Science Thursday: “Whole Foods” on a Budget

(Disclaimer 1: This is not a sponsored post. None of the brands/products mentioned have in no way contacted me or tried to influence my opinions, this is all just down to my personal preference)

It’s Thursday (Or it was when I started writing this)! And that means science. Last week I updated my (and consequently, your) knowledge and opinions on sugar as part of my diet. This week is a type of follow-up, continuing on in the theme of food.

Learning all of this ~stuff~ about food means I’ve spent a lot of time talking, listening, and watching about food. Through this, I’ve noticed something incredibly bothersome. When most people outline healthy eating, they do so with little to no regard to cost.

I mentioned that I plan to do a full review of Cameron Diaz’s The Body Book, but I will tell you right now one of the problems I have with the book is how expensive the food she talks about eating is. Wood-fire grilled salmon. Zucchini noodles. For a regular middle-class family, eating those things more than once in a blue moon isn’t realistic. Do you have any idea how many zucchini it would take to make enough noodles to feed a family of four? A lot, is the answer. A lot.

One of the documentaries showed their ignorance in full display by claiming that the reason poorer people didn’t eat healthy diets of whole, fresh foods was because they don’t know any better. What kind of person is so out of touch with reality that they think a person’s income determine’s their ability to recognize that an apple is better for you than a McDonald’s hamburger?

There is a documentary that address this issue of cost, Food Inc., investigating why it benefits food companies for the general population to continue to eat processed foods. I will leave the watching up to you, but chances are, if you’ve been to a grocery store, you’ve noticed things in the produce section tend to cost more per unit than the boxed food in the aisles.

There’s an implication that “healthy eating” is only for people who can afford to buy all-organic lovingly-raised food from Whole Foods or Trader Joes or going to the Farmer’s market once a week. I call bullshit. Which is why I’m here. There are simple or sneaky swaps that give you the most bang for your bite.

(Disclaimer 2: I am not a dietitian; I am not trying to advise your health. I’m sharing some of the secrets I’ve learned over the years about improving my diet without going broke. I also share this information with the assumption that you, the reader, has access to a conventional grocery store – I know that’s not the case for everyone. )

