Over the past few months, my husband and I have been asked several questions by friends and family eating well and budgeting well while doing it. (Underlying some of these questions is the tension--sometimes an implication, sometimes a question--in the idea of whether you can be fat and still be healthy. I'd like to point out that health includes not just physical health, something that we'd all do well to remember more often.) Tonight, I finally sat down and typed up a response for a friend who asked for "a few tips" on eating well on a tight budget. She got more than she bargained for, and I realized that I should post this for everyone else out there. What follows is my "quick" advice.
My weight has always caused me some mental problems--at times more than others, definitely. I think it helped me that my family (my dad's whole family) are all kind of big, and that my dad is so large and yet so healthy. And I have such supportive family and friends, so my self-confidence was always high, and I was able to separate MY identity from my weight. Of course sometimes I think that was bad because it didn't give me enough reason to really try harder to lose weight. But losing weight is really, really fucking hard. Hey, I was in tons of pain and lost 23 pounds over two weeks. It was an almost-magical weight-loss diet! *snort* But in spite of my weight and the occasional taunting and teasing, I had to remind myself that the weight is important to me and my family only insofar as it affects my health. Regarding what other people think, you have to remind yourself that it just doesn't matter. People will judge. You can't help that. The only thing you can guarantee in life is how YOU act. (I have to remind myself and my husband of that a lot...it applies to everything in life.) But if others judge you, it doesn't matter. It can hurt, sure, but only as much as you "let" it--otherwise, their judgments and opinions don't matter one damn bit, they don't affect you at all. Just remember that. And remember that your worth lies somewhere else, not on the surface. (In other words, "Screw them.") If you feel confident and worthwhile, you will appear confident and worthwhile, no matter your size.
I know, it's all a ton easier said than done, but I've been working on DOING that most of my adolescent and adult life. You can do it. And if the people you know and call your friends hurt your efforts in that matter, consider whether they are truly your friends.
I definitely know the problems with changing your diet when you're poor. Based on income alone, we're not poor, but we have a lot of debt from my youthful spending days and other consequences of life, so the only income we can really "play with" is our grocery allotment each week. The absolute MAIN thing in food budgeting is MEAL PLANNING. We plan our meals and create our grocery list at the same time. When we don't stick to the meal plan is when we have problems feeling full and staying full and wasting food. (It takes a lot of practice, knowing what to make, how much of it to make, to make sure you're getting all your nutrition without eating too much or buying so much food that it goes to waste. It took a few weeks to get it hammered out, to know what would work well for us and what wouldn't.)
The first key thing, if you can manage it, is to try to avoid processed foods. Normally, people say this and mean that you should get only fresh foods, not prepackaged foods, but that's not always practical, given how fast "fresh" food can go bad and how expensive it can be if it's out of season. So you can get packaged foods--frozen fruits and vegetables are perfect, because they are often picked at the height of freshness and flash frozen, so they often have better nutrition than the "fresh" stuff you can buy, which is often picked early and then loses nutrition the longer it sits around. But if you buy the frozen stuff, try as much as POSSIBLE to get the frozen ones that have nothing added--no sugar, no salt (often, this is the store brand, but still check the ingredients), no high fructose corn syrup, nothing. (Kroger has great cost and variety in their frozen vegetables, and they often run 10 for $10 sales. Compared to Target, Walmart, they have the best selection and cost…at least in our experience.)
Canned fruit and vegetables are next best for F&V. They're a little worse because they almost always have to have additional things added for preservation, but you can be careful. For fruits, try to get fruits that are in their own juices, not with sugar or high fructose corn syrup (or even artificial sweeteners) added. (There's evidence that the body, when you're trying to lose weight, treats artificial sweeteners the same as sugar, and that they can even be worse than sugar, causing other cravings that sugar wouldn't cause.) For canned veggies, try to get ones that have no salt added. Sure, these often suck in flavor if you eat them as they are, but add salt on your own. Table salt is different in flavor at this stage than the sodium and salt they add for preserving, and a little of it goes a long way, so it takes a lot less of the stuff you add to give flavor than the stuff they add for preserving. (When you buy salt, try getting sea salt--I think Morton now sells it for the same price as "traditional" salt. It's a little bit stronger in flavor than the other salt, so again, you have to use less of it for flavor.) And the less sodium you're taking in, the less water you're retaining, which means you're putting less pressure on your circulatory system (and the less weight you have--water weighs a LOT!).
