Supercheap Superfoods: Optimal Nutrition on a Shoestring Budget
Low-income clients deserve a chance to enjoy power-packed meals. Here's how to help them out.
Wild-caught Alaskan salmon, fresh organic blueberries, pomegranate seeds, quinoa and açai berry juice. All are amazing superfoods, right?
Yes . . . and they also are amazingly expensive. And for many of your clients, that part is not so super.
“Superfood” is a nontechnical term for health-boosting fare that packs a lot of nutritional punch. If you teach at an upscale club in a wealthy area, your clients may be able to easily afford the latest superfood recommendations, whatever the price. And certainly there is nothing wrong with a client of means trying out the latest “it” foods.
However, if you work at a modestly priced gym in a Midwestern suburb, for example, your clients are relatively likely to be limited in what they can afford. And even middle- and upper-class fitness clients may feel the recession-era squeeze and prefer budget-friendly nutrition options over trendy yet unattainable fare.
Indeed, 62% of shoppers believe it costs too much to eat healthfully (USDA 2013). To combat this trend, use these tips to teach cash-strapped clients how to optimize grocery store choices—whatever their budget.
Economics, Nutrition and Obesity
In the United States, the highest rates of obesity and diabetes occur among lower-income groups (Drewnowski
Darmon 2005). And more than 30% of the nation’s population falls below 200% of the federal poverty level (Kneebone
Garr 2010). For 2015, that means almost every third American lives on less than $31,860 per year for a family of two, or under $48,500 for four (HHS 2015).
Research tells us that higher-income families are more likely to purchase whole grains, seafood, lean meats, low-fat milk and fresh produce. Their lower-income counterparts, however, typically opt for nonperishable foods (cereals, pasta, potatoes) that tend to satiate hunger pangs and reduce spoilage and waste (Drewnowski
This could very well be your clients’ reality—even if you don’t live somewhere that is stereotypically considered poor, such as an inner city or the rural South. In 2008, the largest and fastest-growing poor population was in America’s suburbs, most especially in the Midwest (Kneebone
Garr 2010). Further defying stereotypes, three out of four food-insecure households have a worker in the home (McMillan 2014), yet they still have difficulty adequately feeding their families.
The bottom line is, you never know what a client can or cannot afford. Having advice at every budget level is therefore invaluable for your professional versatility—and compassion.
“Heavily marketed products backed by health brands or ‘gurus’ can have everyone questioning their food and nutrition choices,” says Teri Mosey, a holistic nutrition and culinary consultant in New York City who holds advanced degrees in exercise physiology and nutrition. “These foods being advertised as superfoods are [simply] whole foods from nature that have been around for thousands of years. They are just getting their 10 minutes of fame.”
Here are some thrifty substitutions for hyped-but-pricey foods that frequently show up on “superfood” summaries.
Instead of salmon.
Try tuna for some good fats, says Jenna A. Bell, PhD, RD, senior vice president and director of nutrition for Pollock Communications in New York City. “Canned tuna in oil has 1 gram of saturated fat but also 2.5 grams of unsaturated ‘good’ fat.”
Water-packed tuna is low in calories while offering generous amounts of lean protein, omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, selenium and vitamin D, says Natalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RND, FAAP, a senior adviser for healthcare solutions for the American Council on Exercise who is based in Carlsbad, California. Canned tuna counts toward the recommended minimum of two servings per week of fish, she adds.
Instead of quinoa.
Turn to barley, oats and brown rice, says Bell. “All three of these amazing grains are less expensive [than quinoa] and often sold in bulk. I love oats and barley because of their special fiber: beta glucan. It’s good for your heart, and new research shows that it helps you feel full longer, so you’re less apt to overeat.”
Instead of fresh berries.
“Look for sales on store-brand frozen berries,” says Bell. “If you have a farmers’ market, see if berries are cheaper in season.” Or buy inexpensive bananas for your fruit fix; they are high in potassium, vitamin B6, fiber and vitamin C, adds Muth.
Instead of kale.
Choose another leafy green, such as mustard greens, collard, Swiss chard or turnip greens. “Kale used to be a deal, but with its popularity came a higher price tag,” says Bell. “Instead, keep your eye out for any dark-green leafy vegetable that your market has on sale.”
Instead of “superfood” juices (açai, pomegranate, blueberry, etc.).
Swap out sugar-filled juices (as well as sodas and sports drinks) for water, says Muth, and add some sliced oranges, lemons, cucumbers, watermelon or strawberries to the pitcher for flavor.
Instead of almonds or walnuts.
“For nuts, shop in bulk and pick a store brand,” says Bell. “Also, peanuts can be cheaper, and if they’re unsalted, they are a great nut pick.”
Instead of “superfood” meats (bison, emu, grass-fed beef).
Try affordable poultry, such as chicken breasts bought in bulk, says Muth. Or eat eggs, which are inexpensive yet protein-rich and high in heart- and brain-friendly omega-3 fatty acids, she adds. Alternative inexpensive proteins include cottage cheese, organ meats such as liver, cheap cuts of meat (cooked in a slow cooker to make them fork-tender) and tofu.
Dried beans are also budget-friendly.
