Top Cheap and Healthy Foods

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The more financially challenged a family is (I deliberately avoid using the word ‘poor’, as I believe poverty is as much a state of mind as of the pocket), the higher proportion of its budget is directed towards buying food. It makes sense – you can scrimp on entertainment, clothes, and all sorts of frills, but everyone needs to eat.

Some things are really no brainers when it comes to food choices: avoid prepackaged ready-to-eat stuff, soft drinks, and anything that isn’t food in its basic, natural state. But what if you really need to take this a step further? What foods are the best bargain, financially and health-wise?

Whole, dry pulses and grains – beans, lentils and peas of all kinds have provided a source of protein and nourished healthy populations all around the world for millennia. Combined with barley, rice, bulgur, corn, etc, these create dishes with an amino acid balance that needs only a little animal protein to make a well-rounded, low-cost diet. Learn how to prepare grains and pulses the right way by soaking and/or fermenting them.

You can get a lot of food out of a few bags of lentils, peas and beans, and when properly stored, they will keep almost indefinitely.

Oats – oats are very nutritious and make an excellent breakfast cereal, much better than any cold cereal you can buy. Get your oats whole and roll them yourself for longer storage and to get the most of their health benefits, and pre-soak for maximum digestibility.

Eggs – containing the most effectively bioavailable protein in human nutrition, eggs are filling, nourishing and incredibly versatile. They also have the advantage of being almost universally cheap. Of course, it’s a million times better to consume home-grown eggs with a healthier fatty acid profile and essential vitamins, but even a store-bought egg is a source of wholesome protein when you can ill afford anything else.

Organ meats – the general public has a refined taste when it comes to chicken and turkey, and prefers clean, white meat, breast being the most popular. Stuff like liver, hearts, stomachs, etc, falls by the wayside, and can often be got very cheaply – all the better for you! Organ meats contain plenty of iron and B12, and, of course, are an excellent source of animal protein. They can figure in a variety of soups, stews, casseroles and other dishes.

Vegetables – if you have a productive garden of your own, you’re in luck. If not, you still rely on what you buy – and though fresh vegetables are an essential in a healthy diet, they can be tricky on the budget. Prices go up and down according to season and other factors, and even when you get a really good deal on certain veggies, there’s only so much you can buy, and they won’t store forever. Learn to buy what is cheap and in season, rather than have a fixed idea of what you’re going to eat.

Plain dairy products – commercial dairy products are controversial, but if you don’t keep a dairy animal, plain unsweetened store-bought dairy products are still a good bet, and are usually affordable. Stick to whole milk, plain yogurt, naturally processed cheese and unsalted butter.

Canned goods – don’t automatically dismiss all that comes from a can. Some canned foods are very nutritious – such as canned tomatoes, beans, tuna, sardines, and more – and sometimes you can get very good deals on them, so keep your eyes open.

Whatever you do, don’t be tempted to make your meals more palatable or filling by the addition of refined sugar and highly processed vegetable oils. It will only mess up your blood sugar and satiety signals, and will ultimately make you hungrier.

Good luck in finding the best way to feed your family healthy, inexpensive food – I know this can be tricky, but the rewards are well worth it.

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Conquering Sugar Cravings

תוצאת תמונה עבור ‪sugar cravings‬‏

Because of our social conditioning, love of sugar is one of the most difficult harmful food cravings to conquer. Not only is sugar everywhere, it forms part of such cherished memories as Grandma’s cookies, birthday cakes, holiday treats, etc. Therefore, trying to cut refined sugar out of one’s diet, or one’s children’s diet, can get a pretty serious emotional kickback: “Are you telling me we’re going to have a birthday party without a Double Sugar Bomb Birthday Cake? Do you mean to say I can’t take my grandchildren out for an ice-cream?” Just try it, and you’ll see how personally people take it.

In my experience, the number one vulnerability factor that leads people to succumb to sugar cravings is hunger and the low blood sugar levels it evokes. It’s very, very hard to resist a scrumptious glazed cookie when one hasn’t eaten all day. Therefore, the number one defense against sugar cravings is not just to eat on time, but to have satisfying meals that stave off hunger and delight the taste buds. For me this might be a slice of artisan sourdough bread, spread with butter or homemade cream cheese, and a big salad; or a bowl of lentil soup and a platter of fruit; or an omelet made of home-grown eggs and some sliced veggies with a dip.

