Want to know the simplest method on how to eat healthy?
Most personal finance or fitness sites out there will provide you information on how to save money on groceries, how to spend less on food, how to be frugal about eating, and I’m going to argue for the opposite.
That’s right- I’m going to make the case for spending more money on food. It’s the simplest way to lose weight, or build lean muscle, or meet whatever fitness goals you’re looking for.
Read the whole story, and you’ll see what I mean.
The Delicate Balance of Five Variables
When it comes to eating, there really are only five main variables involved: taste, convenience, health, ethics, and price. A person’s food choices will depend almost entirely on those five variables, and each person has a different level of priority for them.
Do you find yourself struggling between wanting to lose weight, and wanting to actually enjoy dinner? Have you thought about eating organic food, or eating less meat, based on ethical or environmental reasons, but were concerned about the price and convenience?
Each time a problem like that arises, it’s due to a conflict of two or more of the five variables.
The first thing most people choose or notice about food is how it tastes. That’s our most primal method of selecting a meal: we want to enjoy it! Our taste buds developed over long periods of time to lead us to what benefits us, although modern society has moved more quickly than our taste buds have adapted. Still, when we eat food, we obviously want to enjoy it.
The next thing we want in food is for it to be easy. If it takes 4 hours to cook, it’s unlikely that we’ll eat it very often. The proliferation of processed and packaged foods have come due to our desire for convenience. There are only so many hours a day, and we spend a lot of them at work, so portability and the ability to stay fresh for long periods of time, are two bonus points for our food selections.
When a person starts to get a little heavier than they want to be, or their doctor tells them their blood results aren’t good, or they realize they can’t move around the way they used to, people begin to re-evaluate the health of their food. You might be willing to try to eat less, try to eat healthier, or try to offset food choices with more exercise.
Every once in a while, you might come across an animal rights group video of dirty chickens crammed into cages with deformities, or cows squirming around with their throats cut, or some other painful thing to watch. Or maybe you’re concerned about pesticides in the environment. Either way, the concepts of animal well-being and environmental sustainability may factor into healthy eating decisions.
Of course, if we could have it all, we’d have the freshest, tastiest, cleanest, happiest food in the world conveniently delivered and cooked for us every day. The limiting factor there, of course, is price. Most people can’t afford such a combination of the other four variables; it just costs too much. Especially when times are tough, food becomes a place where we think we have to cut back.
You Can Buy Your Health: Spend More to Eat Healthy
Trying to eat food you don’t like in order to stay healthy is usually not a sustainable pattern- eventually you’ll burn out with dissatisfaction and erase those improvements.
Similarly, living with cognitive dissonance between what we feel proud to eat and what we really do eat is no fun. If you’re not happy to see every step of where your food comes from, then that’s clearly not a problem to ignore.
Price is the easiest variable out of the five to control. You should enjoy your food, and it should be healthy. You should be happy where it came from, and the level of convenience is up to you, right? Paying more for your food- that’s what makes all of this possible.
Point #1: Why is Cheap Food Unhealthy?
From what I observe, people tend to categorize foods into broad groups without going much further than that. In other words, meat is meat, bread is bread, oil is oil, and so forth.
But not all protein, carbs, and fat are created equal. The reason food is able to be so cheap recently is that companies are cutting corners.
For example, in agriculture, companies produce genetically modified organisms that are resistant to the effects of pesticides and other chemicals. So when they plant huge fields of mono-crops that are resistant to certain chemicals, they can liberally spray those chemicals to keep bugs and weeds away without harming the cash crop. But GMO’s have health risks and the chemicals cause environmental problems. Further, soil doesn’t support mono-crop fields over time because the same nutrients are constantly extracted from the soil, so substantial amounts of fertilizer are needed.
Those genetically modified plant organisms are fed to animals that wouldn’t normally eat that kind of food. Poor diets combined with cramped conditions for animals cause disease, so antibiotics are consistently applied to keep the disease manageable until the animal is able to be slaughtered. But all of this work changes the meat itself. For a clear example, check out my article on sockeye salmon recipes. The difference between the same species of farm-raised or wild-caught salmon is enormous: the farmed variety has twice the fat for the same amount of muscle (an obese fish), and has six times the omega 6 fatty acids (which is not the kind we want a lot of, unlike omega 3).
Probably the biggest problem is how common cheap carbs and industrial vegetable oils are.
Our bodies need essential fatty acids, including omega 6 fatty acids and omega 3 fatty acids. The essential omega 6 fatty acid is Linoleic acid (LA), which is very easy to get from a huge variety of foods, and we all get far more than we need.
