Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Healthiest Staple Foods on a Budget

The trouble with eating healthy is that it costs more than eating shitty, and is less convenient. Bottom line, you need to eat enough calories to keep you going, and we want to avoid getting those calories from unhealthy sources. As far as convenience, many of these foods lend themselves well to large-batch prep; make several pounds of stew at a time and reheat as necessary.

This list is focused on foods that pack a caloric punch and deliver good nutrition without emptying your wallet. If you pick the right foods, you can eat healthy on a budget. Forget the "healthy whole grains" and low-fat bullshit. This is real nutrition, what we are adapted to genetically. Fat is good, as long as it isn't vegetable oil.

Prices used are estimates based on my personal experience in Michigan, shopping at Meijer or similar stores and going for the cheapest reasonable quality option.

1. Ground Beef (75-80% lean)
Calories per Dollar: 350
This is a healthy, satisfying way to get your protein and fats. Ground beef is a very versatile food - my current favorite thing to do with it is chili, just cook the beef, add some canned tomatoes, tabasco, and spices, and finish it off by adding cooked bacon or smoked cheddar. Or Google around for more recipes. Don't be afraid of fat here, you're getting more healthy calories if you don't buy extra-lean.

2. Chuckeye Roast
Cal/$: 275
One of the cheapest beef roasts available, this fatty roast is one of your best buys in the meat section. Throw it in a slow-cooker or pressure cooker by itself, or in red wine with some carrots and potatoes for a kickass stew. The broth is something you have to experience.

3. Canned Sardines, Herring, or Mackerel
Cal/$: 75
Canned sardines are an extremely healthy food, since they provide the omega-3s that are lacking in the modern diet. Herring also provides omega-3s, and has a milder flavor. Both are also very nutrient-rich. Very portable, they make a good snack for on the go. At home, try them on a bowl of white rice with vegetables. These fish have very low levels of contaminants, as they are low on the food chain. Avoid ones packed in soybean oil.

4. Eggs
Cal/$: 325 for pastured, 500+ for factory farm
When you think of a traditional breakfast, you probably think of a big plate of eggs fried in butter, with some bacon or hash browns on the side. For good reason! Eggs are an excellent and economical food to start your day with. Pastured eggs are better, and still cheap enough per calorie to eat regularly. They offer a better fat balance and more vitamins, so I highly recommend them. Either way, eat the yolks.

5. Milk
Cal/$: 400 for grass-fed, 750 for factory farm
Nature's ultimate food for getting bigger. If you want to pack on muscle, the combination of milk and squats is legendary for a reason. Even if you just want to eat well, whole milk is a delicious way to get some healthy calories. Don't be afraid of the fat, it's good for you regardless of your weight goals. Some people are intolerant, so don't drink it if it gives you trouble. I recommend grass-fed for the same reasons I recommend pastured eggs, plus the fact that it's fucking delicious.

6. Butter
Cal/$: 400 for grass-fed, 750 for factory farm
Milk fat is an excellent source of calories and flavor. If grass-fed, it also delivers a bunch of vitamins (look up K2, it's huge) and healthy trans fats called CLAs that may help burn fat and prevent cancer. Fat is also necessary to properly absorb and process both omega-3 fats and nutrients from plants. So, believe it or not, it is healthier to sautee that broccoli in butter than to steam it. Take that, prudent diet!

7. Sweet Potatoes
Cal/$: 375
Nutrient-dense, cheap, and easy to prepare. Just poke it with a fork, stick it in the microwave for 5 minutes, and enjoy. Or make fries!

8. Potatoes
Cal/$: 375-1000+ if you buy those big bags
Good for many of the same reasons that sweet potatoes are. Mash em, bake em and add sour cream, make hash browns, fry them in butter...their uses are endless. Some people are irritated by the skin, so peel it if it bothers you.

9. White rice
Cal/$: Infinity
White rice is a fine and extremely cheap source of starch. I don't recommend most grains because they have a variety of problematic compounds and toxins, but white rice is pretty clean. Eat it to refuel your glycogen after working out, or just to fill out your dinner. Just don't make it your only food source, because it is nutrient poor. If you're trying to lose weight or are (pre)diabetic, you should limit carbs in general.

10. Almonds
Cal/$: 400-450
Almonds are the best of the nuts, with the possible exception of macadamias. They are a rich source of calories and certain vitamins like E, and are mighty tasty. I recommend soaking them in water for a few hours and then heat-drying them, as this reduces the anti-nutrients present. Blanching them also works. Almonds are somewhat high in omega-6 fats, so it's best not to overdo them. For a complete listing of nuts and oils, see this table - you ideally want to keep omega-6 fats below 4% of total calories.

11. Spinach and other dark greens
Cal/$: 40
OK, you're not choosing this one for calories, but spinach is a great source of all sorts of vitamins and minerals. Cook some bacon, add cream to that pan, and then wilt some spinach in a little butter and mix it all up. Alternatively, wilt the spinach and add in some cheese. Tons you can do with spinach.

12. Coconut Milk
Cal/$: 325
This is a great alternative to heavy cream. Try looking up a "cream of" soup and using this. It also makes a decent snack straight out of the can. When I'm lying in bed and I get hungry but don't want to make anything, I just have a couple spoonfuls of coconut milk. Other forms of coconut are similarly healthy and nutritious.

13. Organ meats
Cal/$: varies
These are extremely overlooked nowadays, but are excellent sources of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). Almost all vitamins are better absorbed by our bodies when consuming them from animals than from plants. A few ounces of calves' liver a week is better than a multivitamin. Marrow is also very nutritious.

14. Wild Salmon
Cal/$: 100
Salmon is pricier than beef, but it's worth spending a little extra on it every once in a while. Salmon is one of the best fish to eat for many reasons. It is extremely rich in omega-3 fats, it is relatively free of mercury and other contaminants, and it is sustainably harvestable and not dying out like the tuna are. Check your area to see if you're lucky enough to have sashimi-grade on sale, it's worth it.

15. Avocadoes
Cal/$: 125
Avocadoes are one of the best sources of healthy plant fats. They make an excellent addition to salads, are a great base for dips/sauces (guacamole), and are a good snack plain. Try pairing this with salmon.

16. Chicken, Turkey, and Pork
Cal/$: 250
I include these together because they are suboptimal meats when raised in factory farms. They develop excesses of omega-6 fats from all the grain and soy they eat, which translates to a less healthy meat. Beef is mostly immune to this. Still, they are cheap and deliver a complete set of proteins. If pastured, these are healthier but more expensive.

Honorable Mention: Bananas. Very cheap and decent nutritionally, but have sort of a lot of fructose so I don't recommend them as a staple food. There's also some shady business going on with their production in many cases.

Bonus coffeeshop recommendation: Breve lattes. These are made with half-and-half and are as filling as a small meal. Super creamy and delicious.

Bonus sweetener recommendation: (brown) rice syrup. It doesn't contain fructose so it is much healthier for you than table sugar or HFCS. Agave nectar is the worst.

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