The economy of eating right

You don’t have to be wealthy to eat healthy… it’s all about getting the right information and advice

I slightly toasted my slice of sourdough and then spread the mashed avocado that I had scooped out of the skin. It was such a lush green. Next, I placed my fried egg on top and sprinkled the entire thing with pink salt and crushed red chilli flakes. It was so pretty: golden brown, bright green and orange speckled abundantly with dark red dots. When I bit into it, my heart skipped a beat. Soft, crunchy, juicy, tangy, it tasted like heaven; so cliché I know, but I have no other words to describe the experience. Not only was it a treat for the tastebuds, it was also healthy – a rare combination. 

But this single experience cost me roughly Rs 600. Even if I eat like this five days a week, I will end up spending at least Rs 12,000 a month. On breakfast. For one person.

Eating healthy is an expensive business, particularly in a country where the food is ‘rich’ even though the people are poor . If you’re going to do it, you’re going to need to think seriously about your budget and your options. 

When I first bemoaned how expensive it is to eat healthy, Arooj, my friend, who is a chef, rolled her eyes. “Who asked you to pay Rs 900 for an avocado,” she asked. And I promptly named the celebrity nutritionist/trainer that I follow on Instagram. “Unfollow her right now,” she barked. “You live in Pakistan, not America.” 

If you scroll through my Insta, you will find lots of videos showing recipes for quick, easy and clean eating. I don’t cook. I almost never have. It’s not that I don’t love anyone enough to cook for them but that I hate cooking more. So when I learn a new way of making something, I teach my cook how to make it for me. It’s always clean, sugar-free and, since the last one year, gluten-free too. And damn is it expensive.

For example, paying for quinoa – a healthy protein-heavy seed alternative to starchy grains – week after week. The damn thing finishes so fast, and I need heaps to fill my stomach.

 Eating healthy costs money. Lots of it. This has been my single biggest complaint over the last few years. Ok, maybe not my single biggest one. 

Even though I’ve now unfollowed so many celebrity chefs and trainers and nutritionists, and I try and eat as simply as I can, I feel like I still spend too much money on my food. And this is food that is made at home.  

About four months ago, I went to Imtiaz store near Nuplex in Karachi for the first time. I saw local varieties of all kinds of oats, chia seeds, flax seed powder and even gluten free atta. Everything was cheaper than most other stores. I can’t begin to explain my excitement. I picked up a box of everything along with all my other groceries. At the counter, I looked at the tiny screen with green numbers flashing on it. With great trepidation, I should add. The bill was tabled at Rs 17,453. Ok, at least it’s not the usual Rs 254,378,909. And most of the things like atta, oil, rice, cereals and so on will last me 10 to 12 days at the very least.

The thing is, this isn’t enough if you’re genuinely trying to eat healthy. For people like me, who’ve struggled with various illnesses, eating right is a basic requirement. This diet includes a weight-appropriate amount of protein. And here’s the rub: Protein is expensive if you’re eating lean chicken or meat every day, even if it’s small quantities, because not everyone can have lots of chicken and meat in a day, or even eggs. For a family of five, it can still cost near Rs 50,000 a month just for protein. That’s a startling figure, I know; but, trust me, the inflation driven math supports it. 

This won’t break your bank, someone recently said to me. It won’t break mine but what about the average middle class woman who wants to eat healthy? She wouldn’t be able to afford it. Adding plant-based protein sometimes is great but what if your intake isn’t enough? Like in my case. I end up supplementing with protein shakes. My favourite is Optimum Nutrition whey protein and one large container costs almost Rs 18,000. It has 40 servings, and I restrict its use to five days a week. Now you do the math.

My childhood friend Nazish is an Applied Functional Medicine Coach, Hormone Health Expert and Health Food Enthusiast. I call upon her frequently for help with my diet for my gut issues and for advice on general wellness. Is eating healthy expensive, I ask her. “It’s a huge misconception,” she responds. “You don’t need to eat anything that isn’t indigenous. Palak bhindi or palak gosht (cooked right) make for a clean, healthy meal.”

You don’t need me or a nutritionist to tell you that palak and bhindi cost a lot less than quinoa and avocados. 

 What is ‘clean,’ I ask. “It is a term given to anything that isn’t junk. There are lots of ways of classifying it; anything that isn’t processed or coming out of a can is clean.”

 So what about meat, I persist. “Even if you’re someone who can’t afford to eat beef, fish or mutton every single day you can still be healthy. It’s absolutely ridiculous to live in Pakistan and buy avocados.” I cringe, both physically and emotionally. But she continues: “It is the most ridiculous thing you can do to yourself and to your economy.”

 What she explained next is going to fundamentally change the way I look at food. She explained that, as people whose families have lived in this region for centuries, our DNA is programmed to digest specific types of food. So, while quinoa and avocados may feel great and we may thrive on them, we will not derive as much benefit from them as we will from foods that our great, great, great grandparents have traditionally grown and eaten. “The body will always thrive on indigenous foods because it is coded in our DNA, the body absorbs nutrients from such foods really well.”  

 Why doesn’t anyone know this, I ask Arooj, indignantly. How can people not know and not talk about something so important.

 “Eat seasonal and regional,” she snaps, “I’ve always been telling you that.”