  • Coupons – Let’s be clear. I hate couponing. I think it’s a waste of time for too little reward. I am not the type of person to go through every periodical so I can maximize my savings. However, there is a website where you can scroll through, click the coupons you want, and have them all printed out together. Save time any money all at once!
  • READ YOUR LABELS – How much fat, sugar, protein, salt, carbohydrates, and fiber is in the foods you’re eating? If a food is too high in one of these but too low in everything else, then it isn’t a balanced food, and you can actually be wasting money, because the food isn’t fueling your body completely, and you need to eat more to get all of your necessary nutrients.
  • If you’re feeling real motivated, separate your grocery list by section – I’ll admit it, I don’t like the grocery store, and I try to spend as little time there as possible. Even when there’s only one other person in the store, it just always feels incredibly crowded to me. So when I make my list, I make it in a way that increases the efficiency of the trip. By now, I know the exact lineup of departments when I go into the store, (bath & pharmacy, home goods, dairy, boxed, etc.), and I order my list accordingly. By now I also know what most of the things I buy regularly cost, so I have a rough estimate of how much the trip is going to cost me.I’m aware this sounds like I’m a few cards short of a deck, but there’s a benefit to this. First, when I go in with a list, I’m less likely to impulse by 6 packs of oreos. Second, by organizing my list this way, I’m unintentionally keeping track of my diet. Last month I had over $50 of dairy products on my grocery list, which is basically saying I had planned on dedicating $50 of my grocery budget to fatty protein. That’s not good for my wallet, or my bathroom.
  • Tortillas over bread – Bread isn’t really unhealthy, but it is very carb-loaded. A single serving of bread is actually only one slice (I know, right?), so if you eat a lot of sandwiches, those carbs add up quick. Tortillas are lower in carbs, and they cost less! Where I live, a loaf of bread is about $3.50. A 10-count pack of tortillas is only $2.
  • Generics are fine!!! – Generic or off-brand doesn’t automatically mean there’s something wrong with it. Sometimes the generic version of something actually has less junk in it than the name brand version (yogurt is a good example of this)!
  • Frozen/Canned veggies and fruits are also fine! – This is more of a personal opinion than absolute fact. I think the whole “picked at the peak of freshness” line is a gimmick used to make you think that canning or freezing food automatically lowers the nutritional value (how would you even measure the peak of freshness anyway?). Obviously if the food is stored in salty or sugary juice, that’s less healthy than the fresh food, but a green bean is still a green bean, right? It doesn’t automatically become a deep-fried mars-bar because it’s stored in a can (if only!). And frozen raspberries are still healthier than frozen fudge pops. So long as you’re checking the sodium or sugar content of the food (and most brands now offer low-sodium or natural juice options for canned goods), there’s no reason to get down on yourself because you aren’t buying asparagus from a farmer that reads to his crops every night.
  • (Some) Boxed food is fine too! – This definitely goes along with reading your labels, because in some cases, boxed, dried food is just sugary, preservative-filled, emulsified something-something, chemical powder. But sometimes it’s just dried. Instant potatoes are a good example of this. Knorr pasta sides are another good example. They’re high in carbs but low in sugar, have a good amount of protein, the fat isn’t too high, and the salt level is reasonable.
  • Some food keepers are worth the investment – One of the problems with fresh food is that it can go bad before you have a chance to eat it. You don’t want to have to be buy fruit every week, and you can’t buy in bulk because it will go bad before you have a chance to eat it. But things like Rubbermaid FreshWorks and Debbie’s Green Bags help produce last longer. I buy a huge container of spinach once a month, and when I get home I immediately transfer it to a FreshWorks container. It ends of lasting the whole month, no problem. Before that, I used to separate it out into a bunch of different tupperware and top the container with a paper towel to absorb moisture. It worked just as well, and was cheaper (if a bit tedious). That container of spinach cost as much as a salad kit, but it feeds me for several more meals.
  • Don’t skip the produce section – I know we’ve been over that the food in the produce section is usually more expensive, but you can find some good deals there, too. At one of my local grocery stores, produce that’s in season is usually dirt cheap, and there’s almost always a sale on some kind of fruit they’re trying to get rid of to make space for more fruit. Last time I went, I had planned on just getting a bag of chips and a candy bar, but I came out with big bags of cherries and grapes because they had too many and had put them on sale for $1.99/ lb.
  • Some things are better from scratch – Listen. I am not immune to marketing. Cute packaging is good. Bright colors are good. Junk food at a party is good. Buying it the store? Not good. It’s gonna have too much sugar, preservatives, and it’s expensive! Here are a few things that are better just to make at home:
    • Iced Tea/ Lemonade: A tin of iced tea mix is $6 at my local Walmart. A 100-count box of black tea bags is $2. If you can boil water and the patience to cool the tea for a couple of hours, then you my friend have the skills to make iced tea. And by having to add the sugar yourself, you’re more conscious of how much you’re adding. Bonus, tea comes in a lot of fun flavors, so you can really get creative there. There’s a similar story with lemonade. The mix is expensive, and very sugary, but instead you can buy a box of True Lemon packets and make it yourself. I add a packet of true lemon and 2 sugar packets to my water, and I have Chik-fil-A-level tasty drink with less than 10 grams of sugar (Shout out to my mother for introducing these magical things to me).
    • Pizza: Everybody loves pizza. If you don’t like pizza, I suspect that you might actually be a robot. Ordering out for pizza gets pricey pretty fast, especially if you like toppings (I like toppings), and while frozen pizzas are okay, you’re limited on topping selection, and there are a lot of preservatives in those suckers. But a packet of quick-rise pizza dough mix is $0.75, cheese and sauce together about $5, and you can have whatever toppings you want. Now, I am not the type of person that likes to spend more than 20 minutes cooking, so believe me when I tell you that making pizza from scratch isn’t as time-consuming as it may seem. It the time it takes me to decide what kind of pizza I want, order it, then drive to pick it up, I could also have made my own pizza.
    • Flavored oatmeal: A single serving of Lucky Charms has almost half the amount of sugar as a single-serve packet of apple-cinnamon oatmeal. Sure, oatmeal has more fiber, and a single serving of Lucky Charms is only 3/4 cup (could you survive of 3/4 cup of cereal? Because I couldn’t), but that’s still a shocking about of sugar. Instead, buy the plain instant oatmeal, and top with your own fruit (fresh, frozen, dried, whatever) and maybe some chocolate chips or honey. You’ll be amazed how good it tastes, and it doesn’t take any extra time, unless you need to cut up the fruit.

I know this has been a longer post full of a lot of information, but I just wanted to make it clear once again that eating well is not only for people who can afford to shop at high-profile “health food” stores. Eating well does not require you to go to the grocery store every day or every week to pick up only the freshest ingredients.  Eating well sure as hell doesn’t require you to spend hours in the kitchen cooking every day.

Updated Thoughts on Sugar

If you’ve been here for longer than a hot minute, you’ll know I started this blog as a way to chronicle my journey of giving up refined sugar. However, as time has passed, my perspective and opinions have changed (as well they should). Since I’ve noticed an increasing number of people putting their bodies on a sugar-purge, I’d thought I’d weigh in once again, and share (in my typical numerical list) the experiences I have had that changed my opinions, and in what capacity they have done so. Happy reading!