Fruit juice is a good way to get fruit in a pinch and for variety and for long-term storage/keeping, but it's not so great because you don't get the fiber, which helps the feeling of fullness. Plus, you have to be careful of a couple of things--get only 100% juice, try to avoid from concentrate, as they nearly always add sweeteners of some sort. Juicy Juice is usually the cheapest but very sweet (they use super-sweet juices to add sweetness).
For health and/or weight loss--try to eat whole grains instead of processed flours. This means TRY to eat breads and pastas that are made with whole grains (or whole grain flour, if you can't afford the whole grain breads). If you can't do that, try to eat breads that don't have high fructose corn syrup or partially hydrogenated oil (that tip’s for health AND fertility). [To offset the costs (and to get used to the flavors), we sometimes bought one package of normal, cheap-ass pasta, and another package of whole-grain or spinach pasta, for example.] Try to eat brown rice or wild rice instead of cheap-ass white rice. I know both of these suggestions have cost elements involved, but eating whole grains (bread and rice) means you're eating more fiber, which helps you feel full much longer, which means you're eating less, which is good for your weight and for your bank account. [Because we're both at home, we make our own bread with whole-grain flour--the bag of flour seems very expensive, but when we do the math, it works out to costing about 30 cents for a loaf of bread, and the bag makes 10 or more loaves of bread. We found a book that makes making bread EXTREMELY easy, with very little work, no days and days of letting it rise, etc...Starting mixing everything to final baking takes about 4 hours (only about 20 minutes are actual work time). And we have bread for about a week.]
Other whole grains include steel-cut oats (Irish oatmeal) instead of rolled oats. Yup, they're expensive, but again, they take much less to make you feel full, you feel full longer, and there's less of an impact on your insulin levels, not nearly as much spiking.
Make sure you're eating GOOD fats, a handful or two of nuts, some olive oil, etc., as much as possible instead of butter or grease. Fats are good for you--they also help you feel full, especially if combined with whole grains. (If you don't eat a lot of dairy products but drink milk, get whole milk instead of lower-fat. The whole milk has fewer additives (including hormones, which affect women’s bodies especially, especially when it comes to fertility, more than the men's) and helps you feel full longer. If you eat dairy products, don't make them all low- or no-fat...for the same reason.)
Here's a really good point for eating cheaply and for your health: Try to cut back on your animal proteins and instead get your proteins by eating legumes (beans, lentils, peas, peanuts) or nuts paired with whole grains. Beans (legume) and cornbread (grain) give you a perfect protein at a lot lower fat and calorie intake than a slab of meat. (Peanut butter on whole-grain bread is good, but watch out for too much peanut butter, as it is high in fat. It’s “good” fat for the needs of your body, but too much fat is still too much fat for weight loss.) Plus, you'll feel full longer because of the fiber. We have a freezer full of beef and chicken and pork that my parents give us for Christmas and birthdays and such, and it takes us a year or more to go through it all because we try to eat meat only once a day or less...it just has so many calories yet doesn't keep you as full, plus it can seriously affect your hormone levels (women MUCH more than men), which affect and are affected by INSULIN and can affect your fertility. Dried beans take a long time to cook, obviously. We buy dried beans and lentils by the cartful [that aisle, with the dried rice, is the single one we get most of our food from, aside from produce when fresh stuff is in season]. Our crockpot is the most-used appliance in our house after my laptop, which is what I do my work on.
