Trying to eat well, but feeling overwhelmed? With supermarket health-food aisles (and prices!) expanding, it’s easy to overspend in the name of nutrition — or just throw up your hands in frustration.
Understanding which so-called “healthy foods” are actually worth buying, though, makes grocery shopping and eating well much easier.
“Healthy food doesn't mean it has to be expensive food,” said Brittany Kingry, a registered dietitian at CoreLife Novant Health - Ballantyne. “You can have an overall healthy diet while still staying within your monthly budget.”
Kingry enjoys helping patients learn to eat as nutritiously as possible, given their individual budgets and lifestyles. Here, she offers some of her top tips to help you avoid spending needlessly on foods touted as “healthy.”
“I’m not a huge proponent of organic anything,” Kingry said.
The term “organic” describes produce, grains, dairy and meat that have been grown and processed according to certain guidelines. For example, organic farmers may not use synthetic fertilizer or treat livestock with antibiotics or growth hormones.
While organic foods have become more popular and available, researchers are still trying to determine if they are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods. What is certain is that organic foods are much more expensive.
“It’s a personal choice, but I’d far rather people focus on eating healthy foods — including less expensive canned or frozen fruits and veggies — than worry over whether they’re organic,” Kingry said.
And Kingry cautions us to not be fooled by foods that present the illusion of being healthy even though they have no nutritional advantages over other packaged foods.
Veggie puffs, rice crackers and other ‘healthy’ chip substitutes
They may sound more healthful than potato chips, but these foods typically contain additives, oils and a distinct lack of nutrients. Plus, they’re usually high in calories and lack the filling fiber found in whole grains, fruits and veggies.
For smarter, budget-friendly snacks, choose a protein paired with a carbohydrate. For example, try vegetable sticks with hummus or homemade trail mix with nuts, seeds and dried fruit.
Sweet tooth? Try strawberries dipped in a little chocolate syrup, a handful of frozen grapes or whip up a batch of Apple Nachos (recipe below). “They’re easy to make, look pretty, and kids really love helping to make them.”
Cold pressed juices and bottled smoothies
Fans of cold-pressed juices claim they’re fresher and contain more nutrition. But there’s little evidence to support their claims. And, no matter how they’re created, all juices lack the health-boosting fiber found in fresh produce.
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“Fiber slows down the digestion of glucose and fructose in your body,” Kingry said. “And that helps prevent a big sugar rush — followed by a crash — which can really affect your blood glucose levels.”
As for pre-made grocery store “smoothies,” most are made with sweetened juices to add more flavor. Unfortunately, this also means they contain a lot more calories and sugar than homemade smoothies.
Despite the craze for all things gluten-free, it’s not necessary to avoid gluten unless recommended by your provider. And, if you do need to avoid gluten, it’s more affordable to choose whole, not processed, foods.
Most gluten-free snacks, bakery products and other products found in supermarkets deliver lower levels of important nutrients, while containing the same high sodium, sugar, fats, preservatives and other additives found in other processed foods. Plus, they’re expensive.
Protein bars, drinks and shakes
Kingry sometimes recommends these products to athletes trying to build muscle, or for people who find it difficult to eat in the morning.
“But, protein bars and ‘shakes’ don’t keep you full, and most contain a lot of sugar,” Kingry said. “I would much rather people get their protein from real foods.”
To save money and eliminate unwanted additives, try making your own protein-rich breakfast bars at home. (See recipe below.)
Bottled waters promising special health benefits
Energy waters, pH balanced waters, vitamin waters — all promise better health, but there’s little evidence proving their benefits.
“You can’t drink anything healthier than water. Just pure water,” Kingry said. “By staying hydrated, you’ll feel better and more energized, but there’s no need to spend a ton of money on specialty bottled versions.”
Fancy single-serving oatmeal cups
Inexpensive — and loaded with fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants — warming, filling oatmeal may be the perfect breakfast food.
While clever marketing has made ‘healthy’ instant oatmeal cups both popular and widely available, these products are often high in sugar and cost a bundle. Fortunately, it’s possible to create your own uniquely flavored, grab-and-go oats at home.