(Disclaimer: I am not a dietitian; I am not trying to advise your health. I am a student of science giving my opinion based on the facts I have gathered. If you think your diet is negatively affecting your health, you should see a medical professional. With a license. In person. Not on the internet, where everything is made up and the points don’t matter)

  1. Learning More About the Science

    This past year, I had to take a course on Anatomy & Physiology, taught by a med school professor. HooEEE, was that class a doozy. I learned everything I could ever want to know about the human body. Our textbook was the Guyton and Hall Textbook of Human Physiology, which I recommend if you ever want to learn more about yourself.

    One of our last units of the semester was on the digestive system, starting at the first thought of food (did you know thinking about food starts the digestive process?), and going all the way through to…secretions. I could keep you here for days typing on and on about your gut, but for now I’ll stick to the topic at hand, and save your gut for another day.

    When it comes to sugar, there is one specific type that reigns supreme over all others: glucose (you can read about the different types of sugar in my Halloween series). Glucose is the sugar that your body runs on; it’s what gives you energy and brain power (In fact, glucose is the only thing that can power your brain). Lucky for you, glucose is found in grains (mostly), fruits & vegetables (somewhat), and meat (a little), so it’s very easy to get your daily intake. But what happens after you ingest all that tasty, tasty, glucose?

    Basically, there are 3 options when glucose enters your digestive system. First (and maybe most obvious), it can be absorbed into your body for use. You eat some penne a la vodka, your body takes the glucose out of the pasta, and BAM! there’s your energy for a run, or going shopping, or sitting on your couch and watching TV (yes, that requires energy).

    Second, any extra glucose that your body doesn’t need right now will continue to pass through your digestion for you to pee out. Nothing too complicated about that. If your body can’t use it, it’s waste, so you get rid of rid of it, right? Well…your body can only process waste so quickly. Any glucose that isn’t used or removed from your body will be stored for later use, and that glucose makes itself a little storage capsule by turning into…

    Fat. Yep, that’s right. The third option for glucose when it enters your body is to go through a process called lipogenesis and become converted into fat, which the body will turn back into glucose next time you’re short on energy.

    But glucose isn’t the only kind of sugar out there, is it? No, there are many, many kinds of sugars. Glucose probably isn’t even the one most familiar to you, outside of the plant biology you learned in middle school. Most often when you hear about sugar, you hear about fructose or sucrose. There’s a whole war on high fructose corn syrup, right? And the first ingredient you’ll find on most sweet treats is sugar (read: sucrose). Does your body treat these sugars the same way it treats glucose? Does it all turn to fat? Well, luckily for me and my love of cookies, no.

    Sucrose, or table sugar, or honey, or Sugar in the Raw, or the white stuff you use in baking and put in your coffee, actually contains glucose. Each molecule (or piece) of sucrose contains one molecule of glucose and one molecule of fructose bound together. When you eat foods with sucrose in it, it is broken down to separate fructose and glucose, so the glucose goes off to do what is does. But what about fructose? What role does it have to play?

    Fructose is the sweetest of all the sugars (2x sweeter than glucose), and naturally occurs in fruit to make it sweet. To be perfectly honest, I have not been able to find the actual function of fructose in the human body. It doesn’t provide energy, it doesn’t facilitate protein travel, it just goes through your digestive system and out your tubes.

    There is evidence that the role of fructose is purely sensory, that during the hunter-gatherer days edible food was identified by its sweetness. Now, I can’t refute that claim, because I can’t think of any sweet fruits that are poisonous, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any. My mind is far from an extensive encyclopedia of horticultural knowledge. I can tell you with 100% confidence that while fructose is the sweetest sugar, it also has the lowest glycemic index, which means you’ll feel less full eating fructose, and more likely to overeat.

  2. Speaking with a Professional

    Now that I’ve hit you with excessive amounts of technical mumbo-jumbo, we’re going to have some real talk. Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with someone who works in the food industry. I’m choosing to give him anonymity, because while I don’t think he said anything particularly groundbreaking or extreme, I wouldn’t want to get him in any trouble, or get me into any trouble by aligning his statements with his company.

    One of the first things I asked him (we’ll call him “Fred” for the time being), was why wasn’t the food we eat regulated. We’ve all heard about how sugar is killing our children. You go on Netflix and there is documentary after documentary about how terrible the food we eat is, and how choc-full of junk it is. So why are we still eating it???

    Fred gave me answers, you guys. The most important thing Fred told me is that the food industry does its best to trick us into buying things. Sure, a serving is only 70 calories, but that serving is the size of a packing peanut. Food companies rely on us not reading the labels, not interacting with our food. Next time you buy food at the store, read the nutritional facts.