The essential omega 3 fatty acid is alpha-Linolenic acid (ALA), which is a bit more difficult to get but can be obtained in smaller quantities from many foods, and can be especially found in flax seeds and walnuts.
Two other important omega 3 fatty acids are Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). The body can convert ALA (the essential omega 3 fatty acid) into EPA, and can convert EPA into DHA, but these conversions are minimal and inconsistent, so it helps to get dietary sources of EPA and DHA. Both of those fatty acids have been linked to health benefits, and DHA in particular makes up a large percentage of our brains. By far the easiest way to get EPA and DHA is through certain types of fish, like salmon.
The long story short is, we want to maximize omega 3 fatty acids in our diet, and minimize omega 6 fatty acids, as far as the research seems to currently indicate. Previous generations of people would have gotten much lower ratios of omega 6 fatty acids to omega 3 fatty acids, whereas in the American diet, the ratio can exceed 20:1, where 4:1 or less may be optimal.
The reason is, omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids can compete for the same positions in our body, and omega 6 fatty acids are thought to be inflammatory whereas omega 3 fatty acids are thought to be anti-inflammatory.
Cheap processed carbs and industrial oils present in the various convenient packaged foods that are available are nutritionally deficient and have huge amounts of omega 6 fatty acids, which are shown in studies to work against omega 3 fatty acids to cause systemic chronic inflammation, which is linked to increased risk of depression, decreased energy, increased risk of chronic diseases, and decreases in longevity. As an example, a tablespoon of soybean oil can have nearly 7 grams of omega 6 fatty acid and less than a gram of omega 3 fatty acid. And for the previous example, farm-raised salmon that are fed the wrong kind of food (including soybeans, in some farms) can end up with 6 times the amount of omega 6 fatty acids in their body as wild-caught salmon.
The pattern here is that the plants themselves are grown incorrectly and for the wrong reasons, and then packed into processed junk food. The same plants are fed to animals, which get sick or are otherwise ill-treated, so it affects the quality of the animal sources we get in our diet too, since it does the same harm to them as it does to us.
Almost all of this can be cured by being willing to spend more on the food itself. Eating grass-fed animals, wild-caught fish, produce without synthetic pesticides or genetic modification, and substituting out processed carbs and oils in favor of more whole foods and healthy oils, can go a very long way.
Point #2: We’re Spending Less and Less on Food Every Decade
Spend more on food, in this economy? Absolutely.
Americans have spent less and less on food, as a percentage of their disposable income every single decade for nearly the last century. This following chart, using data from USDA Economic Research Service, shows why the quality of food has deteriorated so significantly over the last several decades:
As can be seen, we keep spending less and less of our money on food. The only temporary increase was the post WW2 spike.
So most arguments regarding food being expensive, or the inability to pay more for food, are relative. Spending more money on food would not be a new thing; it would be a return to a previous time. It’s already been done, so it can be done again.
What we call “organic” food used to just be called food. Organic is a new term over the last few decades because “conventional” farming came along as the new thing, and is not conventional at all. Even most organic food today is more industrialized than all food was a few decades ago. Marketing has turned organic food into the “alternative” choice to “conventional” food, but in reality, organic food is closer to the older method of agriculture and conventional produce is the new weird thing, utilizing harsh chemicals, global positioning systems to align mono-crop fields, and feeding animals food they wouldn’t normally eat.
Point #3: Eating Healthy is an Investment
While we may think that we’re wasting money on higher quality food, and that it competes with our ability to save more money or buy more things, in reality, it’s almost always going to save you money in the long run.
Health care costs have become completely out of control in the United States, and they’ve risen substantially in other developed countries as well:
One would think that with all that money spent, the U.S. would have the best health statistics in the world. But despite spending more money on health care as a percentage of GDP and per capita compared to other developed countries, the U.S. lags most of them in terms of health metrics, including lower average life expectancy, higher infant mortality, and higher obesity rates.
There are political differences between countries that can change the effectiveness of health care, so food isn’t the only reason. But it stands that most health care related to chronic diseases of affluence is due to lifestyle choices about food and exercise.
Speaking of politics, according to Environmental Working Group, between 1995 and 2011 over $172 billion of government money was spent on direct agricultural subsidies, and another $68 billion was spent on crop insurance and disaster relief.
The top five foods receiving those subsidies were, in order: corn, wheat, soybeans, rice, and sorghum. Tobacco is on the list as well, but you won’t find fruits and vegetables being subsidized at those large levels. This taxpayer money isn’t going primarily to make corn on the cob or artisan breads cheaper: it’s almost all for feeding animals things they shouldn’t eat to begin with, or for use in processed carb-centric food products including high fructose corn syrup. And ten percent of farms received three quarters of the subsidies, because the subsidies reward large single-crop type farms. In other words, you’re subsidizing junk food, whether you eat it or not.