A quick internet search for “overnight oats,” which can be eaten cold or warmed in the microwave, will lead you to a nearly endless variety of recipes you can tailor to your own taste.
‘Healthy’ or ‘lean’ frozen meals
Frozen meals are a tempting, quick solution when time, money and energy are at a premium. Like all processed foods, though, frozen meals labeled ‘natural,’ ‘healthy’ or ‘organic’ can contain high levels of sodium, fats and additives like MSG (monosodium glutamate, which can cause adverse reactions in some people).
“Not all processed foods are bad for you, but even the healthiest ones cost more than food you prepare yourself, and their portions are almost always too small to satisfy you,” Kingry said. “A better option is to plan and freeze meals in advance, so you can just reheat them in the microwave.”
Sugar and salt: How much is too much?
Finding a balance between cost and nutrition can feel confusing. You hear about foods like cereals and frozen dinners that contain high amounts of sugar and sodium. But, how much is too much?
For sugar, Kingry recommends a daily intake of no more than 25 grams of added sugars for women, and 36 grams for men. Added sugars are not the same as naturally occurring sugars in foods like produce and dairy products.
Instead, these sweeteners and syrups are added to processed foods — especially desserts, baked goods and soft drinks — to improve their flavor. But they also add calories without the other nutrients found in whole foods, such as fiber and antioxidants.
Because added sugars are also common in breakfast foods, Kingry suggests looking for granola and protein bars that contain less than 7 grams of added sugar, and yogurt with 10 grams or less. When shopping for cereals, read labels to find those with 5% or less of the “Daily Value” of added sugars, and add berries or a sliced banana for sweetness.
While sodium is necessary to our bodies, most of us eat too much salt. This can contribute to high blood pressure, which puts you at risk for heart disease and stroke. Kingry recommends limiting your sodium intake to less than 2,300 milligrams per day.
When shopping for frozen meals, look for options with less than 600 mg of sodium. Buying canned beans and vegetables? Look for options labeled “no salt added” (and rinse them well to remove any residual salt remaining from the canning process).
Brittany’s Apple Nachos
- 1 Fuji apple (or slicing apple of your choice)
- 1/4 cup smooth peanut butter
- 1/4 cup unmelted mini semi-sweet chocolate chips
- Using an apple slicer or knife, slice apple into 32 thin pieces, and arrange on a plate.
- Melt peanut butter in microwave and drizzle over apple slices with a spoon.
- Top with mini chocolate chips, and serve immediately.
Nutrition Facts (makes 4 servings): 194 calories; 12.2 grams fat (4.2 grams saturated); 3 milligrams sodium; 20.9 grams total carbohydrate (3.3 grams dietary fiber; 15.3 grams total sugars); 4.2 grams protein.
Salted Oat, PB & Banana Breakfast Cookies
- 2 very ripe bananas, peeled
- 1 cup plain old-fashioned oats (NOT quick oats, instant or steel cut)
- 1/4 cup all-natural (no added sugar) peanut butter crunchy or creamy
- 1/4 cup raisins
- 1/4 teaspoon real vanilla extract
- 1/4 - 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, to taste
- 1/8 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon coarse salt for sprinkling
- Cooking spray
- Preheat oven to 350.
- Lightly and evenly coat baking sheet with oil or cooking spray. In a large mixing bowl, mash bananas with potato masher.
- Mix in peanut butter (you may want to microwave the PB in 15-second increments to soften it first). Add the oats, cinnamon, vanilla and 1/8 teaspoon salt. Mix thoroughly.
- Place heaping tablespoons of mixture on cookie sheet to form 12 cookies. Flatten with back of tablespoon (about 1/2-1/4 inch thickness). Bake at 350 for 15 minutes or until golden brown with slightly darker edges.
- Remove from oven and allow to rest while you sprinkle with a few grains of coarse salt on each cookie, then remove to a plate using a spatula. Store up to 3 days in a sealed container.