It's a well-worn truism in the First World that wealthy people tend to be slim, while many of the poor are obese. This is in stark contrast to poorer countries, where body fat can be seen as a sign of prosperity and good health, and is often considered attractive. The reasons for this paradox are complex, but diet—combined with exercise, or lack of it—remains the chief cause. A diet, that is, of cheap but unhealthy food.
But it does not necessarily need to be difficult to eat well, even if you're on a tight budget. Clare Barnes, of Insight Nutrition, says that it doesn't need to be expensive to cover the five main food groups, and ensure that you get a range of different nutrients. She suggests preparing as much of your own food as possible, and shopping sensibly for produce and other ingredients. Stock up on foods that you can store when they're cheaper or on sale, whether that's dry non-perishables like flour, rice and pasta or canned food like beans, legumes, canned vegies and soups.
'Tinned soups are a great healthy base for a larger meal if you add more vegetables or beans or legumes,' she says. 'Combine pasta and rice with other groups as well, like cheese or eggs or vegetables, and make your own bread and scones. Good quality bread can be very expensive.'
Look out for cheap vegetables when they're plentiful and in season, and chop and prepare yourself before freezing for later use. Contrary to folklore, freezing doesn't make vegetables lose their nutritional value; in fact frozen vegetables often have as many nutrients as fresh vegetables since they're packed and frozen relatively soon after being picked, whereas so-called 'fresh' vegetables may have been picked long before they eventually hit the supermarket and grocery shelves. Remember not to cook vegetables for too long, as lengthy cooking and high temperatures leach them of much of their nutritional value.
For children, pre-packaged snacks to take to school tend to be expensive, and they're often full or fats or sugars. Make your own muffins and low-fat snacks for them to take, or encourage them to eat fruit (especially fruit in season, which is cheaper).
And meat? You don't need to eat much of it—in particular, red meat only needs to be eaten occasionally, if at all. You get similar nutritional value from eggs, nuts, legumes, seafood and chicken, and if you're going to eat red meat you certainly don't need to buy that $25 per kilo eye fillet. Cheaper cuts of meat, such as stewing steak, can be just as healthy as more expensive ones, particularly if you trim off as much fat as you can. There are the same levels of protein and iron in both.
Eating home-cooked food will always be cheaper, but eating out can be a real pleasure. Take away food tends to be relatively cheap, but it can often be high in fat and salt, especially the deep fried stuff. It's often better to try and find a restaurant that has a lunch or dinner special.
Many larger chain restaurants are able to keep prices down; more often they are promoting 'healthy choice' meals. But don't be fooled. A recent survey in Choice magazine suggested that several of these so-called healthy options contain similar levels of fats and sodium. Some of them are relatively good, but it's hard to tell from the labelling and promotional material which can be deliberately obfuscatory.
Clare Hughes, Senior Food Policy Officer with the Australian Consumers' Association suggests that just because it's a roll, baguette, sandwich or salad doesn't necessarily mean it's any healthier than a Big Mac or a Whopper.
'And the fact that some chain outlets have some products which feature in Choice's best list, and others which feature in their worst list means you can't just blindly assume that products from one chain or another are automatically healthy,' she says.
Independent sandwich bars are not a bad choice. Food is made on the spot, so you know what goes into your sandwich or roll or wrap. Some larger chains are now appearing that promote themselves as healthy options. Beware, because a place that has 'Healthy' or 'Choice' or 'Natural' in its name doesn't always guarantee low-fat, low-salt dining options.
In a nutshell, do a bit of research, and if you're willing to go further then talk to a qualified dietician or doctor. There's a great deal of information around about the food we eat available today, as people become more conscious of what they eat and how they live. The problem is that some of the 'information' available in food advertising is deliberately misleading, at worst, and at best, can omit less pleasing facts and include only the 'good news' about a certain food or food type.
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16 August 2006
The advice to speak to a doctor about food choices is arguably debatable. Doctors are taught little about nutrition in their medical courses. You can count the number of hours given to undergrads on both hands and feet.