So cheap food isn’t quite as cheap as it appears, because the cheapest foods are subsidized by billions of tax dollars.
More concerning than that, however, are the previously mentioned health care costs that are related to lifestyle choices. Paying a bit extra each month on high quality food (along with proper exercise), can be your #1 type of insurance against chronic diseases of affluence: cardiovascular problems, diabetes, obesity, cavities, and certain cancers.
Point #4: Animals and the Environment
Everything has a cost.
This picture, taken by Farm Sanctuary, shows baby turkeys with parts of their beaks (which do have nerves) seared off so that they can fit more of them into small spaces without damage from pecking.
I’m not against eating animals, but like most people I find the idea of a factory farm to be repulsive. Moreover, some companies can use poorly-defined terms like “free range” to give a false impression that animals are treated better than they are.
To find ethically treated farm animals, a person really has to do their homework on a local source.
Animals are often fed the wrong kind of food (like cows being fattened up on feedlots with various types of grain), which necessitates the use of antibiotics, but all of this has measurable impacts on the taste of the meat, the nutritional properties of the meat, and other factors.
The pesticides used on crops can leak into natural water flows. In the U.S., they often eventually lead to the Mississippi and out into the Gulf of Mexico, where there is currently a dead zone of over 6,000 square miles.
Another larger environmental concern is topsoil reduction. The planet is only covered by a few feet of topsoil, and in nature or in old-school farming methods, it regenerates itself. But with huge mono-crop fields, and harsh chemicals and mechanical processes, topsoil is being reduced at a much faster rate than it is replenished. It’s not as economical to try to grow a variety of crops, as nature intended, as it is to try to standardize and industrialize everything into a field of corn you can’t see the end of.
Mostly what it comes down to is, cheap food just externalizes the cost. It pushes the problems outward in the form of increased animal suffering, depletion of soil quality, water pollution, and health care costs.
How to Eat Healthy on a Budget
So overall, we’re spending far less on food as a percentage of disposable income as we used to, our health care costs have skyrocketed into a national deficit problem (especially in the U.S. but in other countries as well), and we’ve unnecessarily industrialized the process to cause great harm.
We can do better.
To do better, we need to spend more money on food, so that the people that produce the food can spend more attention on the quality.
But before you crack open the $100 bottle of wine with your lobster, we can cover a few areas to save money when we eat healthy.
There’s a point of diminishing returns; paying a certain amount for the right kind of food allows you to eat healthy easily, but after a certain point, money just adds luxury rather than additional health.
Some people can afford better food and choose not to. Others genuinely have a problem with affording healthier food, unfortunately. You can follow a rough order of importance to make sure your dollars are well-spent.
Step 1: Reduce or Eliminate Processed Carbohydrates and Vegetable Oils
This is one of the easiest and most important steps. Reduce “food products” in place of “food”.
Avoid most stuff in the center of the grocery store, and buy the meats, vegetables, fruits, nuts, oils, and other recognizable natural food items instead.
-To lose weight and become healthier, don’t drink your calories. Sodas, vitamin waters, sports drinks- in most cases, these products with 20 or 30+ grams of sugar per serving are filling up your daily calorie needs with junk. In the worst case scenario, excess sugar consumption can result in diabetes.
-You’ll find diverse viewpoints on grains and carbs. People who adhere to Paleo diets will recommend avoiding grains almost entirely and minimizing carbs. Personally, a site I like is Mark’s Daily Apple. The government wants you to eat 6+ servings per day. Japanese people, who have some of the healthiest national statistics in the world, consume large amounts of white rice. Overall, my viewpoint is this: if you’re going to eat carbs, eat them intentionally. Rather than assuming that carbs need to go with each meal due to default social normalcy, try experiments. Reduce carbs, and see how you feel. When you do eat carbs, eat the ones with little processing and that aren’t shown to have negative effects. My personal favorites, on occasion, are white basmati rice and quinoa. Sweet potatoes are another good option.
