Preferable Versus Practical: Thoughts on Affordable Healthy Foods

About six years ago I was working on a segment for The Oprah Winfrey Show where I gave my “Prescription for America.” That week I had what I felt was an extraordinarily simple one: to eat whole-grain bread instead of white bread with enriched flour.

After the show aired, the producer called me to say they had received massive amounts of letters and emails from viewers complaining I had recommended something they could not find. Really? Whole-grain bread? I assumed it was right next to the white bread on the shelf at the grocery store, and decided to set out on my bike, incredulous at the viewers who claimed they couldn’t find it.

I rode across the George Washington Bridge from New Jersey into Harlem, New York. The few corner delis I visited had no whole-grain bread. I kept going into Queens, still no whole-grain bread at stores there. I came back into Manhattan and looked in stores on the Lower East Side – still nothing. I had cycled through New York City for an entire day and everywhere I stopped only sold white bread with enriched flour. I found a loaf of whole-wheat bread only now and then.

In that moment I realized that the vast majority of people not only lack access and income to buy specialty organic foods, they are also simply unable to get fairly basic healthy items. I had long thought that the greatest barrier to eating healthy was cost, and that still remains a massive obstacle for most folks. But the issue of access was now crystal clear.

I needed to rethink how I was teaching America to make choices about their food. That meant teaching them to play the hand they were dealt, with cost, access and stark realities accounted for. Everyone in America, regardless of income, deserves to eat healthy and live a healthy life. However, as a physician, it would be irresponsible to recommend only gourmet or organic foods to serve this purpose. In a utopian society, this would work. However, the reality of the situation lies in the fact that I need to teach you how to make healthy choices in your local corner stores and supermarkets – instead of the fancy gourmet stores.

That’s where frozen and canned foods come in. For less than $5 or $10, one can make a healthy, nutritious, family-sized meal out of a few packages of frozen vegetables and canned salmon, which has the same nutritional content of fresh salmon. With the right coupons, the price can be even lower.

This doesn’t mean that buying their more expensive, fresh, organic counterparts isn’t better. In fact, the reduction in pesticides and genetically modified ingredients also serves a strong benefit for children and adults alike. However, saving a few pennies to buy non-organic or frozen foods has never been shown to sacrifice much of the nutrition that keeps you healthy and allows your children to grow up big and strong.

For those who are concerned about pesticides, my team and I have developed a few guidelines on when to go organic, which include three simple rules:

1.) When the Skin Is Thin: Fruits and vegetables with a thin skin, like raspberries or strawberries, have high levels of pesticides, even after washing. Produce with thicker skins that are typically peeled are more likely to be safe since that peel, with the pesticides, will go right into the trash.

2.) Go Green With Leafy Greens: Because it’s harder to scrub every leaf in a head of lettuce, you may want to consider getting the organic versions of lettuce, kale or spinach – even when purchasing them frozen. Fortunately, other vegetables, such as broccoli, either don’t retain pesticides very well or don’t need a lot to begin with, so it’s okay to go with conventionally grown varieties.

3.) Milk It: Although much of the hormones and antibiotics used in conventional milk production are washed out before we drink it, the process isn’t perfect and some make it through. Plus, there is evidence that organic milk has higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids.

That said, if the organic prices are still too steep for your wallet, I would rather you choose a non-organic frozen carrot over a non-organic donut. Remember, you are what you eat.