I don't want to have to go to Dr. Oz or Andrew Weil for this one.
December 15, 2013 3:32 PM   Subscribe

Which healthy grocery items/nutritional supplements/dietary interventions have you found to be worth the splurge, and how/why?

I've already been working on a New Year's resolution for 2014: trying to be mindful every day about healthy food choices, consistently eating multiple fruits and vegetables per day, using a meal tracking calculator to make sure I'm getting enough protein and fiber on a daily basis, etc. I'm trying to educate myself a little more on what foods may or may not be the best for someone with my garden-variety autoimmune disorder (Hashimoto's Thyroiditis).

I've committed to spending a little more on my (very modest) grocery budget towards this goal. But, beyond just making sure to include more fresh, whole foods, I'm wondering what "splurges" are actually worth it, (since I'm on a budget so this is a zero sum game)--not from a taste/gourmand perspective, but health wise. There's a lot of woo out there (I'm looking at you, Dr. Oz and Andrew Weil) and I don't know how, um, to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Based on your own experience, what have you added that has added to your sense of nutritional well-being? If you could choose only 2-3 higher-ticket items to add to an already healthy diet, what would they be? Fresh salmon? Lamb? Chia oil? Nut milks, or even just nuts? The higher-end fish oil capsules or other supplements? Coconut products? Avocados? [please say avocados so I can justify $1.50-2 each] Hemp protein powder? Fresh or frozen berries in the smoothies (acai or not)? More fresh than frozen vegetables?

Assume that I already know the basics and benefits of eating healthy on a budget, and that I am not grasping for snake-oil or the latest fad.
posted by blue suede stockings to Food & Drink (32 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Spending the money to get good meat - grass-fed-and-finished beef, heirloom-breed chicken, etc. It's expensive but makes a big difference to me. Nothing else you mention comes close overall.
posted by restless_nomad at 3:38 PM on December 15, 2013 [10 favorites]

One thing that comes to mind is that it's a lot easier to stick to a diet like this if the food you're eating is actually appetizing to you. So I'd say to splurge where it counts on taste. If eating fresh salmon will help you actually eat fish (as opposed to canned, or a cheaper fresh fish, or whatever), then splurge on that! If a sprinkle of Parmigiano Reggiano makes your kale salad taste right, splurge on good cheese! If avocado staves off junk food cravings, splurge on avocados!

I think a lot of "healthy whole foods" type of diets can get boring and feel like constant self-denial, a lot of the time. Spending a little more to keep things delicious will help you actually stick to the diet.
posted by Sara C. at 3:41 PM on December 15, 2013 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Very interesting, restless_nomad, and the type of thing I'm talking about--I've heard this before about quality meat but but can you [and other responders who offer suggestions] also explain how it makes a "big difference" to you? (Especially since that would be a relatively expensive addition.)
posted by blue suede stockings at 3:42 PM on December 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Spending the money to get good meat - grass-fed-and-finished beef, heirloom-breed chicken, etc.

yeah, as somebody put it to me who'd done far more research. If you must eat beef, then organic if possible, or grass-fed, or non-medicated. ANYTHING but the regular stuff that you really have no idea what horrors may have been required to get it to the store ...

And the same for all the other former animals.
posted by philip-random at 3:45 PM on December 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Sure! It is a pretty big expense, so:

a) I have an inflammatory condition, and eating shitty meat seems to contribute to my feeling bad. Research suggests that the whole omega-3/6 thing may be related, and I'd rather eat really really tasty beef than drink fish oil for the same dietary effect.

b) Better meat tastes better. The less-processed the meat, the more noticeable it is - in stews, I can't tell, but burgers, steaks, etc, it's really obvious. Also, I didn't like chicken *at all* until I started getting farmer's market chicken. It's a huge difference. (Also eggs - yard eggs taste so, so much better.)

c) The ethics and sustainability aspects are a thing for me. They may or may not be for you, but factory farming is just gross on a bunch of levels.

I've got the advantage of having lots of local farmer's markets to shop at, so YMMV on the cost/benefit ratio, but I've tried a bunch of supplements and stuff, and meat quality is by far the best for improving my quality of life.
posted by restless_nomad at 3:48 PM on December 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

I currently only use Vitamin D during winter. I'd recommend sites like examine.com that approach the research more rationally.