-Eliminate soybean oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, and canola oil (and therefore basically anything labeled as “vegetable” oil). These oils have huge omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acid ratios, and large amounts of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs). PUFAs turn into potentially dangerous substances when heated, and many of these oils undergo heating during their highly industrialized production phase. Instead, stick to the more natural and easier to process oils, especially olive oil, coconut oil, and avocado oil. These have low PUFAs, lower omega 6 fatty acid amounts, and require less processing. (For example, you’ll hear about olive oil processing as far back as thousands of years ago, and it was as valuable as currency in some cases, but you’ll not hear so much about safflower oil processing thousands of years ago and the substance being treated as liquid gold like olive oil). The old-school oils have been shown to be healthy through both thousands of years of enjoyment and modern scientific information, whereas these newfangled industrial oils are just ways to sell you cheap, low quality food.
-Subtract empty and thoughtless carbs.
-Subtract vegetable oils, canola oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, and soybean oil.
-When/if you eat carb-based foods, do so intentionally, and consider the healthier options like quinoa, rice, steel-cut oats, and sweet potatoes.
-Add coconut oil (great for cooking), olive oil (great for low or no heat applications), and avocado oil (decent for both cooking and low heat applications).
Carbs are cheap, but generally not that useful. The vegetable oils are recently invented cheap industrial oil products. Skip them, and while it’ll cost a bit of extra money, you’ll enjoy the long term benefits.
Quality oils may seem to be a bit pricey, but they’re actually cheaper than they appear. For example, I’ve got a liter of healthy organic olive oil for around $12, which sounds like a lot, but it contains 8,040 calories. That’s a lower per-calorie cost than a McDonald’s meal.
Step 2: Stick with High Quality Meat
The next step, when money is available, is to buy organic meat from sources that feed the animal what the animal would naturally eat. Cows eat grass, chickens eat a variety of things including seeds, bugs, etc. No antibiotics, no factory farms; just good old fashion farming.
This also means eating wild caught ocean fish rather than farmed fish that are fed things like soybeans and become measurably obese. For some fresh water fish, like Tilapia, farming is appropriate as long as it’s done well. But in general, the fish that provide large amounts of omega 3 fatty acids are cold water ocean fish.
Step 3: Eat Organic Produce
While not as important as organic meat, organic produce is healthier than pesticide produce. The reason is, the nutritional quality of meat is demonstrably changed by its conditions: the nutritional comparisons between purely grass fed beef and factory farmed feedlot beef are entirely different, and wild caught salmon and farmed salmon aren’t even comparable. But for produce, the organic and pesticide variety have very similar nutritional qualities, with the main difference only being the pesticide residues and the environmental impact. Plus, animals have nerves and brains, whereas plants do not.
So, in order, meat is the higher priority for spending money and doing homework on to ensure quality.
But we can go further than this: within the world of produce, some of it retains and is affected by pesticides more than others. Typically, fruits and vegetables where you consume the skin or outside of it are things to especially avoid when pesticides are used, while the types that you mostly just eat the inside are not as impacted by pesticides. So while organic is almost always preferable, if you’re looking to save money, there is an order of value.
The Environmental Working Group publishes the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen, which is a list of the best and worst pesticide produce. The dirty dozen (which now includes more than a dozen), are the ones to definitely go organic on. The clean fifteen are safer, and there’s less priority for them to be organic.
Next, you can save money on produce by going to local farmers markets rather than buying nationally branded organic produce.
This cost me like $6 and contains 15 calories total:
Not the best deal ever. It’s a huge mark-up for the convenience of washing, packaging, and small pieces. If you want greens for cheap, get the big bundles at farmers markets or health food stores. They’ll take more preparation, but if you’re on a budget, it’s worth it. The same holds true for most fruits and veggies: getting local in-season stuff from farmers is usually pretty cheap, because everything is fresh and in surplus and they want to get rid of it while it’s at its best.
The actual “organic” label here isn’t important. The important part is how the animal or plant is produced as food. Organic is a new term that counterbalances what passes for “conventional” today. When in doubt, organic is preferable because certain standards have to be present (like no antibiotics in the animals).
But some small farms don’t officially label their products as organic because there is cost and regulation associated with doing so. They may exceed the qualifications for organic without being labeled as such. In general, the healthiest food you can eat is local, high-quality farm products that are naturally raised, whether they’re officially labeled as organic or not.
The father of western medicine already nailed this 2,400 years ago:
“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”
What that means is, rather than to take shortcuts now and do damage control later, it’s preferable to get it right the first time. Investing in healthy food from the beginning does a lot more good for your body and the environment than trying to undo health problems or environmental damage later.
The simplest way to optimize your weight, be healthy, look good, enjoy your meals, and reduce environmental impact, is to be willing to spend a bit more money and attention on your food, so that the producers of the food can spend more attention on the quality of the product.
How to Eat a Healthy Balanced Diet
This article takes a look at healthy diets from around the world to point out the common aspects and general “golden rules” of eating.