- Can we realistically eat right, and not bust the budget?
One look at the grocery bill, and most of us feel a panic attack coming on. With the cost of living in Sri Lanka seemingly growing bigger, stronger wings every week, most of us are dreading our next trip to the market. We are equally worried about maintaining a healthy diet thanks to food items we bought daily now becoming somewhat of a luxury to most. So here’s the biggest question we all have been thinking about. Can we eat healthy, stay fit, and not completely run out of budget in one week flat?
To find out more and understand the science behind the nutrition-economy equation, Brunch spoke to Accredited Practising Dietician (APD) and SLMC-registered Nutritionist Kadheeja Wahid, along with Crossfit Trainer and Strength and Conditioning Coach/Educator Mothilal Jayathilake.
A healthy diet vs. the sum total of living costs and food shortages
Discussing the impact of Sri Lanka’s soaring living costs and food shortages on maintaining a healthy diet, Wahid shared that one of the primary concerns of her clients at present is whether or not her nutrition plans are affordable and consist of items that are easily accessible. “Most of my clients start the conversation saying that they prefer not to have any imported items in the plan, and that they may not have access to certain food items,” she shared. The nutritionist added that she has adopted several strategies in order to ensure that her clients can maintain a balanced diet as much as possible, without having to worry about their budget.
“Even before the economic crisis hit, I believed in creating diet plans that incorporated healthy carbohydrates and fats, instead of simply recommending a big bowl of fruits and vegetables thrice a day,” Wahid shared. She explained that now, she gathers information on the vegetables, fruits, and wholegrain items that the specific client can source the most affordably and conveniently according to their place of residence. “What counts the most is keeping up with a healthy diet. So I advise clients to pick just one vegetable, one protein, and one healthy carbohydrate that is very basic, such as chickpeas, winged beans and eggs, for a week. That way, you can save money, eat healthy and also try out different ways of combining these items,” Wahid shared.
Prudent spending that aids healthy eating
Speaking about maintaining a healthy physique and the tendency to avoid carbohydrates altogether, Wahid said: “There is a segment of the population that is very conscious about not consuming carbohydrates and eating mainly vegetables and fruits. However, surprisingly, even they tend to spend a lot of money on dining out and unplanned supermarket runs that end with impulse buying, and they do so unintentionally.” Elaborating further, the nutritionist shared that the majority of us have gotten used to either ordering in food, dining out at least twice a week, or simply buying snacks when we do our grocery shopping, without registering that all of these add to our pile of bills, and are not necessarily healthy food habits either. She added that items like rice and yams may, to most of us, register as being unhealthy, while the actual consumption of unhealthy food (which can also be costly), goes unnoticed. “I think the best way forward is to simply cut back on all this spending and focus more on home cooked meals. Something like a green leaf salad, lentils or one vegetable, and a bit of fish, meat or eggs will help us keep our Body Mass Index (BMI) healthy,” Wahid shared. She also explained that by cutting down on eating out and impulse purchases, we automatically reduce our salt and sugar intake, which has a direct positive impact on our health, while helping those who are conscious about gaining weight, stay fit.
“I also want to stress that while the cost of living is definitely seeing a steep increase, exercising is something that we can all still do free of charge, in our homes. Even if you have no option but to eat rice everyday because that is the only thing you can afford easily, daily exercises will still keep you fit and healthy,” she added. The dietician also shared that when shopping in a supermarket, it is always wise to start shopping from the two corners of the outlet. “The grains, fresh produce and meats are usually placed at the aisles at either end of the outlet. All the aisles in the middle are usually packed full of snacks. Avoiding these will help you save a lot more during your shopping runs,” she shared.
Long term sustainable approaches to food
Being incredibly disciplined in his food habits and even shopping for food, Crossfit Trainer and Strength and Conditioning Coach/Educator Mothilal Jayathilake shared that it is high time for us to seriously consider sustainable approaches to sourcing food items. “I know that not all of us may have a big garden, but if we have a small balcony, backyard, or the space to try our hand at hydroponics, for example, we need to start thinking about how we can grow some food at home,” he shared. Jayathilake added that he himself grows a certain amount of food in his garden, and given the prevailing inflation as well as possible food shortages, a long term solution that we could benefit from, would be growing some simple food items at home such as tomatoes, greens, pumpkins, and spinach which are all quite easy to maintain. “I also want to add that gardening, in general, is a great way to maintain mental and emotional wellbeing. If parents can involve their children in gardening too, it makes for a great way to pass on good eating habits and sustainable lifestyles. Eating healthy and maintaining budgets includes these approaches too,” he added.
Another sustainable approach is minimising food wastage by going to the supermarket with a pre-planned food list. “Before you go to the market, make a list of the items needed for just one week, taking into account the number of people in the family, and the portion sizes. You will see how much money you can save, because you will no longer be filling up your fridge with food that will eventually end up in the dustbin,” Jayathilake shared.
Identifying food from products
“The entire world population suffers from an inability to tell apart food from products. Rice is food. Bread and flour are products. Food helps one maintain their health, weight, and fitness levels, while products introduce bacteria into one’s gut disrupting metabolic processes, and causing changes in one’s dopamine levels and hormones,” Jayathilake shared.
Discussing this issue further, the Crossfit Trainer stated that there are vegetables and fruits that are sold for extremely affordable prices in rural areas of Sri Lanka, which never reach the cities at that price, according to his knowledge. In addition, Jayathilake expressed his concern that we, as a population, have been lured into product traps, where we have started to consider artificial and processed products as actual food. “Think about our traditional food items – jackfruit, breadfruit, manioc, and sweet potatoes. How many of our children genuinely enjoy eating these items as opposed to processed meats, cakes or cookies? If we try to identify food from products, we can actually save money, and our health. I will always stand by this,” he added.
The ‘cannot-get-enough’ budget-busting food
“Have you ever heard anybody say ‘I’m tired of pizza. It doesn’t taste good’? No, because products are manufactured to alter human biochemistry, which in turn keeps us trapped in a cycle of wanting to eat the very thing that harms both us and our finances,” Jayathilake stated. He explained further that consuming such food items not only eats away at your budget, but also increases stress levels, risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, and obesity, which will also mean that one has to pay frequent visits to the doctor, adding to the ever growing pile of bills.
The Strength and Conditioning Coach also shared that self-control goes a long way to sustain both one’s health and wealth. “We need to understand how our insulin works. We lack self-control and eat multiple times a day, in addition to our three main meals. Growing up, my mother fed me just the three meals, gave me no snacks, and I had a 12-hour fasting period from dinner to breakfast,” he shared, adding that our constant snacking increases hunger pangs, dysregulates insulin, and makes us spend more.
“What we need is to rethink how we see our food habits. We need to reinvent how we shop for food. I admit that our living costs are skyrocketing. But, if we can break free of the unhealthy food patterns, we still can survive and thrive,” Jayathilake concluded.