With the rise in living costs, we're all feeling extra pressure on our pockets at the moment, leading to different or difficult choices to be made on where we spend our money. It can be a time of increased stress, where the basic necessities can over-ride supporting our long-term health. However, with increasing pressure on the NHS, it's now more important than ever to focus on maintaining optimal physical and cognitive function during this challenging period, and beyond.
Optimal health can be considered as costly, due to cheaper foods often being higher in sugar and ultra-processed ingredients, gym memberships and premium nutritional supplements, which can be expensive. Here's some tips on how to continue to support and optimise your health, whilst still watching the pennies.
It starts in the shop:
What's consistent among all of the most evidence-based ways of eating is a diet that's high in fibre from vegetables and (some) fruit, and includes healthy fats and lean protein. This should therefore be the focus of your food shop, for most people.
Eat local and seasonal – seasonal and local fruit and vegetables are much cheaper. For example, British apples are much cheaper than imported mangoes, and tomatoes are priced lower in August than in December. Many supermarkets have offers on a number of vegetables at different times of the year, which encourages dietary diversity too.
Organic/Non-Organic – If you're committed to organic, then organic veg box deliveries are often a more economical choice than buying organic from a supermarket, and they also have a lower carbon footprint. If you're switching from organic to non-organic, you can use a veg wash or apple cider vinegar in water to help remove pesticides. Also, you can choose the products that are most associated with being clean/fewer pesticides (clean 15) and avoiding those with the most pesticides (dirty dozen), see https://www.pan-uk.org/dirty-dozen/. However, remember fresh wholefoods are still a better option than processed foods, so look at veg washing rather than avoiding them altogether.
Chose value produce
Vegetables such as onions, carrots, mushrooms and cabbage, are low in cost but extremely high in many health-providing nutrients including quercetin, beta carotene, beta-glucans and sulforaphane. They can also be easily included in most dishes. One garlic clove, dried herbs or spices and ginger can contribute to your 5 a day (minimum) and can last quite a long time, so are a great way of giving a healthful boost to a meal (they're all great anti-inflammatory foods too).
Frozen fruit and vegetables can be a good way to avoid waste and have constant availability of products when the cupboard is getting bare. The freezing process also preserves levels of many nutrients.
Tinned vegetables, such as tomatoes, are economical, easy to use and can have an increased availability of some phytonutrients, such as lycopene. The way in which some vegetables are preserved by canning means that they may contain salt and sugar but can be a good staple to provide fibre in the diet. Read labels carefully for additives (you may have to take your magnifying glass with you!)
Some supermarkets have “ugly” or “wonky” vegetables, which might not look as beautiful, but have the same nutrient quality and are often higher in certain phytonutrients as they've undergone more stress (which increases some phytonutrients).
If you consume meat and/or fish, there are cheaper cuts or sources available, so have a look around and be open minded. Search for recipes that utilise these ingredients, which will increase dietary diversity too. It's also a good idea to opt for meat- free days to reduce cost, but which can also improve health by limiting red meat consumption. You can half the amount of meat in a meal and bulk it up with vegetarian protein sources such as beans, chickpeas, and lentils, or go the whole hog and swap to these in a meal. Pulses are a source of protein but are also high in fibre. Avoid heavily processed vegan meat alternatives. Other vegan sources of protein are nuts, seeds, tofu, tempeh and quinoa.
Eggs are also a great source of protein and fat, and are economical too. Omelettes and frittatas are therefore a good way to obtain protein and you can add in a high variety of vegetables.
Low glycaemic load wholegrains can help to support energy production (particularly when consumed with lean protein and healthy fats) and to provide fibre. They're also low cost and can help add bulk to a meal. Choose wholegrains such as oats (porridge is an excellent low-cost breakfast) and brown rice over processed or refined (white) carbohydrates. You can also mix it up with quinoa or sweet potato.
In the kitchen
Reduce waste and maximise the “output” of the weekly shop by:
Batch Cooking – make a large batch of stews, casseroles, curries, etc and freeze in individual batches.