In terms of food, I use organic mixed frozen vegetables a lot, cooked in the microwave. Sounds horribly bland, but there is some writing out there that claims these vegetables are flash frozen at harvest so they are nutritionally sounder than fresh veggies that were picked unripe weeks before you buy them. The convenience of frozen veggies means you can add them to every meal quite easily. My rationale for them originally was that I am just using them long enough until I figure out how to cook fresh veggies better...but it's been years now and I still love them.
posted by acheekymonkey at 3:49 PM on December 15, 2013 [5 favorites]

Always buy free-range, grass-feed cow meat, which is organic buy default. Always buy organic free-range chicken meat and organic free-range eggs (which are higher in omega-3s). Same applies to pig meat and sheep meat. Always buy sustainably farmed fish, which are lower in omega-3s, but this difference is easily made up by the omega-3s in the eggs (or in a supplement, if you are so inclined).

Hemp protein powder is no good. If you are going to get a protein powder (which you don't need to unless you are looking to gain muscle mass, and are doing a great deal of resistance training, meaning weightlifting), it should come from New Zealand and should be from free-range, grass-fed cows. It will be very expensive or just quite expensive, depending on where you live.

My one real supplement indulgence is Orange Triad multivitamins. They are also expensive, but are essentially miracle capsules. Yes you need to take 6 a day.

I know nothing about Hashimoto's disease but my glance at the symptoms list suggests to me that a high-quality, high-strength fish oil capsule (I take five of these a day) may help alleviate some of them.

Eat less - ideally no - grains or refined sugars, and little-to-no fruit. That is, eat less carbs. Eat as many vegetables as you can stand. Eat more fat. Eat high-quality almonds.
posted by turbid dahlia at 3:50 PM on December 15, 2013 [6 favorites]

My fingernails are super hard when I've been taking Centrum Chewable multivitamin/multiminerals for a while, and eventually become super brittle and easily torn whenever I forget for a month or two.

I've tried various other supplements over the years but that basic multivitamin/multimineral is the only one that's made a noticeable physical difference.
posted by Jacqueline at 4:04 PM on December 15, 2013 [4 favorites]

Just want to make a small clarification here--free range beef is not organic by default. I live in free range country. Much of the area used for free ranging is sprayed by the forest service for noxious weeds. And those animals are also frequently raised with inputs that would disqualify them from organic certification (treating for fluke worm, etc). Certainly many ranchers are raising organic beef, whether certified organic or not, on their own land. But lots of cattle are grazed on public land and the beef is then sold as free ranged. If you want organic beef (and I agree that this is one of the best places to spend your money if you eat meat) then you need to either buy certified organic or have a conversation with the rancher about their practices.
posted by HotToddy at 4:09 PM on December 15, 2013 [5 favorites]

FYI, OP, Many studies have found multivitamins provide almost no benefit and can be actually harmful. They can also encourage us to make other, less healthy choices.

here is a good list from the Mayo clinic about which supplements can be helpful (spoiler: Calcium, Vitamin D, and Vitamin B12 [mushrooms!]. I would add that the research is tending to favour omega 3's, though it's still a bit up in the air at the moment).

I would consider engaging a qualified dietician (NOT a nutritionist. At least here in Australia, anyone can call themselves a nutritionist with absolutely no qualifications at all), especially with your condition.

More broadly, fresh fruit and vegetables are a great cheap way of improving your health; they are packed with vitamins and fibre is grossly under-rated as a "miracle" food, imho, at least in regards to reducing colonic and other digestive cancers. Meat is an expensive way that mostly improves your health through displacing unhealthy foods.
posted by smoke at 4:26 PM on December 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: [thanks, smoke. Before this possibly derails into a pro-con meat debate, I will qualify that I am an omnivore who needs to include at least some meat in my diet per doctors' recommendations, so I am happy for the meat-related advice, and also looking forward to other suggestions as well--and I'm already rocking out the cheap miracle food of fresh fruit and vegetables! Looking for suggestions of adjuncts one might purchase if they had made a commitment to spend a little more on the grocery budget towards increased health gains. This is the first time in awhile I've had the financial means to do so.]
posted by blue suede stockings at 4:31 PM on December 15, 2013

Apologies, it was not my intention to spark a pro/anti meat debate. I am a meat-eater myself; I was just pointing out that if you're talking about being on a budget, good meat tends to be quite pricey (though canned, alaskan red salmon is quite affordable, packed with omega 3's, and sustainable. Sardines and anchovies, likewise. Avoid canned tuna unless it's skipjack tuna and caught with line and pole)
posted by smoke at 4:35 PM on December 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Those of us with thyroid issues are more likely to be vitamin D and B12 deficient - you might get tested - I take supplements for both and have a lot more energy when I do than when I forget. There are also some potential links between gluten sensitivity and thyroid issues - at this point the studies are more correlative than definitively causative but not eating gluten may be helpful to you.
posted by leslies at 4:39 PM on December 15, 2013 [5 favorites]

When I was making a relatively modest salary and kept a relatively modest food budget, I generally stuck to bottom-dollar supermarket jumbo pack chicken for my protein. The idea of buying quality, grass-fed, hand-petted, organically grown, one-hundred-percent meat beef was so far off my radar as to be laughable. It would have made my meat budget balloon fivefold: compare $2.79 factory-raised chicken breast with $12-$14 premium beef. Now imagine you decide to start eating less pasta and rice and have to make up the caloric difference with this same $12-$14 beef and chicken and wild salmon (salmon, ferkrissakes!).

