of the traveling professionals job that often gets overlooked.  Every time you take off in that metal tube 1/2 way between space and earth you are getting exposed to radiation.  On the longer flights and bigger planes it is about the equivalent of a chest x-ray every time you go to work.  Pile on poor food choices and lack of physical movement and you have a recipe for disaster.  Lifestyle choices for traveling professionals is even more paramount as the very nature of the job is a health hazard minus the hazard pay.  All the more reason to eat whole plant based foods that combat disease and nourish your body.

Underlying medical conditions (genetics):  Coming from someone with an autoimmune disease, I (Lauren) cannot stress enough the importance of a healthy diet.  It is the only thing that has kept me off medication and in the clear this far.  Now, that does not mean that I do not have to be careful with my activity level and making sure I get enough rest, keep my stress levels as low as possible and my diet impeccable.  However, stress from any area of you life can cause flair ups (unhealthy food choices included).  I have experienced first hand how debilitating flair ups can be and deal with the reality of it everyday but it is also empowering to know that I can control a huge amount of it simply with my diet.  If you have an autoimmune disease or condition, a healthy diet is imperative to maintaining any sort of normalcy in your life.  Unfortunately, in our society the first inclination is to trick our biological nature and fix everything will pills (while this is necessary for some), when often all it really takes is getting back to the basics and eating what our bodies were designed to thrive on.

So, in conclusion I do not think healthy eating is a luxury because I do think it is obtainable for everyone and ultimately rests on personal conviction and values.  If you are just not at the place in your life where you feel you can make the changes, that is ok, but also know it is possible.  If you are interested in cleaning up your diet or even thinking about taking baby steps to save some money and feel a little better, follow some of the easy budget friendly tips and tricks below:

1. Skip the packaged, faux food.  These include things like seitan, faux hot dogs, packaged soy cheese.  As mentioned above, these are money zapping and often not healthy alternatives to include into your diet.  Enjoy as a treat for special occasions but stick to whole plant foods without the stripped down processed additives.

2. Beans, Beans the musical fruit, the more you eat the more you save :).  Buy canned or even better, buy in bulk and make your own.  With a $70-100 investment in a pressure cooker (or use a stove top if you don’t mind the time involved) you can have these babies cooked and ready to eat in no time.  You will get a return on your investment before you know it.

3. Keep it simple: Don’t get wrapped up in “super foods”.  As I mentioned above, focus on whole fruits and vegetable and include marketed “super foods”  for special occasions.  They are not necessary to a healthy lifestyle and by no means an excuse to go back to old habits because you cannot afford them.

4. Get your food fresh from farmers markets or get it delivered from a local farmer.  If you do not have the time to make it to local farmers markets, many will deliver boxes of fresh fruits and veggies to your door on a weekly, bi-weekly or monthly bases.  Tip: If you can make it to farmers markets, go toward the end of the market before everything shuts down.  The goods will be a little picked over but the sellers are often wanting to get rid of what they have left and dramatically drop the price.  If you have the freezer space, purchase more than you need and freeze the extras when you get home!  Also, check out our post on “How to organize your refrigerator and keep your veggies fresh for up to two weeks!”

5. Bulk it up.  Always peruse the bulk isle before buying pre-packaged foods.  There is often a dramatic savings.  We always buy our grains, beans, raisins, flax (to make our own flax meal), seeds, nuts and anything else we can find here.

6. Eating out.  This is one area you might pay a little extra depending on the restaurant.  However, it can be done quite inexpensively and you will not pay the price of a “food coma” after….you know what I am talking about :).  Ask for your meal steamed without butter or oil and be creative with the menu and side dishes offered.

For other shopping tips and an interactive shopping list to keep you on track visit our “shopping” page!

Coming next: what exactly is “everything in moderation” and is it the way to optimal health? 

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