Even so, merely not being hungry makes no guarantee against sugar cravings. If it were that simple, there wouldn’t be so many sugar addicts. Awareness, distraction, alternative rewards (buying a book instead of a cake) and educating oneself on the dangers of sugar consumption all help, but truly I have no perfect solution – if I did, I’d be very rich (and probably not very popular with the food industry, for whom cheap, easily added, infinitely stored white sugar is a godsend).

I will probably be battling sugar cravings for as long as I live, but I’m in a much better place than I was several years ago, when I wasn’t even aware of how harmful sugar is, given how socially acceptable it is and how its dangers were smoothed over even while I was taking nutrition courses in university. At least now I know what sort of a many-headed monster I’m up against; as soon as I cut off one head in the form of an ice-cream box I don’t put in the supermarket cart, it rears another as my mother-in-law offers me some cookies. But my sword – my knowledge, determination, and wish for better health for myself and my family – is ever ready.

Commitment to healthier cooking

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When I graduated with a degree in nutrition from a prestigious university, I knew a great deal about enzymes, hormones, and dietary regimes for various ailments, from diabetes to kidney dysfunction – but next to nothing about how to make healthier choices for simple homemade food cooked for basically healthy people.

Sure, I knew the basics – avoid over-processed junk, eat plenty of fruit and veggies, reduce sugar and salt. But I didn’t internalize the importance of what comes into the process of making food: organic vs commercially grown produce, pasture-raised eggs and meat vs animals raised in crowded feedlots. I wasn’t fully aware of the detrimental effects of commercially processed oils, or even sugar.

Fast forward a few years. I’m pregnant with my second child, and a friend sends me the wonderful book Nourishing Traditions. I gobble it up, fascinated. Some things I disagree with, but so many more make perfect sense. I discover a wealth of information about the diversity of diet and traditional food preparation techniques. My horizons are expanded, but I’m also discouraged. This is too much for a family who love their triple chocolate ice-cream and depend on the convenience of plastic white bread.

Slowly, bit by bit, I become convicted that health is a treasure in the sense that it makes everything else possible, and that it is my job, as the cook of the family, to make the most effort towards preserving and enhancing health. My means are ridiculously inadequate. I happen to be married to a man who isn’t exactly on the same page; who doesn’t just think that whole grains are nothing more than a nutritional fad, but who requests desserts, foods fried in large quantities of unhealthy oil, etc (we did make some progress there over the years, I am happy to say).

I yearn to exchange all the junk for an invigorating array of fruit and vegetables, for high-quality natural oils and whole flours, and excellent fresh meat, fish and dairy products. I yearn to remove all the temptations from us. I do so wish I could be the one who does the shopping, but unfortunately, this isn’t practical.

More recently, reading Sugar Blues made me more mindful of the effect sugar has on people, especially children. It’s actually chilling. Intelligent people lose all rational thought and consume foul junk like candy and soft drinks as if those were manna from heaven.

So, what do I do? I cook. I cook for my family. The ingredients are often inferior, but here’s what I do:

I cut down on desserts. I’ve realized that I can spend hours working on a fancy layered cake, lovingly decorating it, and what I’m really doing is investing my time in a poison bomb that is detrimental to my family’s health, because I don’t have the whole flour, high-quality eggs (depends on season), healthy oils and natural sweeteners that would make such a dessert even somewhat more nutritious than its store-bought equivalent. So, if I can’t make a dessert or a treat that isn’t an anti-nutrient, I don’t make it at all.

Of course, this has a downside, being that my husband, if he sees I’ve stopped making sweet treats, buys them at the store instead. Then he introduces something that is even more loaded with sugar and unhealthy oils than what I would have made at home. But my protest, in refusing to make such things, creates an echo that really serves to convince my family, bit by bit.

