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How to Still Eat Healthfully When Food Prices Are Soaring

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Not news: Food is a lot more expensive than it used to be.

During the last federal election on Nov. 3, 2020, food inflation was running at just 3.9% annually. Fast forward to March 2024, and the latest data shows food prices have risen a whopping 25.8% since then. To put that in perspective, a basket of groceries that cost $100 in November 2020 would now set you back $125.80. That’s an increase of nearly $26 for the exact same food items.

The biggest price hikes have been for specific grocery categories like eggs, dairy products, cereals and baked goods. But price rises have impacted all food groups across the board.

It can seem even more expensive when you’re trying to eat healthfully. That means a diet that’s centered on real food, not ultra-processed products. Ideally, that real food is also organic, sustainably-raised, and local.

It’s the food our bodies were designed to eat, after all. It’s what’s needed to deliver the nutrients your body requires to maintain a steady state of oral and overall health and avoids all the problem ingredients that can interfere with that, from sugar to countless chemical additives.

Just this month, new research in the BMJ cast new light on the effects of eating an ultra-processed diet – including a higher risk of death for those who eat the most ultra-processed foods compared to those who eat the least. An ultra-processed diet also meant an 8% greater risk of dying from neurodegenerative conditions such as MS, Parkinson’s, and dementia.

Previous studies have found that consuming a lot of ultra-processed foods could drive inflammation in the brain and weaken the blood-brain barrier, setting the stage for neurodegeneration. There is also evidence that ultra-processed foods can hamper overall health by reducing insulin sensitivity, disturbing gut microbiota, and driving weight gain and chronic inflammation throughout the body.

Some products were found to be worse offenders than others. Most harmful included processed meats, white bread, potato chips, sugary snacks and drinks, sugary cereals, and artificially sweetened drinks.

Notably, the kinds of health problems linked to ultra-processed diets have also been linked with periodontal (gum) disease. All the sugars and highly refined carbs in these products are no friends to your teeth either, being the preferred food of the bacteria involved in the decay process.

Yet maybe we can actually see a bit of an upside to soaring food costs here: Many ultra-processed products have become much more expensive, too – both those eaten at home and those bought at restaurants. Fast food prices have jumped roughly 30% in the past several years – and another 10% or so here in California with the recent minimum wage increase for fast food workers.

Eating real food can actually be the more economical option these days – especially if you strategize. Here are our top 12 tips for healthier eating on a budget:

  1. Shop at farmers markets. Buy affordable, locally-grown, in-season produce directly from area farmers.
  2. Join a CSA. Get a weekly share of a local farm’s harvest for one upfront seasonal fee.
  3. Join a food co-op. Get discounts buying seasonal, local bulk foods through a community-owned grocer.
  4. Shop bulk bins. Buy affordable bulk grains, beans, seeds etc. without excess packaging waste.
  5. Support farm stands. Buying direct from small local farms and stands cuts out the grocery markup.
  6. Grow your own. Start a garden for ultra-local fruits and veggies essentially for just the cost of seeds/plants.
  7. Cook from scratch. Ditch processed convenience foods and cook simple, whole meals at home.
  8. Meal plan seasonally. Plan meals around what local, seasonal foods are available each week.
  9. Choose whole foods. Skip pricey processed items and buy whole, unpackaged ingredients when possible.
  10. Eat more plants. Reduce your budget – and your environmental impact – by eating fewer resource-intensive animal products.
  11. Embrace ugly produce. Perfectly good “uglies” are sold at a discount but are just as nutritious.
  12. Can/freeze local produce. Preserve local seasonal bounties to enjoy all year at a lower cost.

Although we live in a very urban area, we’re lucky that there are so many sources of local, organic, sustainably-raised foods both locally and within a relatively short drive. There are good online directories to help you source such foods in our area, too, such as Local Harvest or this guide from Edible East Bay.

Not confident in the kitchen? There are many free tutorials and classes online, on YouTube and elsewhere. You can also find in-person cooking classes in our area, such as those offered through Kitchen on Fire or the nonprofit 18 Reasons, including some low and reasonably priced offerings.

Yes, healthful eating can take more time, especially at the start. But considering its impact on our health and quality of life, we believe the investment is well worth it.

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