This is all stuff we've picked up from a variety of diets over the past few years, but much of the information is covered in the book The Fertility Diet. I tried to offer a short version here...we'll call it condensed rather than short, though... :)
I know it can be hard to find some of these things in some places, particularly in small towns, but we’ve discovered that sometimes the unlikeliest of places carry great food at decent prices. In this town, Walmart often has better-quality produce than Kroger…if it’s in season. If it’s out of season, our Kroger stores usually have higher-quality fresh produce, though it costs more. In other places we’ve lived, however, we’ve had to steer clear of anything fresh at Kroger. Really, it all depends on where you live. Become familiar with all the stores in your area, don’t get complacent and think that one is always the best.
We have at least 5 crockpot cookbooks and the bread cookbook I mentioned. They help a lot. When I bought these cookbooks (on Half.com, but I used the preview feature on Amazon.com to see the tables of contents), I tried to get ones that called for foods we would be likely to have around, so we don't have to buy a lot of special foods. I’m glad to share recipes, book titles, or any other tips. And I'll be happy to answer any questions. I know I have provided a lot of information here.
What I'm trying to do is follow an eating habit that will help me eat well for fertility and for weight loss. I'm losing about a pound every 1 to 2 weeks. Below is what I try to stick to. (Really hard to do if we don't make the meals ahead of time--we like to cook but have a lot of other things get in the way, like yardwork, so we make a lot of food at one time in the crockpot. This, we either package in single-serving containers or in larger containers but mark it with how many servings are in the container, so we know about how big a helping to get.) This plan for myself is based loosely on the Fertility Diet, the DASH Diet, and a calorie count of around 1400 per day (but I don't get caught up in counting my calories or anything else, other than what I note below). That may or may not work for you, depending on your personal nutritional needs. Whatever plan you come up with, it is best to talk it over with your doctor or dietitian. (And remember the appropriate serving sizes of each type of food.)
• Carbohydrates: 5 servings (I try to make sure that no more than one of these a day is potato or a processed carb like white rice or flour)
• Fruits: 3 servings (this includes fruit juices)
• Vegetables: 5 servings (MINIMUM--doesn't include corn or peas. I count corn as a carb and peas as either a carb or a legume, depending on the day)
• Dairy: 2 servings (1 whole-fat, 1 low- or no-fat)
• Protein: 4 servings (no more than 1 of red meat; the other three can be egg, poultry, fish, nuts, or legume--I try to make it one of egg/poultry/fish and two of nuts/legumes)
• Fats: 2 (because I'm limiting these, I don't pay too much attention to whether they're "good" or "bad," but I try to make them good. Fats include avocado, olive oil, vegetable oil, butter, mayonnaise, bacon (counts as a meat AND a fat, it's so good), salad dressing (I don't waste my time with reduced-fat or low-fat because they are usually so full of sugar or salt or high fructose corn syrup that they're far worse for you than the fat, plus they usually taste like crap. The full-fat ones usually take less to give more flavor and are more satisfying, anyway.), and probably some others I'm missing.
I try to drink at least 96 ounces of fluids (tea, coffee, or water) a day, though I've been failing miserably lately. Try to stay away from sodas as much as possible, even the diet ones. They're really hard for your body to process, plus there's the issue of the artificial sweeteners that I noted above. Drink one every now and then, though, it's no harm, if you like them.
Another cost-saving measure we take is to shop at Sam's about once every 1 or 2 months. Buying in bulk is helpful if you have the means to do it occasionally and if you have the storage for it. We stock up on things that we always use tons of, like tomato paste, tomato sauce, canned peas, canned corn, some frozen fruits and veggies. But this is feasible for us because we have a huge freezer in our garage, a small chest freezer in our dining room, a TON of cabinet space in our kitchen (so much that even though we've lived here almost two years, there are some drawers and cabinets still not used), a basement full of shelves, and a wholesale club not very far away.
All our storage space makes it easy to stock up on canned and frozen goods, and so we can preserve and store what we grow in our garden. My husband has become a gardening fanatic, and though a lot of our food goes to waste, we're getting better at growing a lot of it (learning our soil and air conditions) with as little effort as possible (in the hopes of him getting a job soon and me being busy with work) and preserving it (doing it right away instead of putting it off like we're inclined to do).