When I appeared on MSNBC's nationally televised forum About Our Children, host Bill Cosby asked me a very intriguing question. We were talking about how important good nutrition is for optimal brain performance and physical health when Mr. Cosby asked me, "How do we teach poor people to eat right when bad food is so cheap?"
I have been searching for answers to that question ever since. I decided to call my good friend Dr. Jeff Fortuna, the author of Nutrition for the Focused Brain and a faculty member in the Department of Health Science at California State University, Fullerton. Together, we came up with the following 10 tips to help people living in poverty, as well as those who are simply strapped for cash during these tough economic times, eat healthier without spending a fortune.
1. Go for Satisfying Grains
When it comes to grains, you can't beat old-fashioned oatmeal or pearled barley. These whole grains offer a huge nutritional bang for your buck. Loaded with soluble and insoluble fiber, they moderate blood sugar for hours, which helps keep you feeling full longer. Ever notice how your kids are starving soon after eating a bowl of sugary cereal or a couple of doughnuts? Give your children oatmeal (make sure it is the old-fashioned kind, not the instant kind) for breakfast, and they won't be raiding the refrigerator before lunchtime. At about $3 for a big canister that provides 30 servings, a single bowl of oatmeal is a bargain at about 10 cents.
Pearl barley runs about 89 cents to $1.50 for a bag with 18 servings. Even at the higher price, it comes out to less than 10 cents a serving. Pearl barley is one of the healthiest foods nobody has ever heard of. Similar to rice, it's great in soups, as a side dish, or even for breakfast. Mix it with oatmeal to create "porridge," a favorite breakfast food in Europe.
2. Buy Vitamin-Rich Vegetables Frozen and Save
Vegetables are some of the most nutrient-dense foods on earth. But how do you get the recommended 2.5 to 3 cups a day when produce markets are notoriously scarce in impoverished neighborhoods? One way is to stock up on frozen vegetables like broccoli, spinach, and carrots whenever you get to a supermarket or warehouse store like Costco. Yes, the freezing process does remove some of the vitamin content, but frozen vegetables are still a great source of brain-boosting, anti-aging, disease-fighting nutrients. And with prices like $1 for 3 12-oz. packages of broccoli, a 4-oz. serving costs just 11 cents.
3. Boost Antioxidants With Apples, Oranges, and Bananas
Eating fruit is one of the keys to good brain and body health. Apples, oranges, and bananas are full of vitamins and antioxidants that promote heart health, reduce the risk for cancer, and boost brain performance. One apple contains about 15 percent of your daily fiber requirement and costs well under 50 cents. Just one orange can provide more than 200 percent of the daily vitamin C requirement and comes with a similar price tag. Eating an orange is so much better for you than drinking orange juice - and cheaper, too -- thanks to the fiber in the pulp. As low as 20 cents a pop, bananas are full of potassium, vitamin B6, and vitamin C. Pack these affordable fruits in kids' lunch boxes, take them with you to work, and leave them on the kitchen counter at home to encourage healthy snacking.
4. Say Cheese -- Cottage Cheese, That Is
Dairy is a major priority for good health, and there's nothing better than cottage cheese. It's packed with protein, calcium, and vitamins A and D. Dr. Fortuna says, "If I had a magic wand, I would make every kid eat cottage cheese before going to school. It is a dietary protein that primes dopamine, a brain neurotransmitter that is involved with attention span. When kids eat 15-20 grams of protein at breakfast, their brains work better and they are better able to concentrate in class." With a single serving of cottage cheese, you get 13 grams of protein for about 75 cents.
5. Pump Up Protein With Affordable Eggs
Getting adequate amounts of protein doesn't have to involve eating expensive meat. Eggs, which can be as low as $1 a dozen, are a great source of protein. If you have high cholesterol, toss the yolks and just eat the egg whites, the only food source that is a perfect protein, which means that 100 percent of the protein is absorbed by the body's tissues. At less than 10 cents a piece, eggs are an affordable option for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
6. Fill Up on High-Fiber, Low-Cost Beans
If you want food that is going to fill you up and be good for you, head straight for the beans. Loaded with fiber and high in protein, beans should be a staple in any household that is struggling financially. To be extra economical, choose uncooked black beans, red beans, lima beans, garbanzo beans, white beans, or any other variety rather than canned beans. For example, a 1-pound bag of black beans costs less than $2, and gives you 12 servings for less than 16 cents each.
7. Stock Up on Canned Tuna
Eating fish like tuna is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to improve heart health, reduce the risk of dementia and Alzheimer's disease, reduce depression, and lower blood pressure. You can get a three-pack of tuna for about $2.50, which means for about 83 cents a can, you get 22 grams of protein and a good amount of healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Without question, canned tuna is the best buy for fish.
8. Drink to Your Brain Health With Skim Milk and Water
Your brain is 80 percent water and needs plenty of liquids to keep it from becoming dehydrated, something that can decrease your thinking and impair your judgment. Two of the best and cheapest beverages you can drink are skim milk and water. Low in fat and high in protein and calcium, skim milk is fortified with vitamins A and D to provide a nutritional punch. With prices around $2 a half a gallon, one serving will only set you back about 25 cents. Compare that to more than $1 for a single soda or energy drink from the local convenience store.
Water is one of the best things for your brain and body health. Fortunately, you don't need to buy pricey bottled water. With a $15-$20 water filter that fits on your kitchen faucet, you can drink from the tap and get healthy, filtered water that will keep your brain and body hydrated for optimal performance. For a more flavorful beverage, fill up a jug with filtered water, add a few orange slices, and keep it in the refrigerator for easy access.
9. Spice Up Your Meals
With just a few spices in your cupboard, you can enhance the flavor of any dish without using a lot of unhealthy butter, cream, or salt. You can find spices for a few dollars each -- they're even cheaper if you can buy them loose where you scoop the spices into bags rather than buying them in a bottle. Many spices have been found to have brain and body health benefits. For example, cinnamon (great on oatmeal) lowers blood sugar levels, ingredients in curry may protect against Alzheimer's disease, garlic promotes cardiovascular health, and sage improves memory.
10. Become a Savvy Shopper
Knowing which foods are the best nutritional bargains is only half the battle to eating right on a strict budget. You also have to learn to be a smart shopper. You can save a bundle if you buy items that have a long shelf life -- like canned tuna, beans, oatmeal, barley, and frozen vegetables -- in bulk. Look for sales and specials, use coupons, and buy generic brands when possible. You can even shop online for many food items or look for coupons online from local stores to find the best deals.
I hope these 10 tips will encourage you to start adopting healthier eating habits for you and your family. On first glance, the prices of healthy foods may seem expensive compared to fast-food fare, but the cheap fast food will actually end up costing you far more in terms of your brain health, physical health, emotional health, and overall success in life. When you fuel up with the right foods, you will have a better brain, and a better brain will help you get a better life, a better job, and a better salary so you can help lift your family out of financial trouble.