Healthy eating on £23/week

Budget menus abound on the internet, but what I’ve rarely seen with them is a calculation of whether keeping to that menu can meet one’s nutritional requirements. This is especially true of bizarre claims like ‘one bag of oats will feed you for a week’ (hopefully this was just a bot/troll), which assumes that 40g of oats for breakfast, lunch and dinner, cooked only with water, will somehow have anywhere near the required number of calories to stay alive, let alone the other macro and micro nutrient requirements. In case you’re interested, 120g of oats a day would give you 23% of a woman’s RDA for calories, 29% of protein, and a severe deficiency in numerous vitamins and minerals. For comparison, when I have porridge for breakfast – which I do, every day – I add a portion each of banana, mixed berries and sultanas; a tablespoon of cocoa; and a tablespoon of yoghurt (or, if I’m treating myself, I replace the water and yoghurt with milk). 40g of oats cooked with water is not a meal.

Budget menus are often high in carbs and low in animal produce, fruit and veg – yet these are the most nutritious (for vitamins and minerals) elements of our diet. If you have limited money, then calories are the priority, but we should not be claiming that keeping people alive is the same as keeping them healthy. We should not celebrate people struggling with fatigue and obesity despite limited calories, due to the lack of vitamins and minerals needed to allow them to burn the energy they consume rather than lay it down as fat. We should not praise people for cheap eating when the consequence is weakened immune systems and reduced capacity to handle stress.

At the same time, the only research I’ve seen that attempted to calculate the cost of eating a diet that met full nutritional requirements were two papers that each suggested a cost of around £45/week. That sounds wildly over-expensive. Even my brother, a strong and fit 6ft3 young man, didn’t spend that much on food when he was training for Iron Man. So how much does it cost?

The cost of food

I decided to start with my own diet and adjust it as needed to meet the RDAs for the average woman. I don’t consume 2000 calories myself due to chronic illness limiting my capacity for activity and therefore my need for calories, so I had some work to do to add in calories. I’m reasonably happy with the results, but as it was some effort I only did 4 different menus and they each had the same breakfast. Furthermore, I had to add in Vit D tablets, as I just couldn’t get my levels high enough, and the NHS suggests that most people between September and March can’t get enough Vit D from sunlight and diet.

I took the levels of macro and micro nutrients in each food from McCance and Widdowson’s 'composition of foods integrated dataset' on the nutrient content of the UK food supply. For my own calculations of my diet plan, you can download my spreadsheet here.

I then calculated the cost of the food twice: once buying the cheapest Aldi options; and the second time buying Morrison’s organic or organic wherever possible. With my background in ecology and a general sense of social concern, I am reluctant to pass on the costs of my food to the environment and other people. Therefore, I feel that organic food represents the true cost (albeit many farmers still aren’t paid enough in the UK), and that a proper calculation of the cost of food would not try to claim that poor people should outsource some of their costs to other people. They should be able to pay for what they consume, like everyone else; their incomes should be adequate for this. I actually buy my meat from grass-fed companies; if I had used these sources for meat, the total costs would have been higher (albeit meat is a very small portion of my daily food). Also, I get my fruit and veg predominantly from seasonal organic boxes that are delivered, but it is difficult to apportion costs to individual portions when the box is bought as a whole. So for simplicity, I kept to Morrison’s, even though Morrison’s didn’t always offer organic fruit and veg. So again, costs would be higher if one went organic as much as possible.

There is a big difference between organic/mid-range and ‘cheap as possible’. From Aldi, on average my food cost £3.30/day or £23.12/week. From Morrison’s/Wholefoods, it was £5.25/day or £36.84/week. Suddenly £45/week looks a lot more plausible, at least for men or when eating wholly organic/grass-fed produce. Costs would also increase if I ever added in a dessert or bought a ready-meal or some level of prepared foods. Everything here is cooked completely from scratch.

It was worth bearing in mind that the nutritional content of cheap food from Aldi will be poorer than organic foods. The information I used averaged across a range of sources, so it can’t distinguish the less nutritious cheap foods from their better counterparts. So whilst one might assume that eating for £23/week from Aldi’s cheapest range is entirely viable, in practice the fat content of cheap meat is higher, and the micro-nutrient value of everything is likely to be lower. This could mean insufficiencies of calcium, iron, selenium, vitamin E, riboflavin, B6 and B12.

What I ‘ate’

In my own diet, I strive to reach 7-9 portions of fruit and veg a day; the true goal that was decreased to 5-a-day on the pragmatic grounds that 7-9 would sound so unachievable that people wouldn’t bother to try. But with chronic illness and possible digestive issues, it is especially important to me that I make sure my body has as much micronutrition as it can get. So I aim for 7-9 portions, I buy organic, and I buy grass-fed meat (organic food and grass-fed meat is higher in micro-nutrients than intensively-produced foods). I try to avoid added sugar because it makes my neuropathic pain worse. I eat only small portions of meat (50g, once a day at most), so I wasn’t sure if my protein levels would be adequate, but I thought my sugar levels would be nice and low.

To my surprise, my protein consumption is more than fine. The oats that I have for breakfast, plus some unexpected vegetable sources, help with that. On the other hand, the fruit – especially dried fruit – and milk went a long way to meaning that I had no room for ‘sweet treats’. I also found that even though they weren’t necessary for protein, I couldn’t remove meat, let alone animal products, entirely: they were key sources of Vit D (which I still couldn’t get enough of), Vit E and Niacin. I had to add in fish (tuna) and sunflower seeds to get selenium, and even then still struggled due to my reluctance to eat tuna on a daily basis. Overall, I’m reasonably happy with the results, but Vit D was so low that I added in high-end Vit D supplements to the cost of my diet (high-end because cheap vitamins are so poorly absorbed that they’re not worth spending on). If you’re confident that you get enough Vit D from the sun even in winter with cloudy weather for days on end, then feel free to drop the Vit D capsules.

In the end, I have eaten a lot of fruit and veg! You could maybe drop some of these, but then you have to start worrying about what can be added in instead that won’t take you over the fat or carbohydrate limit, and isn’t a major protein source. So I’ve left it as it is, rather than try to play around with it all again.

I have the same breakfast each day: 40g porridge oats with a banana, mixed berries, sultanas, cocoa and yoghurt.

For the eight lunch/dinner meals I variously had: courgettes stuffed with sausage, pepper and cheese alongside baked potato; beef mince with carrot and tomato served with potato and sweet potato; a salad of tomato, pepper, swiss chard/spinace, cucumber and tuna, served with potato; scrambled eggs with mushroom, pepper and spinach served with potato; a salad of cucumber, tomato, pepper and lettuce with feta cheese; sweet potato, swede and turnip in chopped tomatoes; lentil curry with tomatoes, coconut milk, swiss chard or spinace and carrots; and a brocolli, cauliflower and pea curry served with brown rice.

For snacks, I usually had two slices of wholemeal toast with butter; an apple; a pear; a glass of milk; and a handful of sunflower seeds. On one of the days, I swapped out the pear and milk for some cucumber and a home-made energy bar (porridge oats, evaporated milk, dates, sultanas, dried apricot, flaked almonds and milk chocolate).

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