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It's actually cheaper to eat healthy — if you know how
When you walk into the supermarket and see a packet of cookies for a third of the price of a punnet of blueberries, it's tempting to declare healthy eating unaffordable (and sit down with a consolatory packet of said cookies).
But experts say we are being duped by misleading food marketing claims and supermarket product placement, and that if we just familiarized ourselves with the basics of good nutrition, we'd benefit our budgets as much as our waistlines.
In fact, the latest research shows that a diet that follows the Australian Dietary Guidelines would actually cost less than the typical Australian diet, which tends to contain more than half "discretionary" foods, such as takeaway, alcohol and sugary drinks.
The "health halo" effect
Food marketers are very clever at appealing to our vulnerabities, with front-of-packet slogans and promises often making it difficult to determine what's the healthiest choice.
Products with such persuasive "health" labels are often referred to as having a "health halo", even if they're not actually the healthiest thing to eat.
Research shows that when foods are labelled with words like "100 percent natural" or "made with real fruit" we often think they are healthier, and are willing to spend more money on them than other unlabelled options.
Another example are breakfast biscuits often labelled as "high fibre" or "high protein", which tend to have more calories and less fibre than a standard bowl of wheat biscuits with milk — yet cost as much as 18 times more.
Even money itself has a health halo. One study found people assume an $8.95 chicken wrap is healthier than an identical $6.95 one.
The time poor factor
Experts say that many Australians feel so time poor that they prioritise quicker, more convenient options rather than spend time cooking.
"Why would people want to spend an extra 20 minutes in the kitchen each night to make food that the family won't eat, when they know they could serve up convenience food and they'd go back for seconds?" dietitian Professor Claire Collins tells Choice.
But Collins says the best gift we can give ourselves and our families is to learn some basic cooking skills.
"If you really love someone, buy, shop and cook more veggies and help them learn to love it," she says.
"If we could replace discretionary foods with veg they like and enjoy, it would help people feel better, boost their fibre intakes (which would reduce the incidence of bowel cancer) and lead to weight loss (which would reduce the prevalence of obesity)."
Take some time to learn
The best way to see through health halos, and get healthier meals on the table quicker, is to get curious about food and nutrition.
"If people understood how to read a nutrition panel, they may not fall for the marketing jargon," accredited practising dietitian Joel Feren, who is a spokesperson for the Dietitian's Association of Australia, tells Coach.
Trying a new recipe each week or buying a new health food at each shop are Feren's top tips for building a healthier repertoire.
"We need to have the know-how to create no-fuss, minimal ingredient meals that are not only cost-effective but extremely nutritious," he says.
"It's always going to be healthier if you prepare it yourself. It might only take five more minutes of preparation to make a pizza on a pitta bread with vegetables and cheese, than a packaged oven-bake pizza."
Feren says that while we might have an abundance of convenience foods on offer these days, we also have the luxury of affordable healthy ingredients at our fingertips.
"Stock up on things like tinned legumes – they can cost as little as 80 cents a can and are incredibly versatile. You can add them to soups, salads, curries and stir-fries, which will boost the fibre and protein content, plus provide B vitamins, folate and iron," he says.
"It's usually cheaper to buy frozen vegetables and frozen berries, or fresh fruit and vegetables when they are in season."
And an economical home cook always makes use of condiments, herbs and spices to inject healthful flavour into meals and snacks.
"Tofu is a good example – it's about half the price of meat or fish and is delicious marinated Asian or Mexican-style," Feren says.
"Get adventurous with sauces and herbs and spices to make your cooking really tasty."
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