Some time ago, I saw a patient who had become unemployed at an age where finding another job wasn’t going to be easy.
He had been struggling with weight issues on and off for years past, but now he was facing some serious health problems. The stress from his job search and the increasing anxiety about his financial situation made it difficult for him to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
Instead, he found himself drawn to eating more snacks and comfort food. Substantial alcohol consumption added to the damage. Before long, the results became all too obvious.
It is hard to be a counselor to people who are in dire situations. Their whole focus is on their plight and outside advice is not really wanted, especially not the kind that provides no immediate remedies. I tried to explain to my client that he needed foremost to improve his physical health and well-being to get through his current ordeal. You can cut back on a lot of expenses if you have to, I insisted, but you can’t cut corners when it comes to your health needs.
Although he agreed with all of that, it was obvious that his priorities weren’t the same as mine. I understood that but still urged him to look at the larger picture, namely that he needed his health intact in order to turn his life around.
His, of course, is a common reaction for someone facing economic uncertainties. People who are forced to switch to survival mode quickly cut back on their expenditures wherever they can. In fact, the steady rise of unemployment and persistent anxiety over the economy has already led to widespread lifestyle changes in America. Expensive groceries and gym memberships are not high on many people’s priority lists right now.
In truth, however, maintaining a healthy lifestyle and budgetary constraints don’t necessarily cancel each other out. It is a myth that all foods of high nutritional quality have to be expensive. Frozen dinners and other ready-to-eat meals are in fact more expensive than many fresh produce items. So are certain snacks, pastries and desserts.
It can be hard to keep track of discretionary expenses, such as a cup of coffee in the morning or a “Frappuccino” to get through the afternoon slump. Individually, items like these seem insignificant, but they surely add up. So, keep in mind that the small munchies you grab without thinking do not only wreak havoc on your body but also on your wallet.
This brings up another important point: Planning! Especially if you are on a tight budget, make a list of the groceries you need and stick to it. Nothing has greater potential for overspending than spontaneous shopping decisions. And don’t go to the store on an empty stomach! It has been statistically proven that people buy more food when they are hungry. That is why you are greeted by these wonderful aromas from the bakery or the deli when you enter a supermarket. These are “stimuli” meant to sabotage your best intentions – and they work more often than not.
Purchase only foods you like and will eat completely. You may be tempted to go for sales and other saving opportunities, but you also risk to overstock on items you don’t really need or want. The larger quantities you buy the more you tend to consume. Discount stores may offer deals too good to pass up on, but your overall costs go up eventually, and in the end you will have saved nothing.
Last but not least, take charge of your nutrition as much as possible. Instead of eating out, have your meals at home – not only because it is economically prudent, but also because of the health benefits you get from freshly prepared foods. In your own kitchen you are responsible for the ingredients as well as the cooking techniques, and you know what you’re getting for your buck. In times like these, that may matter a great deal.
Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun.”