Omega 3, Vitamin C, protein, calcium… How do you make sure that your family gets all the nutrients they need for great health? And just as importantly, how do you do it without breaking the bank? Here’s a simple plan to make sure that your diet is healthy, complete and affordable.
Registered clinical dietician Tabitha Hume says that you don’t need to worry too much about individual nutrients if you are eating a varied diet and mostly selecting the healthiest options from each of the food groups. She offers this advice:
Fruit and vegetables
These should amount to half of every meal (and snack) you have during the day, and you should focus on getting as much variety of type and colour of vegetable as you can find. The good news is that vegetables are an easily affordable part of any diet, specially if you buy local and in season.
Most middle-class South African diets are not short on protein – unless you are a vegetarian or vegan – but the more you can substitute meat for protein-laden legumes including chickpeas, beans and lentils, the better. Again, these legumes are the cheaper and healthier option.
Opt for wholegrain or slow-release carbs like sweet potatoes, brown rice, durum wheat pasta and wholegrain or low-GI breads. Choose these healthier alternatives instead of all “white” carbs (white bread, potatoes, mielie pap). While healthier low-GI carbs may be slightly more expensive than their more processed counterparts, the difference shouldn’t break the bank.
Fats and oils
Despite all the positive messaging around so-called “good fats” at the moment, Tabitha says it’s better to eat a balanced diet that only includes small amounts of plant-based oils, including avocado and olive oils and other nut and seed oils. Select cheaper seed oils like canola oil for all of the benefits with less of the financial pain. “It is VERY easy to have too many healthy fats – you may have a plummeting cholesterol, but you’ll have a rising waist circumference,” she says.
Tabitha recommends fortified and enriched plant dairies such as soya milk or almond milk. These are a costly option, however, so as long as you are getting some healthy, lower-fat and affordable dairy options, you will still be on track.
However, Tabitha is well aware that most South African diets are not ideal, and therefore lacking in some or other nutrients. These are some of the more common missing nutrients from South African diets, with a note on how to get them cheaply:
Tabitha says that most people don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables, which means that they are not getting enough of the wealth of phytonutrients (vegetable nutrients that are essential for good health) found in plant foods. Remember, you are aiming for at least half of your food intake to be made up of fruit and vegetables.
She says that a good way to get the right amount of phytonutrients is to start each meal with a fruit or vegetable portion, like a piece of fruit or a salad.
Buy on budget: The good news is that vegetables are generally your most affordable food, so stock up and tuck in.
If you and your family generally eat a very low-fat diet you may be low on fat-soluble vitamins, including Vitamin A, D, E and K, which support everything from good vision and healthy bones to immunity and blood clotting.
You can get Vitamin A from even a small amount of nuts and seeds, or more cheaply from orange and dark-green leafy vegetables.
You can get Vitamin D from fortified soya milk, but for an even cheaper source, go into the sun before 10am or after 4pm.
You can get Vitamin E from nuts and seeds, but if you are on a very low-fat diet, you may need to use supplements to get the amount you need.
You can get Vitamin K from dairy products and green, leafy vegetables.
Buy on budget: Focus on your leafy vegetables, spending time in the sun, and add sunflower seeds to your breakfast and salads, or eat as a light snack.
Zinc and Vitamin C
If you are a smoker, chances are you are being depleted of Vitamin C and zinc, which boost immunity and neurological function. You can turn to supplements, or you can up your intake of citrus, peppers, granadilla, chilli and tomatoes for Vitamin C, and whole grains and shellfish such as oysters for zinc.
Buy on budget: All your Vitamin-C rich vegetables are quite affordable, and you can give the shellfish a skip and focus on whole grains and lentils for your zinc intake.
People very often don’t get enough of the whole spectrum of Vitamin Bs, which have a direct impact on energy levels, brain function and cell metabolism. They can get these from unprocessed, healthy “brown” foods such as rolled oats, barley, brown rice and other grains. Tabitha says that B vitamins are also found in beef and eggs, but she always advises her clients to rather turn to plant-based sources for anything that they are missing. For strict vegans, opt for B12-fortified soya milk or take a VitB12 supplement.
Buy on budget: Always opt for the plant-based alternatives, for better health and affordability. Marmite, Tabitha says, is an excellent source of Vitamin B1.
Vegetarians, women and the elderly are often low on iron, without which their bodies can’t make enough oxygen-carrying red blood cells.
Other than meat, iron can be more cheaply found in organic eggs, green leafy vegetables, especially broccoli, kale, dried fruits and fortified cereals. “If you are eating an iron-rich food, make sure you take it with something acidic, like a shot glass of orange juice, or by squeezing lemon over your broccoli to increase absorption,” Tabitha says.
Buy on budget: Focus on the green leafy vegetables, especially broccoli.
Omega oils support cardiovascular and immune health. You can get them from salmon and other oily fish, and eggs (although NOT organic eggs, as chickens that lay them are not fed on fish meal!), but to avoid over-consumption of fish, rather turn to seeds like chai, flax and hemp, which can be added to porridge or smoothies.
Buy on budget: Sardines and pilchards are much cheaper than salmon. While the seeds mentioned are an excellent non-animal source of omega oils, they can be expensive to buy in any significant amount. The best budget option is omega 3-fortified eggs.
Calcium is key for the health of your bones and teeth, and also supports your muscles, hormones, nerve function and ability to form blood clots. Tabitha says that people who follow a healthy diet shouldn’t have to worry too much about calcium, but that those following a high-fat, low-carb diet might need to add extra calcium because they often have too much protein which leaches calcium from the bones.
Buy on budget: Tabitha says that you can get calcium from dairy products, but she recommends the “amazing” broccoli, again, as well as other green leafy vegetables - affordable options - and fortified soya milk.
Eating healthily is not that hard and it doesn’t need to be expensive either. Rather than keeping track of each nutrient, the best (and cheapest) approach is to eat as many fresh, unprocessed fruits and vegetables as possible and to make sure that you are getting enough of the good things you need from the other food groups as well. You’ll cover all your bases and feel great.