If you're dedicated to eating healthily, rising food costs can make meal planning and grocery shopping a challenge. Research suggests that when our food budget is stretched, fresh fruits and vegetables, meat and fish appear less often in our shopping cart – and with that go many essential nutrients, including vitamins A, C and K, folate, B12, potassium, iron and omega-3 fatty acids.
For those on a fixed income, such as seniors, it can be tricky to find affordable, nutritious food. Many key nutrients needed to maintain health as we get older, in particular brain health, are found in increasingly pricey foods, the very foods that can get squeezed out of a tight food budget.
A weak dollar, climate change and consumer trends are expected to continue to push up the price of our grocery bill this year. The University of Guelph's Food Institute anticipates our food bill will rise as much as 4 per cent in 2016, costing the average Canadian household an additional $345.
The Food Institute's 2016 Food Price Report forecasts fruit and nuts to increase in price by 2.5 per cent to 4.5 per cent, vegetables by 2 per cent to 4 per cent and fish and seafood by 1 to 3 per cent – increases significantly higher than inflation.
According to Dr. Carol Greenwood, Baycrest senior scientist and professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto who studies nutrition and brain health in older adults, "the only way to get the breadth of nutrients shown to help retain cognitive function is to eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts and fish. If rising foods costs mean these foods no longer fit into your weekly food budget, you need to find nutritious substitutes."
Maintaining a healthy diet amid skyrocketing food prices doesn't have to break the bank. The following strategies will help you spend less on your food bill and, at the same time, maintain a nutrient-packed diet that will help keep your brain – and whole body – healthy.
Shop for in-season produce. Fruits and vegetables supply many brain-friendly nutrients, including folate, a B vitamin that, some research suggests, boosts brainpower. Folate helps break down homocysteine, an amino acid that can impair brain function.
Seasonal produce, such as cabbage, carrots, parsnips, winter squash, potatoes, citrus fruit, apples and pears, is less expensive than out-of-season fruits and vegetables that have been transported long distances to your grocery store. It's also at its peak in terms of nutrients and flavour.
Choose frozen berries. Rich in antioxidants called polyphenols, berries are thought to protect brain cells by fighting free radical damage, reducing inflammation and removing toxic proteins that accumulate with age. Blueberries and strawberries appear to be most potent in terms of brain health.
Frozen berries are considerably less expensive than imported fresh berries. Frozen produce can actually be higher in nutrients than fresh because it's flash-frozen right after picking.
Spend on leafy greens. A number of studies have found that eating plenty of leafy green vegetables, in particular salad greens, slows cognitive decline in older adults. It isn't clear which nutrients in leafy greens help keep the mind sharp.
Based on current research, many experts recommend eating leafy greens at least six days a week, including Dr. Carol Greenwood who advises her patients to eat them every day. "If you're going to spend more on vegetables," she says "do so for salad greens, like lettuce, spinach and arugula."
Romaine, green leaf, butterhead (Boston, bib) and red leaf lettuces have more vitamins, minerals and antioxidants per serving than iceberg. Consider buying other leafy greens, such as kale, collards and Swiss chard, frozen instead of fresh.
Look for meat alternatives. Eating less red meat will help reduce your grocery bill and it's good for your brain. The Mediterranean diet, the MIND (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) diet and the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet – all shown to protect from Alzheimer's disease – recommend limiting red meat.
To replace meat's protein (needed to help slow age-related muscle loss), add more pulses (e.g. lentils, chickpeas, black beans, kidney beans). Besides protein, pulses deliver plenty of folate, magnesium, iron, potassium and iron. As part of a brain-friendly diet, they're recommended at least four times a week.
If you buy dried pulses, which are incredibly cheap, you'll need to soak them before cooking. (Lentils don't need to be soaked first.) If you don't have the time or inclination to soak dried beans, buy them canned. They're already cooked and, after draining and rinsing, ready to be added to soups, stews, chili and salads.
Buy canned fish. Oily fish, such as salmon, sardines and herring, are an exceptional source of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acid that enhances the ability of brain cells to communicate with each other. Higher intakes of DHA may also guard against Alzheimer's disease.
To cut your grocery bill, choose canned fish – salmon, sardines, light tuna, herring – instead of fresh. It's equally nutritious.
Choose seeds over nuts. Nuts are a good source of vitamin E, an antioxidant linked to less cognitive decline as we age. But they're also increasing in cost.
Seeds, a less expensive alternative, offer many of the same nutrients and antioxidants found in nuts. Sunflower seeds and wheat germ are high in vitamin E. (Wheat germ is the kernel of a wheat seed.) Pumpkin seeds are another nutrient-rich seed.
Visit the bulk bin. Buying staple foods in bulk such as beans and lentils, brown rice, oats, nuts, seeds and dried fruit is budget-friendly. Less packaging also means less waste. If you live alone, purchase only what you need or an amount that you have room to store in your pantry.
Leslie Beck, a registered dietitian, is based at the Medisys clinic in Toronto.