Add bulk – include pulses, wholegrains, starchy vegetables (e.g., sweet potato, butternut squash) to help produce go further.
Make soups – use up older vegetables left in the fridge or cupboard to make soups. Onion and celery can be a great base and then simmer any other vegetables in stock for 20-30 minutes. You can add pulses for extra protein and fibre plus tinned tomatoes to make it go further. This prevents waste of any vegetables that may otherwise be thrown away. Again, you can freeze in batches if needed.
The benefits of exercise on your physical and mental wellbeing are indisputable. But there's often an assumption that physical activity is a luxury with gym memberships, expensive equipment and clothing, or club subscriptions. However, there are multiple opportunities for low cost or free activities including:
Go for walk – walking is low impact and available to everyone. Benefits of walking include weight management, improved mood, greater self-esteem, and protection for osteoporosis.
Running – it's important to have good quality trainers which suit your biomechanics but running is a free cardiovascular workout and again has many positive benefits to fitness, mental wellbeing and bone density, to name a few. It should be noted that it's important to have enough basic fitness before running and to warm up and cool down sufficiently in order to reduce injury risk. If you're keen to get involved but not sure how, there are many local running groups that are very cheap to join or sign up for a Park Run which is a free community event and widely available across the UK. Walking and running can also be an opportunity to get social by doing so with a friend or in a group. A sense of community and social connection has been shown to be essential for mental wellbeing.
Work out at home – during the pandemic there was a rise in the availability of online fitness subscriptions, personal training and yoga/pilates instruction, which helped to maintain activity and sociability during the Covid-19 epidemic. There's also lots of free workouts online, many of which don't require any equipment. If organised workouts are not your thing, simply doing squats, lunges, press-ups and sit-ups whilst waiting for the kettle to boil is a great way to get more movement into your day.
Community sports clubs have subscriptions which are reasonable, so looking at local activities is a great way to increase activity and socialisation.
Be aware that intensive exercise of any sort can increase oxidative stress, so a good diet and potential supplementation is useful to offset this.
Looking after physical and biochemical health with exercise and diet is essential, but equally important is maintaining mental wellbeing. The cost-of-living crisis can add extra daily stress, so it's essential to support cognitive function and aid relaxation as much as possible, to build resilience. There are many ways to support relaxation which are completely free.
Meditation – this is one of the best ways to reduce tension and anxiety and to support a healthy mind. There are many free guided meditations available on YouTube and various apps if you need help getting started or prefer to be guided. Mindfulness-based stress reduction can have positive effects on depression, anxiety and psychological distress.
Breathing is completely free!! – breathing exercises have been shown to calm the stress response and shift the nervous system towards a more relaxed state. Many breathing exercises are available – a simple and easy one to do is 4/7 breathing:
Breathe-in to the count of 4 through nose
Breathe out for count of 7 through mouth
Repeat 12 times. Practice regularly twice per day.
Cold exposure – hot to cold showering has been shown to reduce perceived stress, increase alertness and stimulate immunity. It's a very easy intervention to implement into your routine, or for the more adventurous, try wild swimming (but make sure it's safe to do so).
The Nutrition Gap
Diet, exercise and lifestyle are essential for maintaining optimal health but it can be difficult to obtain optimal levels of nutrients from our diet due to mass food production, poor soil quality and long storage/transportation times. The difference between the nutrients actually obtained from food and the levels required for optimum health, is called the ‘nutrition gap.’ The gap is pertinent to overall health especially when looking at immune function. Poor nutrient availability will affect the ability of the immune system to respond to pathogenic invasions and to maintain a balanced approach between an adequate response and excessive inflammation.
If you're depleted in just one nutrient, your body will go into a triage response and favour survival over long-term health. This means critical metabolic functions, such as energy production are prioritised, and the risks of early ageing and the development of chronic disease are then increased. A multivitamin and mineral supplement is a low-cost way to ensure intake of the Recommended Dietary Allowance of micronutrients. Even when considering budget, it's important to consider maintaining optimal levels of nutrients with a multivitamin/mineral complex, as well as including essential fats and supporting gut health, to protect optimal wellbeing for the future.