Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Health at what cost?

Red peppers are sometimes $4 a pound and I wonder if I get a plot of land on a Chilean farm with that. The third world labor that picked the peppers gets paid less money seasonally and now I'm being asked to pay someones yearly income to garnish a salad. In my own American sort of way, I too am laborer class so I pass on the pricey peck of pretty peppers and console myself on the way out with a stop at Starbucks. The Americano was $2.68 or in more relevant terms, the cost of more than half a pound of peppers. I'm not sure how that worked in my head, but it's clear I blew my savings and exploited some other countries labor force. It's a thought that barely pokes through my happy caffeination and I'm sure my evil ways would sadden me more if I wasn't pleasantly buzzed.

Clearly not a math major, my shopping cart veers of course from a grey matter brown out at the sheer wattage demand of every word problem. 'If the train leaves Chili at 4:23pm with 6 tons of peppers and you're making a salad . . . . ' Shudder. There's unit price, serving size and budget to consider along with satiety, nutrient density and macronutrient composition. And do we even mention movements towards local produce and the benefits - politically and nutritionally - of getting to know your food in a neighborly sort of way? It's no wonder people pass on the peppers - eating healthy feels expensive well before you even get through the complicated logarithms and the time invested in researching your sources. But in my mind, peppers felt expensive but the coffee didn't. So what's in a word problem?

The Big Picture

If you're going to get all cerebral about it, the cost of good organic food could be considered life and/or lifestyle insurance of sorts. With no Aflac-ing duck to quack about it, good food keeps you healthy so if you want to count the savings in OTC cold meds, trips to the doctor (subsequent convalescent video rentals) and vitamins and supplements to prop up your artificial diet you may already be seeing a savings.

Also, on a superficial level, skin care products, expensive shampoos, dermatology visits, weight loss products . . . . squawking about pepper prices suddenly seems a bit feeble in comparison to how quickly cheaper food could outflank your wallet on every budgetary front.

When my nutrition takes a nosedive, I have a charming case of dermatitis as well as Rosacea to content with. I'm assuming the dermatologist has a costly prescription for that. And, since Rosacea is caused by the same bacteria as stomach ulcers, bring on the designer probiotics! That should set me back nicely. Few doctors would chase me out of the office yelling, "stop eating wheat, dumbass!" I save myself the co-pay and yell it at myself.

Budgetary Shifts

A long time ago I shifted my 'Entertainment Budget' and invested the money in regular meals. Think about the wisdom of eating marginal food all week and splurging on a meal or two in a restaurant over the weekend. Instead I just sit alone at home on a Friday night and bask in my nutritional superiority - it's a hoot. No, silly, I go out with friends and elect not to chew in sync with them - a practice that feels weird when I make it weird or when I'm with weird friends who can't relate to someone who isn't chewing.

I actually started doing that because I was intermittent fasting, which I still do, but it served the greater purpose of saving money on meals out. I would often steer friends away from mutual chewing anyway because I would end up paying money to make nutritional compromises I wasn't crazy about making. But in the evening, when it's time for them to eat, there's not much I can do about the lure of dining out other than tag along. Seriously, nobody cares and occasionally I indulge but it's with far less frequency than most of my friends.

On Friday night I went out with a bunch of gym pals to a favorite Indian restaurant and when I didn't order, Clarence looked at Harlan and said, "Why doesn't Heather ever eat when we go out." Harlan waived him off with a, "It's some sort of fasting thing." That's the extent of the average ruckus my choices create. Curious for a moment but not weird - I'm weird for so many more interesting reasons.

Some Assembly Required

If you're going to eat better food on the cheap, you'll so have to sous chef. Get over any dicey slicing phobias, because Cascadian Farms and Amy's Organic is a lousy investment. Your sweat equity is way cheaper so commence to mincing. Plus industrial organic is only marginally more nutritious than conventionally grown so your money doesn't buy much more than convenience and certainly not flavor. It also adds to the slippery slope of 'Organic' food suppliers getting sloppier and sloppier about quality guidelines to meet demand. Be a savvy consumer and if you're going to pay extra money, put it where it has an impact.

Satiety is Your Financial Friend

Four slices of pizza - 1,088 total calories - go down easy especially if you grease the works with several pints of Guinness Extra Stout (238 calories in a pint). The same cannot be said for the caloric equivalent of 155 cups of spinach which I wouldn't attempt even on a dare and regardless of whether my judgement was impaired by several pints of Guinness. Even the 23 oz of chicken breast wouldn't fly.

If you're eating clean food, you will eat less in total calories and volume unless of course your jaw is an ultramarathon competitor and you have the tenacity to work your way through buckets of salad on a whim. Somethings gotta give and it will be the time investment, the lack of interest or the capacity that cuts your meal short. Without the 'must eat more' mindset that comes with a craving, the desire to snack, nosh and nibble subsides leaving you with three squares of reasonably sized and reasonable priced meals.

Your eyes are only bigger than your stomach when they're clouded by sugar and the hallucinatory insulin spike which makes processed food less economical when you can eat it in bulk. The 'bag of this', 'pint of that' binge is seldom factored into a budget because most people don't even want to think about it. I've never even bothered to calculate how much money I spend on coffee because then I might have to do something about it. In my mind, coffee is bumped over to an entertainment expense with some illogical mutterings about, "well, some people will spend $8 on a movie . . . ." Kinda not the same thing.

An Example

"So it looks like we're saving about $200/month - but we're also not eating out as much, less booze, and more homemade lunches and dinners," said Jill, a client and a good little eater these days. Chad and Jill weren't eating too badly to start but their nutrition required a little tweaking. The budget wasn't as much of a concern and they hadn't fully calculated the difference (thanks, Jill, for taking the time to do that for me). The lifestyle changes happened naturally because some of what they were up to wasn't consistent with their overall goal. Though Chad always ate a variety of veggies, his portions have changed substantially and he's eating much more vegetable matter to balance his meals. It would be here that things would start to look costly but not when you work the numbers.