 “Be in sync with your environment,” my husband chimes in from the background. I ignore him.

 “We aren’t built to eat blueberries out of season and what is not grown in our environment,” adds Arooj, also ignoring him.

 Ok, so then what should I eat if I’m not having quinoa? Nazish says to have whole grains and seeds such as millet. Arooj says millet too, and adds barley, and chickpeas to the list. These are more widely available, locally grown and cheap

Umar Aziz, Profit’s Multimedia Editor asks “what about insects?” I shudder visibly. “Do you eat shellfish,” he asks me. I answer in the affirmative, knowing where he is going with this. “It’s because you’re socialised. It would be the same if you were socialised when you were younger to eat insects.” I shuddered again, but agreed reluctantly.

 Nazish says we assimilate animal protein better. Everyone needs varying grammes of protein that is calculated according to your weight and lifestyle. “This entire conversation about not being able to eat meat or eggs every day is pointless,” says Arooj. “You can make up your protein intake with other sources, for example Greek yoghurt or cottage cheese.”

Yes, both are healthy and great sources of protein. But if you go to buy these things in retail, it will send your grocery bill into orbit. The cheapest cottage cheese is Rs 500 per 200 grammes and the cheapest Greek yoghurt is Rs 350 for 100 gms. A daily intake of 200 grammes of each daily would be Rs 1,200 a day, or Rs 36,000 a month.  

If you make both at home, the story is different. The cost of yoghurt is Rs 242 per kilo, and you can extract up to 400 grammes of Greek yoghurt from it. The cost of milk is Rs 180 per kilo and the yield of cottage cheese from this is 400 grammes. Everything included, it will cost you Rs 333 a day or Rs 10,000 per month.  

That’s big savings and guaranteed benefits. Some ask would that, instead of buying these ingredients at home at high retail prices in small quantities, is it just worth eating healthy at a restaurant? They buy and cook and bulk, and save you the trouble. Arooj, a chef, says no. 

She argues that there is no need to pay Rs 3,000 for a meal that is flourless, sugar-free, described as ‘skinny light’ and so on. “Let me break this down for you: I may make mayonnaise my way because I think my recipe yields the best result — I use grapeseed oil. It is available at Empress Market, so it’s very cheap. But if I market it as something fancy and healthy, I can charge a premium on something I’m not paying a premium for. This is what many restaurants do.”

 She talks about how dressings are watered down and then called light. “It’s the same dressing with some water, so you’re paying more but they are spending less.” Zero percent extra cost to the salad and less effort too.

Are you feeling my indignance? 

If not, let me tell you more. You know the latest fad these days is kimchi, right? Also, sauerkraut or fermented vegetables. You think, ‘oh this is so good for my gut health, it’s fine if I spend more.’ But do you know what achar is? Vinegar-based achar is just as good, but, because it’s achar, it’s considered bukwaas. Arooj says kimchi sold in Pakistan isn’t healthy anyway, because the key ingredient is gochujang paste, which comes in a jar, has a heavy dose of stabilisers and colourants, and, because it’s being produced in a factory somewhere, it’s full of chemicals.

Eating healthy and eating right is not just a matter of choice or to lose weight – but sometimes much more than that. 

There are so many people who have severe food allergies, in many cases life-threatening ones. Sundar is the founder of Gluten Free Foods, a popular home-based bakery dedicatedly attempting to make available allergen-free food that is not only at par with its gluten-containing alternatives in terms of taste and nutrition but also in terms of affordability.

“There is a perception that allergen-free food is a fad. As someone who has been struggling with food allergies and an autoimmune disease for over two decades, I can say that finding alternatives which are nutritious, authentic and delicious is very challenging. There’s a stigma and lack of understanding regarding food allergies and intolerances and normally people perceive them as an exaggeration of reality but, for many, special diets are not a matter of preference but life and death.” 

Not wanting to generalise, she says that, for her personally, “choices in even gluten-free food are restricted as they may contain other ingredients which I’m allergic to such as dairy, soy or certain nuts and fruits.” This means that all food consumed by her has to have “specific ingredients which are certified allergen free” and must be prepared in a dedicated facility. 

There are other factors, such as the costs for research and development. Such food requires constant research and experimentation. Then, because these are produced in limited quantities, Sundar says “there are no economies of scale to benefit from.” Much of the time, ingredients aren’t readily available and have to be imported from authentic sources. “All these factors lead to a higher production cost.” 

But let’s get back to the larger problem at hand. 

 Branding fruits and vegetables that are not locally grown as ‘healthy’ is just a whole load of “bull”, says Arooj. What is basically happening is that they are being blanched and stored with the aid of chemicals to avoid spoiling. Both flash freezing or even regular freezing are all common processes involved in bringing the orange sweet potato fries all the way from their native Brazil to your plate at a local restaurant. “You’re basically paying top dollar for something that isn’t grown locally just because it doesn’t have the right shade of colour or essential nutrients.” 

The bottom line is that if you want to eat healthy, but on a budget, it is entirely possible. You don’t need deep pockets, just a deeper understanding. The cost is inversely proportional to the quality of advice you get. Now that’s math I can get on board with.

Femme Finance
Working woman. Mother. Survivor. Teri maa, bhen

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