Same goes for white bread. Making bread from scratch is time-consuming, and I’ve repeatedly told my husband I don’t see the sense in doing it if I end up with a product that, nutritionally speaking, is only slightly better than what I can buy at the store (though it does taste better). So more recently we’ve been experimenting with slow-rise breads made partially of whole grain (because my husband still claims that bread made entirely of whole grain is too dense for him).

Of course, I cook a variety of real food – soups, stews, casseroles, quiches, meat, fish, and eggs-based stuff. In short, I’m doing the best I can with what I have, at this moment.

Why sugar addiction is so hard to beat

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Of all the changes one might try to make to improve one’s nutrition, eliminating or reducing the intake of added sugar is probably one of the hardest (but also one of the most crucial) things to do. Here are some reasons why:

  1. Sugar is everywhere. It is ever-present and very socially acceptable, being used as part of every gathering, food treat, or celebration. Children get candy as a reward for good behavior. Almost every occasion, from birthday party to wedding reception, is impossible to imagine without cake. Furthermore, many alcoholic drinks – another social convention – are heavily sugar-laced.
  2. The love of sugar is biologically ingrained. On a biological level, sweet taste allows one to assess the ripeness of fruit, therefore helping choose the ones which offer most nutritional benefits – as in nature, sugar is a component of nutritionally dense foods. The consumption of sugar is chemically rewarded by the brain – it acts on the pleasure-center and triggers the release of serotonin, which in turn floods our bodies with pleasant sensations. The problem is, this kind of biochemical high is also addictive – when the consumption of sugar is over-indulged, on attempting to break it one might literally find oneself feeling and behaving like a junkie on withdrawal.
  3. Commonly used in food industry – sugar is one of the favorite ingredients of food industry, and do you have to ask why? It’s cheap, has a pleasant taste and an almost infinite shelf life. It is used, therefore, to entice innocent people, cover up for bland taste inferior ingredients are responsible for and, in short, to line the pockets of the food conglomerates.

I have stated before that I am an acknowledged sugar addict. I’m not saying “recovered” or “former”; I will probably struggle with this affliction for as long as I live, but eating well, resting well, and being aware of the problem helps quite a bit. One interesting book I am reading now is The Carbohydrate Addict’s Diet. It isn’t a new book, and some of the things they recommend and/or allow are outdated, but overall they have an interesting approach. Their attitude, in a nutshell, is reducing hyperinsulinemia by limiting carbohydrate-containing meals to one per day. Other favorite reads of mine are Sugar Blues and Beating The Food Giants.

Nutrition and Physical Degeneration

I would like to thank the several readers who sent me a link to the book of Dr. Weston Price, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration. You can read the book – which I highly recommend – online if you follow the link. This was the first time I heard of Dr. Price’s research, and I must say his findings are striking, not to mention highly convincing. The facts speak for themselves.

For those who are unfamiliar with Dr. Price, he was a researcher in the 1930’s who traveled all over the world and collected data on how the contact with modern civilization and modern food impacted the primitive cultures who were exposed to it for the first time. That unique point of time made the research possible – finding truly primitive communities would be a lot more difficult today.

Dr. Price was a dentist and originally his research focused on the condition of teeth, but it soon becomes very clear that teeth problems are just the tip of the iceberg when we come to deal with trouble brought on by the de-vitalized nutrition of modern age.

Even though Dr. Price’s research was conducted such a long time ago and science has marched a long way since, I believe his findings are still and probably even more relevant today. When I think of why his conclusions weren’t widely publicized and the entire approach to nutrition wasn’t revolutionized, the only reason I can come up with is that it would be so inconvenient to many people. Dr. Price offers no easy solutions, but clearly states that it takes a great strength of character to give up the food that is bad for us.

This strength of character is something that the establishment thinks we lack. They view us as a complacent herd. When I was a student, our professors clearly told us that most people don’t have the willpower to change their lives and improve their health. Therefore, we were to focus on the easy, temporary solutions, not the truly effective ones.

Furthermore, the food industry clearly doesn’t want us to put too much thought into what we eat. It’s far too easy for them to toss a handful of artificial vitamins and minerals into junk food like sugared cereal, and market it as health food. It is especially maddening to think that many of the junkiest foods out there are directed towards children and parents of young children – and many parents don’t hesitate to give their children highly sweetened and processed foods, thinking they are healthy because some synthetic vitamins were thrown in.

