Researchers highlight plan to eat healthy on a budget

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The study suggests tangible ways for low-income households to have healthy meals

Following a healthy diet can come with a hefty price tag, but a team of researchers has outlined a way for consumers to stick to a healthy diet -- and also stick to their budgets.

According to the team, consumers -- and their families -- can have healthy meals if they focus on buying items in bulk and planning meals in advance.

“This study determines the likelihood that families living in low-income households could create meals that meet the USDA dietary guidelines presented in MyPlate nutrition education materials,” said researcher Karen M. Jetter, PhD. “In addition to food cost, the other factors considered were access to stores, time for meal preparation, and whether the menus included culturally appropriate foods.”

Getting the most for your money

The researchers started the study by working with the Mechoopda Indian Tribe (MIT) of Chico Rancheria and Northern Valley Indian Health, Inc. to help them incorporate healthy, budget-friendly meals into their routines.

They focused on creating menus for the families and then determined where they could purchase the necessary items at a reasonable price.

The majority of the families in the area have an average income of $35,000 or less, and the researchers were adamant about creating meal plans that would be suitable for their budgets, as well as for families with small children. One of the main goals was to incorporate variety so the families weren’t consistently eating the same things. Moreover, the researchers made sure that the meals were all nutritionally sound based on USDA guidelines.

The groups worked together to create a menu that consisted of one healthy meal per day for two weeks, and according to Dr. Jetter, the goal was achieved “by balancing daily [nutrition] targets over two weeks, not every day.”

The researchers then went to 13 local stores and classified them as follows: specialty market, bulk supermarket, discount market, and general supermarket. According to their findings, specialty and discount markets didn’t carry all of the necessary items, and they came with a higher price tag. However, the bulk and general supermarkets provided a larger variety and stayed closer to their budgets.

The researchers found that at a bulk supermarket, the families could stick to their meal plan for $25 a day; at the specialty store, that cost went up to nearly $40 per day.

Despite these positive results, the researchers note that even a slight price increase could make it more difficult for low-income families to put healthy meals on the table.

“This research demonstrates that menus that meet USDA guidelines can be purchased by a family of four when shopping at a bulk supermarket, but any reduction in SNAP benefits or increase in food costs would make it difficult for these economically vulnerable families to maintain a healthy lifestyle,” Dr. Jetter said.

Affecting bodies and wallets

With this study, one of the researchers’ main goals was to keep the meals healthy based on USDA nutritional guidelines. But according to a recent study, many families who receive SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits aren’t getting a healthy diet.

"Even though SNAP is not designed to cover all of the cost of food -- it's meant to be a supplemental food program -- this study makes it clear that there would be many low-income households that would not be able to cover the gap needed to eat a diet consistent with federal dietary guidelines," said study co-author Lindsey Haynes-Maslow.

This can be detrimental for countless reasons -- one of which is the risk of obesity, which researchers have found is increased when access to food is limited.

“Our study highlights the importance of adequate nutrition for health,” said researcher Alexander Testa. “Millions of Americans do not have enough food to eat and live in communities where affordable healthy food options are not available. To combat obesity, it is important to ensure that people have consistent access to nutritious food.”

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