I had a roommate once and she insisted on organic everything, every orange and plum and tomato. She was short on money every month, to the point of having to make difficult tradeoffs. She decided to skimp on actual healthcare. It didn't end well.

All that to say that unless you have a specific health condition that requires a specific dietary change (as in, you're diabetic or have Crohn's disease), a balanced diet made up of regular supermarket ingredients is going to be fine. You can eat healthy without eating expensive. The benefits of supplements backed by celebrity gurus are unsubstantiated. The benefits of luxury foods like dry-aged beef are primarily sentimental. It's fun to revel in expensive luxuries. Large-scale public health studies have so far failed to show substantial (or even statistically significant) differences between diets that only differ on the organic/inorganic factor.

In the end, health is about good access to preventive medical care, a balanced diet, and exercise. Don't buy and don't eat crappy snack foods, whether it's a 99¢ bag of spicy pork rinds or a $4 "feel-good 100% organic real food nutrition bar." Or maybe do go for the pork rinds once in a blue moon, because that food bar is mostly made of congealed rice syrup.

My salary has recently improved substantially and I now eat most meals at the cafeteria provided by my employer. We retain the services of a chef who cooks with locally provisioned, top-quality organic ingredients. And I really don't see a big difference between what I used to cook with bottom-dollar supermarket goods and the restaurant-quality food I get every day, either in terms of taste appeal or its effect on my health. And I'm the kind of person who seeks out single-source chocolate, can discuss the aromatic bouquet of a range of varietal honeys, and has read the ingredients list on everything at my local Whole Foods at least twice.
posted by Nomyte at 4:55 PM on December 15, 2013 [6 favorites]

Fresh or frozen berries in the smoothies (acai or not)?

in addition to tasting fantastic and generally being super healthy this is especially good if you get pms cramps. between the magnesium in the berries and calcium in the milk/yogurt your cramps can downright disappear without taking advil, etc. i randomly came across someone talking about a pms smoothie recipe which i haven't yet tried as i have no blender:

1/2 cup of blueberries, raspberries & strawberries each

but i usually now buy a berry smoothie on a day when i'm getting bad cramps or think i might. talk about a tasty cure! i also buy bags of mixed frozen berries, pour milk kefir (this is like a liquid yogurt) over them & add a little stevia and it's pretty much the same effect. berries rock!
posted by wildflower at 5:16 PM on December 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

My doctor tested me and found me low in Vitamin D, and since I've been supplementing with that and fish oil, I have had noticeable improvements in both immunity and mood (i.e. less sick, more cheerful). I can't be 100% certain that the supplements and the positive effects are linked, but it's the first time in my life that I took a supplement every day, and I do feel really good.

Avocados are in fact quite good for you, especially the part right next to the rind, and if you like them, eat em!

Also, I get a lot of wellness-feeling from fermented foods, like miso, kefir, fresh sauerkraut, etc. They're thought to have good effects on your internal gut flora and the immune system. And if you discover they also make you feel good, you can start to make them at home without spending a ton of money.
posted by feets at 5:26 PM on December 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

between the magnesium in the berries and calcium in the milk/yogurt

A standard serving of milk or yogurt contains more magnesium than a serving of blueberries, raspberries, or strawberries. Strawberries in particular do not contain nutritionally significant quantities of magnesium at all. Check USDA sources. One serving of peanut butter or spinach contains double and quadruple the magnesium of one cup of blueberries.
posted by Nomyte at 5:28 PM on December 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Nthing Vitamin D supplementation.
posted by hush at 6:40 PM on December 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

On the subject of vitamin D supplements, my doctor, when asked about it, said "I'm not going to bother to test you, because 90% of the people I test are low. Just start taking 1000mg/day, and next year we'll run the test and adjust the dosage." A bottle of 300 caps of that dosage is something like $25, so it's definitely an inexpensive choice.
posted by restless_nomad at 6:46 PM on December 15, 2013 [5 favorites]

A couple of recent studies:

Blueberries may prevent or reduce symptoms of Type II diabetes:

Eating nuts (about 1 serving a day) is inversely correlated with mortality:
posted by entropyiswinning at 6:50 PM on December 15, 2013

Oat bran! Definitely oat bran, eat lots of oat bran and...