With both protein and fiber, they can be added to soups, salads or almost any dish. Muth recommends black beans, which have three times more heart-healthy omega-3 fatty-acids than other legumes. She likes them simmered in a pot with onion and garlic for extra flavor.
Frugal Food Strategies
A healthy food mindset is invaluable, say our experts, whatever your budget. Encourage your clients to view food as nourishment rather than an inconvenience, and to move away from cheap processed items and toward a thrifty whole-foods approach. Here are strategies for this shift:
Get your veggies on ice.
“Frozen vegetables are frozen at their peak freshness and retain more nutrients than canned varieties,” says Ami Lenning, a fitness professional at Bay Athletic Club and a chef who caters affordable meals for residents of Alpena, Michigan—a small town where the median household income hovers around $32,000 per year (City-Data.com 2012). “A bag of frozen mixed vegetables and some lean protein can easily become a stir-fry, served with brown rice for a healthy, low-cost meal,” she says.
Become seasoning savvy.
Spices can be somewhat expensive, but critical for adding flavor. Some stores allow you to buy spices in bulk, so your clients can try small samples of different flavors for only a few cents each. “Pick a few, and purchase only quarter-ounce quantities and cook with them until they run out. Then shift to a different flavor profile,” says Mosey. “That will add diversity as well as creativity to your dietary pattern.”
For even more frugal flavor, grow your own fresh herbs from inexpensive plants. “Rosemary, thyme and basil can be grown in pots on a windowsill. You can even grow garlic and gingerroot,” says Mosey.
Cook in a crock.
“Lack of time to shop and cook is a huge obstacle to most working people,” says Lenning. “[Slow-cooker] meals are a great make-ahead option. They also make less expensive cuts of meat tender and delicious.” What’s more, slow cookers are cheap, starting from $15 for a new, family-sized cooker.
Think beyond boxed.
“A loaf of whole-grain bread, some peanut butter and bananas can be purchased for about the same as a box of sugary cereal,” says Lenning. “Serve your kids (and yourself) toast with peanut butter and bananas instead of a bowl of [brand-name cereal]
for breakfast and they will have protein, fiber and potassium to keep them fueled longer.”
Layer your lunch.
Add a cup of brown rice to a bowl (good for two servings!), then layer on a variety of fresh or thawed vegetables, and top with protein (poultry strips, nuts, egg, canned fish or beans) for a cheap and easy meal (USDA 2013).
Expend oil economically.
Healthful fats (olive oil, flax oil, grass-fed butter) are significantly more expensive than their cheap counterparts. For low-income clients, Bell recommends canola oil, which has high amounts of unsaturated fat (both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated). “It’s a less expensive ‘good’ fat,” notes Bell.
Mosey also suggests limiting oil usage. “When you make an entire pot of soup, it only calls for a tablespoon of oil. Another option is to sauté food in broth instead of oil.”
“You don’t have to eat ‘fad foods’ to be healthy,” says Lenning. “For $5, you could feed a family of five each a single dollar-menu item (e.g., a cheeseburger). Or you could buy a bag of brown rice, a bag of frozen vegetables and 1½ pounds of chicken breast for a stir-fry. Or make a big pot of beef vegetable soup with an inexpensive cut of beef, frozen vegetables, a can of low-sodium diced tomatoes and beef broth. It’s a choice.”
“To eat healthfully requires thought, preparation and time,” Mosey adds, “from exploring what is in season and on farm stands, [to learning] proper ways to store if purchasing in bulk, to growing your own herbs or vegetables, to preparing meals that may require more of your time. . . . [Tell your]
clients not to get hung up on the organic superfood trend and to work on having a dietary pattern that comes from seasonal, whole foods instead.” Because even though it’s exciting to try the latest faddish fare, when you speak in nutritional terms for every budget, you truly inspire the whole world to fitness.
City-Data.com. 2012. Alpena, Michigan. Accessed Mar. 12, 2014. www.city-data.com/city/Alpena-Michigan.html.
Drewnowski, A., & Darmon, N. 2005. The economics of obesity: Dietary energy density and energy cost. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 82 (1 Suppl), 265S-73S.
Drewnowski, A., & Eichelsdoerfer, P. 2009. Can Low-Income Americans Afford a Healthy Diet? Nutrition Today, 44 (6), 246-49.
HHS (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services). 2015. Annual update of the HHS poverty guidelines. Federal Register. Accessed Mar. 12, 2015. www.federalregister.gov/articles/2015/01/22/2015-01120/annual-update-of-the-hhs-poverty-guidelines.
Kneebone, E., & Garr, E. 2010. The suburbanization of poverty:
Trends in metropolitan America, 2000 to 2008. Bookings Institution Metropolitan Opportunity Series. Accessed Mar. 12, 2015. www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/papers/2010/1/20-poverty-kneebone/0120_poverty_paper.pdf.
McMillan, T. 2014. Cheat sheet: Myths about hunger in America. The Chautauquan Daily. Accessed Mar. 12, 2014. http://traciemcmillan.com/articles/cheat-sheet-myths-about-hunger-in-america/.
USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture). 2013. Meeting your MyPlate goals on a budget. Accessed Mar. 12, 2015. www.choosemyplate.gov/budget/downloads/MeetingYourMyPlateGoalsOnABudget.pdf.