by Jonny Bowden, MA, CNS
There's no getting around it. The ugly truth is . . . it costs more to eat well than it does to eat junk.
Let's first understand why. In heavily industrialized and populated nations, food is just another "product." For the manufacturers to make a profit, their food products must:
1) Reach a wide market
2) Have a long shelf life
3) Be relatively inexpensive to produce.
Add to this, of course, that it has to taste and look good enough for you to want to buy it. Notice that being of high nutritional value doesn't make the short list.
To reach a wide market, it has to travel well and resist spoiling during the artificially long time it's asked to "remain fresh," -- during processing, packaging, shipping and sitting around on the grocer's shelf waiting for you to buy it.
That means preservatives and chemicals. That means removing, through refining, everything that would cause it to spoil, which, coincidentally, is often the very things that makes it nutritionally useful. And to be economical to produce, it has to be resistant to annoying little problems such as weather, climate, pests, bugs and the like. And that means pesticides.
To make the product palatable, the food industry sweetens it. To make it visually pleasant, they color it. To make it inexpensive, they spray, genetically alter, selectively breed, mass produce, process and package crops, meat, grains and dairy into "food products."
What does the consumer get? Two things: convenience and price. The problem is, it's a devil's bargain. When you realize that there is a strong nutritional component to about 7 of the 10 leading causes of death in this country, then you begin to think that this trade-off might not be such a bargain after all.
But, since we do live on this planet, and since we do need to learn to deal with things the way they are right now, what can we actually do to improve our nutritional lives without breaking the bank?
I've come up with my own top-10 list. Some of the items on it are whimsical and philosophical, and some are concrete, but all are important.
1. "Shelf-life" is not synonymous with "your life." Realize that the biggest mistake we make as consumers is to assume that the companies producing food products have the slightest interest in our nutritional needs.
2. Whenever possible, buy fruits and vegetables that are locally grown and produced. If you live in a big city, try to visit the farmers' market. If you live in the country, try to find local suppliers.
3. Realize that food product "bargains" may not be bargains at all. Longer shelf life translates into lower prices, but at what cost?
4. Prepare in advance. When I say it costs more to eat healthily, I don't just mean money. Convenience and time saving is a big part of the equation. You can even the odds against you by preparing food in advance and taking it with you.
5. Shop more often for perishables. This costs you more time, true, but the payoff is a big one. The nutrition that's lost in fruits and vegetables just by sitting around would astonish you. It doesn't cost any more to buy this stuff fresh than it does old.
6. Frozen entrees are no bargain. Believe it or not, you can buy a couple of fresh vegetables, put a little butter on them and broil some lean meat or fish for about the same cost as a frozen dinner.
7. The less processing, the better. Think caveman. Things that could be plucked, picked or grown are usually nutritional bargains and pretty easy to find and prepare.
8. Buy organic whenever possible. I know it's more expensive, but if you can do it, it's worth it. If you have to choose, my personal candidates for most important are eggs (for the omega-3 fats) and meats (free-range, antibiotic- and steroid-free).
9. For snacks, think nuts. It's important that they not be rancid, so get as fresh as you can, preferably raw, preferably organic. They're filling, they're delicious, and they beat the pants off anything in the office snack machine.
10. Reprioritize. You may have to put a little more time, or, in some cases, a little more money, into food. This is accomplishable only if there is a real shift in consciousness about what's important. Remember, having less of the really good stuff is a lot better than having more of junk.
Just like in life.