No wait nevermind that was 1990

Don't go out of your way to eat fad foods (chia, acai, etc). Spend extra on quality whole food that tastes good to you and which you will happily eat over junkier options. Obviously, go wild with the avocados.

Just funnel the cash towards stuff that is minimally processed 'real' food that will be eaten, which might mean a store-made wheat berry salad, but not a bag of dried wheat berries, if you are not the type to actually cook them up and eat them regularly.

You've heard the 'healthy as a horse' saying? Horses are not eating pomegranates and quinoa, but (if I understand correctly; I have only met a small number of horses) apples and carrots and oats. Healthy basics are fine; use extra cash to maximise the % of that in your diet. Not being broke means you can choose a fancy ready-made salad over a box of Kraft Dinner; don't overthink the salad toppings, just go with the salad.
posted by kmennie at 7:53 PM on December 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Vitamin D and CoQ10 are also good to supplement with. I had also meant to say that in Australia, organic is free range by default, but the opposite is not always true. This is according to my local organic butcher in any event, due to the tremendous expense of organic feed. And yes there is little evidence suggesting that organic is better for you, but it's better for the earth, which makes you a better person.
posted by turbid dahlia at 10:14 PM on December 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

A standard serving of milk or yogurt contains more magnesium than a serving of blueberries, raspberries, or strawberries.

hmm...i remember reading in the post (which i can't find again) that it was the magnesium in the berries but maybe they got the magnesium confused with something else in berries that is good for pms. idk, but the smoothie ingredients do still work wonders for pms cramps. OP, sorry for any confusion.
posted by wildflower at 10:46 PM on December 15, 2013

You have stated your preference for including meat above and that's fine, but also know that however complex nutrition research gets, diets that are based primarily on vegetables and fruit (probably in that order of quantity) are associated with better outcomes than higher-animal product diets. So I would argue that your extra money should be spent exploring recipes and ingredients that allows you to shift towards this way of eating.

This doesn't mean being vegetarian or vegan (though for some that might be an option), it means using meat or cheese as a flavouring sometimes and exploring the rich variety of plant-based foods, or focusing much more on the vegetable side dishes with a smaller portion of the meat main.

If you're going to eat fruit, eat the whole fruit, not the juice in order to get benefits from fibre and slower absorption of sugars.

I believe that cured meats (bacon, salami, ham) are specifically associated with health problems so if you really want to aim for health, those should be avoided. I usually try to minimise because I like them so much.

From the research I have read, these will get you the most health return on your effort, and the extra money goes into this sustained exploration over a long period of time with the inevitable occasional throwing away food that doesn't come out as planned . . .
posted by kadia_a at 10:53 PM on December 15, 2013

For me, worth-it supplements have been Vitamin D and high quality fish oil. Have had one cold since beginning taking Vitamin D four years ago. And various aches and pains have subsided with the fish oil. For grocery items, good free range eggs, good quality olive oil, avocados (just normal supermarket ones!) instead of butter. The eggs are a great source of quick protein, the olive oil is brilliant in salad dressings (I don't cook with it) and the avocados are really really satisfying. I also splurge on organic almonds. Where I am they're not that much more expensive than the supermarket ones and they're WAY nicer. Plus I whiz a half a cup of them in the blender to make fresh almond milk at about a quarter of the price I'd pay for a litre pack in the supermarket. It freezes well too, so I always have milk on hand for smoothies - which are great for using up fruit that might otherwise not get eaten so I figure that offsets the cost too. I find the taste difference and satisfaction/satiety level these foods provide me to be worth a little bit extra money.
posted by t0astie at 11:59 PM on December 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Why not set up a little taste test for yourself to see what you prefer? Get a few different fruits and veggies and see if you like the taste of the organic ones better than their non-organic siblings. I had a friend who tried it and realized that she loved organic tomatoes, but preferred conventional (grocery speak for non-organic) bananas.

My big splurge? Spices. I have a large collection of spices including several different types of salt. I like having variety and it helps me eat more veggies when I can have them several ways. For example, I thought I didn't like sweet potatoes for the longest time and then I had them curried. It was a game changer, I eat them all the time now (some ancho chile powder sprinkled on roasted sweet potatoes, yes please!). I bought most of my spices online which saved me a bunch, but it still added up to over $40. For me $40 on nothing buy spices is a HUGE splurge, but it's worth it because they will last for a fair while and it makes me want to try making new veggie dishes all the time. Smoked sea salt on an avocado is wonderful.

