When healthy makes you unhealthy
Over the past four years, my husband and I have been trying to get healthier. We started making more things from scratch, buying mostly organic and switching out personal and cleaning products for more natural versions. In some ways, it feels like we’ve been doing this at a pretty slow pace, but when I zoom out and think about what we’ve accomplished, we’ve made several major lifestyle changes in just four years. I am very proud of how far we’ve come and how we’ve changed some of our mindsets.
But lately I’ve been feeling increasingly anxious, stressed and exhausted, not just in general (as in ‘I have a toddler and work outside the home with a husband who works nights’) but specifically when it comes to our health. I’m so tired of having to extensively research every little thing only to find all the information out there contradicts each other. I’m exhausted from reading every ingredient on labels at the grocery store. I’m fed up with feeling guilty and anxious when I buy a convenience food or don’t plan out perfectly balanced meals for my family (especially for my daughter). I’m tired of feeling obsessed with finding ways to eat 100% organic on our budget and feeling like a failure when I can’t.
I’ve been trying to improve my prayer life. Now bear with me, it is related. In the crunchy world, meditation seems to be king. The thing I feel I struggle with the most in my prayer life is two-fold. 1) I don’t have a strong enough personal relationship with Christ. 2) because of this when I try to pray my mind wanders like crazy and soon I’m down the rabbit hole and God is the last thing on my mind. Meditation interests me in that it helps with focus and quieting the distractions.
However another thing meditation emphasizes is reducing stressors and eliminating those things, activities or practices that cause us anxiety. I’ve been spending some time in (somewhat decently focused) prayer and reflection to discern what are the root causes of my stress and anxiety and I found that many of them kept bringing me back here. Our health. Making healthy food choices. Eliminating toxins. Add onto that, with my husband starting nursing school in the fall and having to cut back on his work hours, our budget is stretched even thinner than ever. There may come a point where the choice is having internet at home or having organic food on the plate. It has come to the point where healthy eating on a budget feels scarily like an idol, sucking my time away from my family and my faith, wasting hours trying to find the secret to doing it all or the go-to recipes that will allow me to stay in-budget while buying all organic. Something has to give.
If you search the blogosphere for advice as to what foods are okay to buy conventionally, you’ll get mixed messages. One thing that seems to be consistent is if you have to put your budget somewhere, keep meat, dairy and the dirty dozen organic. The theory on meat is that since a lot of toxins are stored in the fat and muscles, which we then eat and cook with, you want the best quality which would yield the lowest toxins. With dairy, you want to avoid added antibiotics and hormones and reap the full benefits by consuming dairy from grassfed cows or goats. And the dirty dozen includes the produce which is sprayed with the highest amounts of pesticides and are the hardest to get clean. We’ve adapted these a bit and since we are just starting to readjust our lifestyle/budget I’m sure these will change but here’s how we’re functioning now.
- Focus on quality meat – We buy all our meat either from a local farmer or organic from budget stores like Aldi’s or EarthFare. This is more expensive but if you focus on cheaper cuts like whole chickens or thighs instead of breasts (our favorite!) and only shop sales you can definitely make it work. Plus if you make meat more a side (think palm-sized portions) and pile your plate with veggies and health fats, you can stretch it further.
- Cutting back on dairy – We only buy organic dairy and we use it sparingly. Since we aren’t buying breakfast cereals any longer, we don’t actually use much milk and a gallon can last us several weeks. We use cheese sparingly and rely more on spices for flavor instead. We are also going to be looking into the budget-friendliness of nutritional yeast as a cheese substitute. My go-to dairy source has been goat or cow kefir, which can be very expensive. However it has a relatively decent shelf life so we only buy it when there is a good sale (EarthFare recently had it on BOGO so we picked up a few bottles).
- Local eggs – We buy eggs from a local farmer who has truly free-range/pastured chickens. We go through an average of one dozen per week. I usually get two dozen twice a month and while we may go on an egg spree for a few days, it usually evens out. Eggs are also a great way to get more protein when quality meat is unavailable or your budget runs out.
