Nutrition on Any Budget…Sept. 23, 2015

By Ann Needle

Emerson Hospital Nutrition Intern Kristie Yeung uses a string of sugar packets to display just how much sugar goes into the Big Gulp drink normally in that cup.                                                                   Ann Needle
Emerson Hospital Nutrition Intern Kristie Yeung uses a string of sugar packets to display just how much sugar goes into the Big Gulp drink normally in that cup. Ann Needle

In today’s America, there is a lot of food out there that does not cost a lot. But, as Registered Dietician Lucy Hutchings pointed out, a good portion of it does not pack a nutritional punch—and that’s a problem for every shopper, especially those on a tight budget.

Speaking at Randall Library Thursday evening, Emerson Hospital’s Hutchings discussed just how to get the most nutrition out of a dollar. And, as she stressed throughout her presentation, “It’s not easy. It does take a little bit of effort, and perseverance.” This starts with what she termed an “eating philosophy, knowing what you feel is important to put in your body.”

Hutchings noted that, in the interest of nutrition, her philosophy is eating food as close to the original source. For instance, she pointed out that it is tough to identify the “source” of Goldfish crackers, vs. the origins of a piece of fruit.

With a philosophy in hand, Hutchings stressed that planning a menu for the next week or two is essential in controlling costs and eating healthy. This gives a shopper a road map for a grocery list, saving time and money by wiping out impulse buying. Planning ahead also allows for using up leftovers into other meals, such as a carcass from a roast chicken dinner making a terrific broth for a soup later in the week. She remarked, “Our culture has kind of lost that art of eating the rest of the animal.”

And yes, cooking from scratch is essential. “Convenience foods cost a lot of money,” Hutchings emphasized, and cannot often be re-cycled as leftovers.

Many people are aware that cheap, quick carbohydrates—from pasta to breads—are empty calories with too much sugar, and should be sidestepped regardless of any savings. But Hutchings also pointed out that sugar pops up in many seemingly health foods.

Looking at a box of Cheerios—considered a “healthy” cereal—Hutchings noted that sugar was the fourth ingredient on the nutrition label. (And, as with most brand-name cereals, Cheerios can cost upwards of $3 for 18 oz.)

Other sugar culprits may have even more of the substance than expected. Hutchings had several sizes of plastic “Big Gulp” cups on display, each stuffed with the number of teaspoon-size packets of sugar each contained when filled with its signature flavored drink. In short, she estimated the 45-oz. Big Gulp contains 34 teaspoons of sugar.

While many people already avoid these drinks, Hutchings cautioned that commercial sodas and juices are not much better, and don’t come cheap. Another example Hutchings offered: A V8 V-Fusion, which carries 11 teaspoons of sugar in its 12 oz.

A New Look at Old Wisdom
Hutchings noted that some of what she is suggesting may seem radical compared with how today’s adults were raised.

On the subject of drinks: “When parents ask me what beverage to buy for their kids, I say nothing—drink water. That’s all they need. And you don’t need fancy bottled water.” Hutchings maintained even milk isn’t necessary for children or adults, given diners can actually get more calcium from some vegetables.

She pointed out that some Asian countries where drinking milk is unknown actually have some of the lowest levels of osteoporosis in the world, while the US has one of the highest. For milk lovers whole milk is preferable over low-fat, which carries more carbs, she said.

One dairy staple bargain shoppers and others should invite back into the refrigerator is eggs, even though the price has gone up a bit lately. “That’s still 33-cents an egg on a $4 carton,” Hutchings observed, a deal packed with protein. And, for those dreaming of the days when Mom cooked eggs in bacon fat, Hutchings advised diners not to hold back.

While too much fat is never a good idea, she said, “There is a difference between good fats and bad fats, and bacon fat can be very filling.”

But vegetables and fruits still are the center of a nutritious meal. As for cost, “You can buy a lot of produce for a very small amount of money. A $4 box of cereal doesn’t give the same bang for the buck as $4 worth of broccoli.” A note on sugar here: Hutchings commented that fruit, while tasty and nutritious, should take a back seat to vegetables. Consider that carrots, sometimes viewed as sugary, “still have a lot less sugar than some fruits.”

Canned and frozen vegetables are fine and usually reasonably priced, but Hutchings urged shoppers to compare the cost to the fresh versions, which may be even cheaper, especially in season. And, farmers’ markets and farm stands often have lower prices on fresher produce than the local grocery store’s organics section. Naturally, growing vegetables and herbs, when possible, can be one of the best dollar-stretchers, she added.

Other tips Hutchings offered for the nutrition-minded bargain shopper included choosing dried beans over canned (they just need to be soaked in plain water); vinegars and citrus fruits can add quick flavor for little money; and nut butters, tofu, lentils, and quinoa can be very versatile, low-cost, high-protein sources.

And, for almost-endless ideas for how to put it together, Hutchings reminded her audience that the Internet (if they are already hooked up) may be one of the cheapest resources.