On Giants' Shoulders

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Banting on a Budget

So what's banting you ask. Well it's the term that Agatha Christie mysteries always used for someone who was dieting. I think there was a doctor named Banting who came up with some diet scheme or other, so in the twenties, the English dieters were Banting rather than doing Atkins or South Beach or Jenny Craig, or Weight Watchers. Somehow Banting on a Budget seemed like a better title than dieting on a budget, if only because it might make someone stop and read the post.

I've been bothered lately by something I read in the paper the other day. The writer stated that some government official when questioned about America's overweight problem said that people know what to do to lose weight, they are just choosing not to do it. This morning, on the WW's board someone complained about a 1.6 pound weight gain this past week, but said that she was on a rather tight budget and couldn't afford the "right" foods. It's not the first time I've seen that sort of comment, and it made me think about what was said in the paper.

First of all I don't think the government official was right. I don't think that everyone does know how to lose weight or even what a healthy diet looks like. If you look at the high emphasis in the media on being slim and the number of people who are really very fat, there seems to be a disconnect. Do all of those fat people like being fat? I doubt that. Is it simply because of super size portions in restaurants? Well, I do think there's some correlation, but some fat people would have a very difficult time affording restaurant meals (other than fast food ones). I think that what the people on the WW board were saying bears some looking at.

First of all the recommendations seem to always have people eating chicken breasts and fish, but there have also been studies warning us away from tuna. I don't know about your neck of the woods, but chicken breasts anywhere I've priced them (even bone in, skin on) are way more expensive than chicken thighs. Fresh fish, and even frozen, other than fish sticks, is also pretty pricey. When you look at the WW's recipes, you often find ingredients like arugala,shrimp, sun dried tomatoes, pork tenderloin, or goat cheese. Now those are all very tasty ingredients, but they aren't cheap. WW's and other companies also market low calorie baked goods, frozen meals, and treats all of which are more expensive than the more generic brands of higher calorie foods.

I suspect that a lot of people on a budget are eating things like boxed macaroni and cheese, bologna, and white flour and sugar based products (like cookies) because those things are far cheaper than chicken breasts and goat cheese. Of course the cycle continues because you come to prefer the things you ate as a child (comfort food). This is why the foods I struggle with are things like filled cookies, or potatoes with milk gravy, while other people struggle with wanting to eat things like Lucky Charms or gravy fries.

There has been a move away from old fashioned home economics classes in our state. They now have something called family life education which seems to be mostly sociological where home ec was largely hands on. A lot of girls learned skills in high school home ec that they didn't learn at home. They also learned nutritional information that wasn't quite what the government is now handing out. Even where cooking is being taught there now seems to be more of an emphasis on using box mixes than learning to cook from whole ingredients. Where's Alton Brown when you need him!
I think this is a misguided policy. I think we should in this case turn back the clock and teach our kids a bit about some survival skills (like how to make soup or bake bread).

As a result of all of this lower income shoppers gravitate towards the wrong foods in part because they can't afford, or don't know how to cook, the right ones. Even people savy enough (and with enough money) to afford to do Weight Watchers struggle to come up with economical menus.

In fact, it doeesn't have to be as hard as we make it. Carrots, cabbages, apples, potatoes, onions,oatmeal, and celery are all fairly affordable. Chicken drumsticks are generally cheaper than hamburg. Water from the tap is cheaper than diet soda so is unsweetened tea (and it's even good for you!). Frozen and canned vegetables are not expensive, nor are canned or dried beans. Making soup from fresh, or frozen, or canned ingredients (or some combination thereof) is actually pretty easy and pretty cheap. Even cutting down the calorie count of desserts, by halving the sugar and replacing the oil or butter with applesauce is not difficult. Yes, it takes more time to make soup than to throw together a box of mac n cheese. However, the pot of soup will probably be served for more than one meal. Yes, it's easier to buy Weight Watcher's carrot cake than to figure out how to make your own for similar calories and your own will take time, but the cost will be less. Sometimes we are our own worst enemies. We keep food in the house (granted it's probably cheap food such as generic cookies) that is then there for stress eating. We could as easily choose to buy reduced calorie bread at the discount bread store and if we must stress eat, eat a slice of that with a teaspoon of jam for less calories than the cookies. You can even make yourself a cup of homemade cocoa for less than the "cost" of the cookies caloriewise.

From a societal standpoint the fact is that highly processed foods with lots of white flour, white sugar, and or transfats are cheaper to produce. They also don't keep you feeling full for very long, consequently people end up eating more of them. If you look at convenience foods in general what you discover is that they tend to be very high in calories, while not necessarily being high in overall nutritional value. There's a good reason why healthy guidelines recommend that you stick to the edges of the store (meat, produce, dairy) and steer clear of the middle aisles, but the middle aisles are where you find canned fruits and vegetables, dried and canned beans, pasta, canned fish, and healthy oils. The problem is that to get to those you have to run the gauntlet of cookies, potato chips, hamburger helper, and boxed mac n cheese. The unhealthy foods get a whole lot more advertising on television as well. How often do you see someone advertising carrots, or cabbage? Compare that to how often you seem them advertising frozen pizza or mac n cheese.

I believe that it's a myth that you can't lose weight on a budget. I'm trying to demonstrate that you can. I think it's a myth that you need to use sugar free sodas and desserts. I don't use nutra sweet or splenda, or any of the other artificial sweeteners. I don't use them largely because I can't stand the taste, but I also don't think their safety has been proven and because the products containing them are often just too expensive. I'm also trying to prove that you can lose weight without making the rest of your family eat stuff they think is not too palatable. Oh, I've tried a couple of trick things (like making brownies with black beans instead of oil), but for the most part all I've done is take my old recipes and cut back on the fat and sugar. Then I've figured out the "points" value per serving and eaten accordingly. Some days the serving size is relatively small, and I do seem to be eating a lot more apples, green beans, and such than I used to.

I'm not going to deny that it's more convenient and easier if you can just pick up a bunch of frozen meals and combine that with cold cereal, and sugar free treats. I don't deny that if you have a gourmet palate that the arugala salad and goat cheese aren't tempting. I just think that it's certainly possible to lose weight while eating low cost healthy foods. It probably takes a little more planning at the supermarket, and a little more preparation at home, but you don't have to break the bank while banting.


At 6:36 PM, Blogger brrrtquacker said...

Very cool points you make. Of course, flour and potatoes are prevalent because they are so cheap for the number of calories they produce--argh. My anthropology professor believes that people should eat more like hunters and gatherers, since that's our heritage. That means a lot of vegetables, fruits and nuts, some meat, and little grain, combined with a lot of walking every day.


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