- Utilize the dirty dozen and markets – We still buy most of our produce organic but we let the sales dictate what we get, we’re buying more frozen and we’re working on getting to know the farmer’s market. Our local market is pretty large and honestly the venue is not ideal. If you don’t get there before 9 a.m., the place is packed and it is impossible to spend time getting to know the different vendors and learning about their growing practices, let alone attempt to haggle. Since V is a morning person anyway, we try to get there before the crowds, but my husband and I are also a bit shy and feel unprepared to “interview” the farmers so this is a hard item to work on, but we believe in buying local and we want to save money and think the market is a great way to teach V where our food comes from. There are certain items we won’t buy conventionally – if we can’t fit organic in our budget we go without. Fresh berries are top of this list. Our basic rule is if you eat the skin, it has to be organic. We buy white potatoes organic only on sale or from the market, but buy sweet potatoes conventionally. Oranges, lemons, mangoes, cauliflower, asparagus, onions, kiwis and bananas we buy conventionally. Corn we don’t buy much but when we do it has to be organic or non-gmo seed verified. Everything else (in general) we buy organic or not at all. *I recently read that EWG suggests eating conventional fruit is better than no fruit at all. If you are in a situation where you cannot afford anything organic, I would suggest using the clean 15 as the bulk of your produce intake and then get items like apples and berries to fill in nutritional gaps. We are lucky to be in a position where we can stretch our organic produce budget to make it work. Also, there are several farmers in our area that while not technically organic, they use more natural methods of pest control. I would be comfortable buying any type of produce from a source like that, which is why markets are so great, you get to ask specifically what they use and why!
- We buy grains in bulk and look for sales – While we’ve tiptoed around grain-free diets, consuming that much meat and veggies is expensive and not in our budget. I’ve been stocking up on various kinds of organic rice over the past few months and we will start using them up now that our budget is more restricted. I just realized EarthFare has bulk rice and quinoa available so I’m going to price that out and hopefully have another option for grains. Meijer seems to run good deals on Bob’s Red Mill organic rolled oats. I bought 5 bags a few weeks ago when they were BOGO and we are still working through that supply. We’re committed to not paying full price for any grains and I think with the various stores and various kinds, that should be possible.
- Create from scratch – Everyone knows a lot of things are cheaper to make from scratch. Our main item is stock. We buy a whole chicken and make bone broth from it. This not only provides us with an entire chicken-worth of meat (which is cheaper than buying it already cut up), but we get lots of nutritionally-dense chicken stock to use for whatever we want. I tend to make one batch every other week and that seems to last us. I’m currently working on making some home ferments – sauerkraut, fermented pickles and relish, fermented carrots. Hopefully we are successful because these items are crazy expensive from the store and V loves them (as do our bellies)!
- I’m creating a master price list – but not stressing about it. A few months ago I started a spreadsheet of the stores we frequent most often and the prices for what we regularly buy. This has already been so helpful to get a handle on our budget and which items tend to drive our costs up and which should be our go-to budget items. It also helps me plan out shopping/meals for the week as I compare sales at the various stores we frequent. Yes it is a bit of a pain to have to shop multiple stores but my toddler does surprisingly well with it and it saves money. They are all on the same road and I always limit it to two stores per outing so we don’t waste gas and she can handle the stops.
- DIY for the home and body – We have switched almost every cleaning and personal care item to DIY. Exceptions are laundry and dish soap and shampoo. We will be switching laundry soaps when we run out to something that maybe isn’t quite as low on EWG but still not awful, and depending on prices may switch back to a conventional dish soap like Dawn. We only spend about $30/year on shampoo and soaps so I’m not concerned with those. We just started making tooth powder and deodorant recently and have been making our own foaming hand soap for a long time. These are all simple, easy recipes and the ingredients last a long time. We’re also going to switch to store brand paper towels and toilet paper when we run out. I know lots of people who have success going to “unpaper” for both, but DH says no way 🙂
- Let go of the guilt – Sometimes my daughter eats sugary completely non-organic muffins at friend’s house. Sometimes we eat conventionally grown strawberries and non-organic sugar at a party. Sometimes my daughter eats mac and cheese. Yes, it’s organic (because if you get it on sale there really isn’t a price difference) but still, that’s a lot of sodium and there’s usually a few questionable ingredients on the list. Letting go of the guilt when we eat less than perfectly is a process but is so necessary for health. I don’t want to begin micromanaging every little thing we put in our mouths and I don’t want to foster an unhealthy obsession with food in my daughter. Letting go of the guilt is good for our mental health and our pocketbook. As long as we are eating mostly from scratch, I can accept the times we grab convenience foods.
- Practicing gratitude – I want to teach V thankfulness and perspective. This includes showing gratitude for what we do have instead of lamenting about what we don’t. I want to show her we should focus on giving thanks for our home, for the food on our plates and the company at our table. We are very, very blessed to be able to afford eating anything organic and want to remain thankful for all that we have been given.
So, there you have it. We’re letting ourselves back off from focusing so obsessively on what we are eating. What are your ways to stay healthy-ish without is causing more harm than good?