    I’ll go first. I packed a Smucker’s Uncrustable in my lunch today (yes I’m aware they’re for children. I ran out of grown-up lunch food). The whole sandwich is 210 calories, which is about the same as a regular candy bar. It contains 11% the recommended daily value of fat, and 15% daily value of sugar. That’s over one tenth my daily value of sugar and fat from something that won’t keep me full for longer than an hour at most. So if I were only eating those Uncrustables, I would need  about 10-12 to get me through the day, giving me 2,100 calories, 110% of my DV of fat, and 150% my DV of sugar. Obviously I wouldn’t eat only Uncrustables for a day, but it certainly paints a picture (The picture is too much fat and sugar in our food, in case you’re not a fan of impressionist art).

    Another tactic food companies use is word-choice. What do you think of when you read the word “Healthy?” What about “Lean?” “Light?” “Skinny?” All of these words that you see on food labels, and they’re all absolutely useless. Fred admitted that the word “healthy” is completely arbitrary – it’s not something that can be quantified or agreed on. So a food company will slap it on the label to make people think their food is better, and maybe the FDA will say “Hey, you’re misleading people, stop that!” Then the food company says, “okay, we’ll change the name and keep the packaging” or “okay, that’s fine, we made our money anyway. See ya!”

    Next time your in the store, pick up a product, and then pick up the “Light” version. I bet you $10, right here, right now, that if you look at the label, you’ll find that the Light version of the product has less fat, and more sugar.

    So when I asked Fred “Why are people being allowed to eat this much junk???” He said “because you can’t regulate common sense.”

  3. I Stopped Caring so Darn Much

    Here I’m going to get a little existential on you. After learning all this about sugar, I was absolutely convinced it was the devil. I was also eating it all the time. I had a stash of sweets in my desk to fight my afternoon grogginess, which soon turned into my morning, noon, and evening grogginess. I went through an entire bag of Dove caramel chocolates in 3 days (totally worth it, because those things are delicious), and I hated myself for it. But I didn’t know what to do, because I needed that sugar to get me through the work day. I needed that little extra *zip* to function. So I decided to go see a licensed dietitian for help. I expected her to help me find replacements for the sugar so I could have more sustainable energy, and finally kick the habit.

    Instead, she said I needed to have bloodwork done. If you’re like me, you probably just went “huh?” The reason, she said, was she wanted to get to the bottom of why I was so tired all the time. She didn’t want to just treat the craving, she wanted to follow it to the source.

    The second thing she did was tell me to have dessert every day. No wait, hear me out. She said instead of keeping a drawer of bottomless snacks, I should pack a set amount of sweets in my lunch every day to satisfy my craving. After going over my usual diet with me, she said I ate a very balanced diet already, so there was no reason I shouldn’t be allowed to treat myself in moderation.

    My blood came back as incredibly vitamin D deficient, and a bit low in iron. So the dietitian helped me increase those nutrient levels in my body, and I noticed that slowly but surely my need to constantly be eating sweets went away almost entirely. I still try to pack a treat in my lunch most days, because being a grown up is hard and I deserve chocolate, but other than that I rarely feel the need to binge. Hooray!

    The final experience actually came in the form of a gift. Recently my boyfriend bought me a copy of Cameron Diaz’s The Body Book, because he thought it was something I would like. And boy, do I. I don’t want to go into too much detail because I haven’t finished it yet, and I want to do a full review, but suffice it to say I really really like it so far. It focuses on making yourself healthy and strong, both inside and out. It’s about making sure you have a body that can do anything you want it to. If you give your body what it needs, it will give you what you need.

    I love every page of it, because I’m not being fed (haha!) another diet, or another quick fix workout to “blast body fat” or “be [season] ready,” or any other promise. In fact, Cameron doesn’t offer any promises at all. The premise of the book is that she wanted her body to be healthy and strong, so decided to learn everything she could about it, and the book is the culmination of what she learned (kind of what I’m trying to do here). That idea really spoke to me, because I felt my best back when I was strongest. I remember working out twice a day, 5 days a week, and eating 5-6 solid meals, drinking gallons of water and the way I felt when I woke up in the morning was just so solid.

So what does this all boil down to? How would I sum all of this up to explain how I feel about sugar now?

The way I see it, life is too short to not eat the food that makes me happy, but it is also too long to not take care of the body I have so it can take care of itself and carry me through all that I want to do in life. Knowing what I know now about how my body functions and how food helps it function, I don’t bother trying to limit myself. I don’t count my calories, I don’t look for the best “diet” to follow, and I don’t forbid myself to eat something. I first supply my body with everything it needs (and be sure, every body needs different things), and then whatever room is left goes to what I want.