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Shopping for Healthy Food on a Budget

By Aimee Kalczuk, 4th Year Central Michigan University Dietetics & Gerontology Student

We’ve all been there—standing in the produce section of the grocery store overwhelmed by all the choices and not knowing which is the healthiest. Is fresh best, or are frozen and canned just as good? More importantly, can you afford it all? It may seem impossible but eating healthy without breaking the bank is possible. Here are some tips on how to shop for healthy foods on a budget.

Fresh, Frozen, or Canned?
Canned and frozen foods often get a bad reputation as being less healthy than their fresh counterparts, but that is not always true. When it comes to freezing, foods are frozen shortly after they are harvested which hits a natural “pause” button and prevents nutrients from being lost. With fresh foods, vitamins and minerals are lost after five days on the shelf due to natural enzymes and oxidation. Several studies have been done comparing fresh and frozen foods, and in two-thirds of the tests frozen foods actually had higher levels of certain nutrients than fresh foods.

With canning, concerns have centered around the idea that the canning process would destroy vitamins and minerals in the foods. When food is canned, it is heated to a level that kills all microorganisms, and the cooling process creates a vacuum seal to prevent any more from getting in. While it is true that heating food does kill nutrients, any sort of cooking process will do that—whether it be from canning, baking, boiling, or even microwaving. Despite some nutrient loss, cooked fruits and vegetables still contain nutrients. Just be sure to get a low sodium version!  Caution is needed if you try to can your own food items with limited salt because salt is used to help preserve the food. Use only research tested recipes for home canning. A good reference source is MSU Extension.

The takeaway is that fruits and veggies are very good for you and you should eat them in any way you can—fresh, frozen or canned.

Look Out for “Buzzwords” & Fad Diets
Many grocery stores will try to sell customers “fashionable” foods at a higher cost, but are they really worth it? Lately, three of the most common food trends are organic, vegan, and gluten-free. Organic foods are those that are grown or raised without any antibiotics, pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, genetically modified organisms, or growth hormones. While it is true that organic foods have moderately greater amounts of antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids, conventional foods also contain high levels of those nutrients. It is up to the customer if they want to spend more for organic, but they should not feel guilty for buying conventional.

Vegan foods are also trendy. They are made without any sort of animal product, whether it be meat, butter, eggs, etc. Many people follow a vegan diet to prevent animal cruelty, but from a health standpoint a vegan diet can contribute to significant nutrient deficiencies if not done properly. Talk to your doctor or registered dietitian nutritionist before starting a vegan diet.

Finally, gluten-free foods have become very popular. These are foods that do not contain any gluten, which is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. Simply put, unless a person has been diagnosed with celiac disease, they do not need to follow a gluten-free diet. There is no nutritional benefit to doing so, and it can even lead to deficiencies in a number of vitamins and minerals.

Overall, fad diets are typically not worth their extra cost. As long as a person eats a variety of foods at moderate levels, they will be healthy.

Other Tips

  • Grow your own  Gardening is a hobby that gives a person exercise and the satisfaction of growing their own food at a low cost. If you don’t have room for a garden, windowsills are a great place to raise tomatoes, carrots, and radishes. Leafy greens like kale and lettuce can even grow in the winter!
  • Buy in season  Foods grown in season are cheaper because there is a higher supply of it at the peak of its growing season.
  • Shop from the top and bottom shelf  Grocery stores put the most expensive items at eye level, so look at the top and bottom shelf for cheaper options.
  • Stock up on cheap, healthy staple items  Whole-wheat pasta, brown rice, low-sodium canned fish, peanut butter and oatmeal are all inexpensive, nutritious, shelf-stable, and can be used in a variety of recipes. Make sure to have some in your pantry all the time so you always have healthy food on hand.

Aimee Kalczuk is a senior at CMU studying dietetics and gerontology. She is from Walker, Michigan and currently lives in Mt. Pleasant studying and working as a dietary aide at the Isabella County Medical Care Facility.