Even during tough economic times, most Americans are still lucky enough to be able to put healthy food on the table for themselves and their families without too much worry. But thanks to our country’s recent economic woes, on top of rising food prices, this number of “lucky” Americans has been dwindling over the past few years.
By some estimates, 15 percent of American households experienced “food insecurity” in 2008, 2009, and 2010. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, food insecurity is “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods, or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.”
The most recent rates of food insecurity mark the highest levels since monitoring began in 1995. And bad eating habits, poor food choices, and suboptimal nutrient intake often result during times of high food insecurity.
In one study, researchers scrutinized the food decisions made by 67 adults in the Boston area. This group included food-insecure as well as food-secure people, but everyone was considered relatively low income, especially for living in a city with a high cost of living.
When participants were asked to rank a number of factors based on their importance in making shopping decisions, researchers found few differences between the two groups. For instance, both groups ranked sales, bargains, and coupons; food availability; food acceptability; and convenience as the most important aspects that influence their decisions.
Both groups also ranked health-related factors high on their list. However, while health and nutrition of food choices were deemed important, researchers found that food choices were more strongly influenced by cost or family preferences.
The overall aim of this study was to explore how food insecurity might relate to obesity. In their sample of participants, 4 out of 5 individuals from food-insecure households were overweight or obese, compared to 3 out of 5 individuals from food-secure households.
How to Eat Healthy for Cheap
Food insecurity is a serious problem in America that can lead to unhealthy food choices, as well as obesity and its related effects like diabetes and heart disease. Unfortunately, in today’s volatile economy, anyone could go from being food-secure on a Monday to food-insecure by Friday, without warning.
But no matter what your financial status, it is possible to make healthy food choices without breaking the bank, without sacrificing quality, and without spending more time preparing meals in the kitchen.
Here are some tips on buying nutritious foods on the cheap:
1. Buy whole foods in bulk. Most health food stores or co-ops allow you to buy grains like brown rice, oats, buckwheat, quinoa and millet, and various beans, nuts and lentils, in bulk.
Not only are these foods easy to cook with, they also happen to be extremely nutritious and last a long time if stored in airtight containers or in the freezer. When you buy in bulk, you are not paying for a manufacturer to package and advertise the product, so the savings can be substantial.
2. Shop the periphery of the store. The healthiest foods tend to be on the outside aisles of grocery stores (produce, seafood, meats, dairy and frozen vegetables), while the more expensive and less healthy processed foods tend to be in the middle.
3. Buy in-season produce, preferably from a local farmers’ market. It costs a lot of money to store and transport produce across the country or from another country. And that cost gets passed on to you, the consumer.
Not to mention, eating local foods is healthier because fruits and vegetables start losing nutrients the second they are picked off a tree or plucked from the ground. So the fewer miles produce has to travel before it gets onto your plate, the more nutritious it will be.
4. Buy frozen. If the produce you want is not available locally, buy it frozen — and preferably organic. When produce is flash-frozen prior to packaging, the nutrients are locked in, so usually frozen is just as nutritious as fresh — and oftentimes cheaper too.
5. Avoid pre-packaged, pre-sliced or shredded anything. You are paying extra for someone else to do these things for you. Instead, buy larger blocks of cheese for significantly less than the pre-sliced or shredded varieties, and slice or shred yourself. Same thing with yogurt. Instead of buying smaller flavored/sweetened varieties, buy plain yogurt in the larger 32-oz. container and scoop out what you want to eat. Adding fresh fruit, granola, honey or nuts gives you extra flavor, without the sugar or artificial sweeteners of other commercial yogurts.
6. Start your own garden. Nothing is less expensive than cultivating your own produce. And nothing tastes as good as a fresh cucumber or tomato picked off the vine. If you can’t or don’t want to grow a full-fledged garden, then at least try growing some of your favorite spices in pots. It’s simple to do, and many spices freeze very well.
 Walker RE and Kawachi I. Use of concept mapping to explore the influence of food security on food buying practices. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2012;112(5):711–717.