Also honey, I only buy local. It tastes great and there are arguments for it helping with seasonal allergies.
posted by carnivoregiraffe at 12:08 AM on December 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

An embarrassing amount of my food budget goes on dried fruit, pre-made fruit smoothies, hummus, things to dip in hummus, and ready-made falafel. Delicious, easy, healthy and quick.
posted by teraspawn at 8:01 AM on December 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Grass-fed beef, milk, and dairy, and pastured eggs and chicken.

My tests kept showing that I had high cholesterol. I am young, healthy, eat well, don't even really like fried/fatty foods, so my cholesterol intake was already very low, and I didn't know what actions I could take besides going on medication.

For a different reason, I started upping my protein intake (for the insulin-resistance diet), which meant I was eating a lot more eggs, meat, and dairy.

Well when I went back in for my cholesterol tests, the doctor said my good cholesterol was so (unusually) high that I didn't have to worry about my bad cholesterol anymore!
posted by thebazilist at 8:40 AM on December 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

If my option was to eat more, regular supermarket meat, or to have more vegetarian meals so that I could afford the good stuff, it's a no-brainer, I'm eating more veggie meals.

Grass-fed beef tastes better and it's much better for you. Ditto locally sourced grass-fed milk, and butter. Eggs are just better when the chickens get to run around the farm. It's worth it. it really, realy is!

That said, I do a lot of vegetarian meals too. Tostadas with beans and cheese are yummy and filling. Hell, eat lots of beans. They're good for your heart!

I've given up all supplements and frankly, I don't feel any worse for it. I did it as an experiment after reading this article. I try really hard to eat lots of fruits and veggies. I'm saving money there.

I also try to shop seasonally, buying things in season is less expensive than stuff that isn't, but is shipped in from another hemishphere. So all those berries you see in the store, not from around here. Apples and pears and oranges, probably a better choice.

You don't have to be perfect, but it really does pay to be mindful.

Frozen veggies are a convenient and inexpensive way to get more vitamins and variety in your life. So if fresh is out of reach, reach for frozen. If you're single, it reduces the amount of stuff that needs to be trashed due to spoilage.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:21 PM on December 16, 2013

Dunno if this is viable for you…

…but I switched all of my read meat consumption to Bison. I do eat less red meat now as a result (cost) but when I do, I'm getting really, really good-tasting meat which is leaner and healthier.
posted by Thistledown at 1:35 PM on December 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Quality meat is really expensive, so if your mission is to get bang for your buck, I'd go with the people who advise more vegetarian meals.

What actually makes me feel healthier when I eat it? Steamed broccoli. Stewed swiss chard. Kale salad. Sauteed spinach. Dark greens, basically. It's worth teaching yourself a few preparations that you like.

I also feel better when I eat lots of whole grains and legumes. Beans and rice. Quinoa. Brown rice. Lentils! The green ones, the French ones. Lentil salad, lentil soup. Plain or fancy. They are just so good, and they cook much more quickly than other dried beans/legumes.

Nuts are a great splurge. They can turn a salad into a meal. They're a good snack to have on hand. For breakfast, I like rolled oats softened with a little water, then mixed with raisins, roasted almonds, raw walnuts, plain yogurt, and some cut-up fruit like strawberries or an apple. Keeps me going all morning.

Splurge on fruit that you love. Fruit can be expensive, but I think it's worth it if you let it take the place of sugary snacks or desserts in your diet. And it's so beautiful you'll feel like you're treating yourself to luxury.

Meat-wise, to get more value out of free-range/organic meat, I like to occasionally buy a whole free-range chicken. I roast it, eat it hot that night, enjoy cold meat/sandwiches for a day or two, and then I take what's left on the carcass and make stock, which provides the base for a tasty almost-vegetarian soup. (Mark Bittman has a great section about stock making in How to Cook Everything).

Another idea: What about getting yourself a nice cookbook full of delicious vegetarian food, like Yotam Ottolenghi's Plenty, to keep yourself inspired?

A second book I have valued and frequently recommend is this one. Please overlook the cheesy packaging; it's by a medical doctor and talks a lot about evidence-based nutrition. It also has many simple and tasty recipes, some of which have become staples for me.
posted by toomuchkatherine at 10:35 AM on December 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you drink milk, you might want to switch to organic because of the increased omega-3s.
posted by *s at 9:39 AM on December 20, 2013

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