Eat great, lose weight, and save at the supermarket.
Along with exercise, a healthy diet is at the core of heart health. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and heart-smart oils are at the heart of a healthy plant-based diet that cuts out or limits animal foods like meat and dairy.
Options for a plant-based diet run from a more restrictive vegetarian diet to the Mediterranean diet that's centered on those basics but adds in some lean protein. A common perception that keeps some people from trying these healthy food ideas is that these are expensive diet options.
If you're hesitating because you’re afraid that the Mediterranean diet cost or vegetarian diet cost will eat away at your pocketbook, there's good news. A recent study conducted by the Miriam Hospital found that following a healthy diet doesn’t have to be pricey — it can give your wallet a rest and have additional health benefits like weight loss.
The study, led by Mary Flynn, PhD, RD, LDN, a research dietitian at Miriam and a professor at Brown University in Providence, R.I., involved a six-week cooking program at the Rhode Island Community Food Bank. Participants learned healthy vegetarian recipes that were both economical — averaging $1.10 a serving — and that closely followed the Mediterranean diet.
Researchers found that the participants did, indeed, lower grocery bills, but there were a few other surprising results. To follow the recipes, participants bought less meat, carbonated beverages, desserts, and snacks at the grocery store. They also lost weight and decreased their body mass index (BMI).
“They changed their buying behavior,” said Dr. Flynn. “The study had these incredible spin-offs that we never expected.”
Healthy Food Ideas, Fewer Food ExpensesAlthough some people have the perception that healthy eating expenses can be high, Flynn said the study results show that doesn’t have to be the case, especially if you focus on vegetarian meals.
Here are takeaways from the study that you can try at home to eat great, save money, and improve your health:
Start small. Flynn encouraged clients to eat plant-based meals even just three days a week. “That’s manageable,” she said. Plus, it can make a transition from a meat-heavy diet less of a shock.
Use extra virgin olive oil. One key component of the study was the use of extra virgin olive oil, which is not only heart-healthy, but also tastes great and, as a fat, fills you up. “The kids in the study were eating spinach, peppers, and other vegetables all because they were cooked in olive oil,” Flynn said.
Buy frozen or canned produce. You can often find frozen produce on sale, and frozen produce has the same vitamin content as fresh, she explained. Plus, frozen produce won’t go bad like fresh produce will, she added. You can also buy canned produce, including tomatoes, peas, corn, green beans, and fruit to eat healthy and keep costs down. Flynn especially liked serving canned fruit in its own juice to kids. If canned fruit in high calorie syrup is your only alternative, drain and rinse the fruit well, she suggested.
Buy "refurbished," recommended Marjorie Nolan Cohn, MS, RD, CDN, a New York-based nutritionist and Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesperson. We’re not talking furniture; Cohn is referring to ripe fruits and veggies supermarkets often put on sale. While they will go bad in a day or two, they’re cheap and perfectly healthy if you use them right away, she said.
Make it a priority to get at least five servings a day of vegetables and fruit. Healthy eating expenses may be higher if you choose organic produce. However, even if you can't afford pesticide-free varieties, eating a large number of non-organic choices is still good for optimal health, said Cohn. Always wash them thoroughly before eating.
Consider low-cost proteins. Beans are extremely inexpensive, said Ruth Frechman, MA, RDN, CPT, a Burbank, Calif., nutritionist and Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesperson. Although the Miriam study focused on vegetarian meals, Frechman pointed out that tuna, a great protein source full of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, is also affordable; eggs and yogurt are other healthy sources of protein.