Food that makes you hungry

While I was studying for my degree in nutrition, a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet was strongly emphasized. We did some obsessive calculations to make sure our menus do not contain more than 30% of calories from fat (this may not seem very low, but it is when you consider that fat contains twice more calories, per weight unit, than protein or carbohydrates). Cholesterol was to be feared, hated and avoided at all costs: thus, low-fat meat and dairy products, yolk-less omelettes, and not a word about cream and butter.

On the other hand, there was a surprisingly lenient attitude towards sugar and refined carbohydrates, and in general the outlook on food was very skeletal, taking into account primarily the basic units of calories, carbohydrates, protein and fat. The underlying message was that it’s acceptable to eat an overprocessed, nutrient-deficient diet and compensate for it with supplements and artificially enriched foods. Some of our professors went even as far as to say that in the modern world, it’s virtually “impossible” to get all the essential nutrients without a multivitamin supplement.

My attitude is vastly different today, years after I first came across Nourishing Traditions and other literature that emphasized the deficiencies of modern nutrition. I am now an advocate for wholesome foods prepared in the home kitchen from basic natural ingredients and consumed in their whole, unrefined state. I quit being a vegetarian, we eat a lot more animal fat than we used to, particularly more butter, and in about five or six years since starting this dietary change, we haven’t seen an increase in either weight or cholesterol levels.

The low-fat dietary trend does seem to be sputtering out in the professional circles, but decades of propaganda aren’t so easy to ignore. A lot of people are still wary of eggs and think margarine is superior to butter because it doesn’t contain cholesterol. On the other hand, there is little discussion of how to avoid refined sugar, and the prevalent opinion is that a bit of indulgence in that quarter is harmless unless you are a diabetic. What people don’t seem to realize is that type 2 diabetes doesn’t just spring out of the blue; it takes years of unhealthy eating and insulin imbalance to get there, and if you indulge in sugar, you are at risk.

Reading Sugar Blues, by William Dufty, made me acknowledge two important facts: one, sugar really is addictive, and two, I’m one of the addicts.

For many, many people, eating one square of chocolate, one cookie or one scoop of ice-cream isn’t enough. They want more and more, until they feel sick. There are two reasons for this. The first is that eating sugar causes an upsurge of insulin, which makes sugar enter the cells quickly: thus, the blood sugar level peaks and then quickly drops, making you want to eat more sugar. When your blood sugar is low, you feel hungry; sugary foods will never make you full and satisfied in a healthy, wholesome way.

The second reason is that sugar acts upon a reward center in the brain. “Normal” food acts upon it too, making us feel satisfied after a good meal, but sugary food has a more powerful effect. And when you get used to sugar, it gets more and more difficult to stimulate the reward center with normal food (just like in Narnia, when Edmund wants nothing but Turkish Delight after tasting the enchanted sweet). It takes a period of detox to rewire your brain and make it possible to appreciate and enjoy simple basic food again.

Sugar addiction is not of a kind to make you crouch in a dark alley, looking for a dealer. It isn’t about to send you into rehab or make the social workers take your children away. The stuff is waiting for you everywhere – at supermarket aisles, coffee shops, family dinners, children’s birthday parties. It looks innocent and inviting and is socially sanctioned. Nevertheless, if you spend hours thinking of and longing for the dessert you are going to eat, or battling your sweet cravings, that is addiction.

What I find really helpful is to have alternative “reward foods” around in place of sugar – fresh and dried fruit, unsweetened fruit leathers, nuts of all kinds, good cheese, very dark chocolate with no added sugar. These take away the emotional aspect of feeling deprived when you can’t have your favorite treats. I do hope that my husband will become, in time, as convicted about the issue of sugar and refined carbohydrates as I am, and that these unhealthy foods will disappear from our pantry shelves forever.

Because of early conditioning, I am probably going to continue fighting my sugar cravings for the rest of my life. But at least now I know what I’m up against, and also how important it is to win this battle. A chocolate bar is on one side of the scale. On the other side are my health, strength, well-being, energy and mood. Put this way, the choice really is obvious.