As readers know, from time to time I include a personal finance article in with my investment articles and dividend reports. And they are often centered around minimalism and simplicity.
This one’s a bit unusual in that I’m recommending people spend more money on certain areas, and for good reason. In particular, food. I’ve read a number of personal finance sites, and some of them, unfortunately, discuss spending very little on food, and I couldn’t disagree more. It’s good to cut unnecessary expenses, but in my view, that’s one of the very last areas a person should be cutting corners on.
Most Americans these days, and a significant percentage of people from other developed countries, eat a very processed and unhealthy diet. Not only does it harm their health, it leads to unnecessary animal suffering and damage to the environment.
The reason often given is that it’s convenient and cheap. Healthcare, however, is inconvenient and expensive, but that’s not as immediately clear when people reach for products on a grocery store shelf. Damaging the place we live in is inconvenient and expensive in the long run as well. People used to spend more time and money on food and cooking; it was a social and healthful experience, but now it’s an afterthought for supposedly more important things.
Most cheap food is actually a rip-off; it’s not worth what people pay for it. Food might sometimes seem expensive, and many of us may have seen recent inflation of food prices, but in the grand scheme of things, food is really, really cheap. In the US, people have been spending a lower and lower percentage of income on their food each decade since World War II, and earlier. People in the US spend less of their income on food than basically any other country. If you look up charts that show percentage of income spent on food, you’ll see that poor and typically unhealthy countries tend to spend the highest percentage of their income on food since they have so little income, that the healthiest developed countries spend moderate amounts of their income on food, and that relatively unhealthy countries by developed standards, such as the US, spend the least. Some of this has to do with the fact that you get what you pay for.
I’m not a nutritionist or a doctor (neither am I a chartered financial analyst). It’s probably a good idea to consult them for individual health. I encourage people looking up a variety of views. Scientific knowledge is often improving, and it’s good to stay up to date. But a lot of the core concepts are simple and straightforward: eat a balanced diet of whole foods. I’m always learning new things, and often experimenting. One major thing to be aware of is that everyone is biologically different, and different ancestry can lead to different nutritional sources that allow people to thrive.
A bit of background on myself with regard to health, is that I spent 12 years doing intensive MMA, karate, kickboxing, and submission grappling, tournament fighting, and taught private martial arts lessons for some side income for a while. I still regularly do body weight exercises, weight-lifting, cardio, and sports. I have no known chronic health problems and take no regular medication. A lot of this experience involved researching nutrition from a variety of sources, including online articles, college courses, learning from instructors, looking up all the specs on every single food I eat, researching scientific findings, and learning from farmers. I’ve experimented with different diets, including my original “conventional” diet of processed foods and meats, years as a vegetarian, some time as a pescetarian, and so forth.
So this will be a bit of a primer on what to look for with food so that you get a good value. Keep in mind, the best value often isn’t the cheapest; it’s the best total value for health and environment. My guiding principle for this topic (and most topics) is to do things right the first time. Rather than pay less on food and more on health care later (or to feel worse, or to look worse), and rather than damage the environment now and try to fix it later, I propose eating healthfully and sustainably every day.
Oils, Fatty Acids, and Sugar
A major problem with eating habits in developed countries is the quantity of highly processed oils and the mismatch of essential fatty acids.
Just about everything these days has soy oil, corn oil, canola oil, and so forth. (Vegetable oil in general.) It’s super-cheap, grown in enormous quantities, and subsidized with American tax dollars. Looking at the really basic nutrition label won’t show why it’s unhealthy; you’ll just see a bit of fat and think it’s not so bad (since fat in the right forms and in the right quantities isn’t bad). But what’s unhealthy about it is the ratio of omega 6 fatty acids to omega 3 fatty acids, and the lack of omega 3 fatty acids in general.
The body needs certain fatty acids, called essential fatty acids. Non-essential fatty acids can be produced by the body from the essential ones (though not always in the optimal amounts). The essential omega 6 fatty acid is Linoleic acid (LA). You can get this in so many places, and the problem is that people generally get too much. The essential omega 3 fatty acid is alpha-Linolenic acid (ALA). It’s a bit harder to come by, but can be consumed from a variety of sources including ground flax seeds and walnuts.
But there are two more important fatty acids worth discussing. They are omega 3 fatty acids: Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). The body can make EPA from ALA, and can make DHA from EPA, but only in small percentages, and it varies based on genetics, age, and probably other factors.
A number of studies link omega 6 fatty acids to increased chronic systemic inflammation throughout the body, which leads to decreases in energy, increased risks of so many chronic diseases, and decreased longevity. This is suspected to be because omega 6 fatty acids compete with omega 3 fatty acids for some of the same roles in the body, and the omega 3 fatty acids are understood to be anti-inflammatory while omega 6 fatty acids can be inflammatory.
Hunger-gatherers, and even more recent generations, would have gotten more omega 3, and less omega 6 than the current diets in America and many other developed countries provide. I’ve seen a rather broad range for what the optimal ratio is, with 4:1 (omega 6 to omega 3) being the most common I’ve observed, and with 1:1 sometimes being presented as the best target, or the ratio that earlier humans may have eaten. Quibbling over the precise optimal ratio is less important than seeing how far imbalanced Americans are: they get on average a 20:1 ratio of omega 6 to omega 3. This is due to enormous consumption of processed foods and these processed vegetable oils, and a lack of omega 3.
As far as omega 3 is concerned, not all of it is equal. Most plant-based omega 3 is ALA, which is fine. But more than half of the brain is made of fat, and a substantial portion of that is DHA. EPA and DHA have been shown in numerous studies to be extremely important for the brain. Unfortunately, ALA can only be converted to EPA and DHA in small and varied quantities, and EPA and DHA are barely found in many diets. Pretty much the only way to get adequate EPA and DHA is by eating certain kinds of fish or taking fish oil supplements. Fish get theirs from eating algae, which can also be an option in supplement form.
-Omega 6 is essential, but only in the right quantities, and can be reduced to more natural levels by eliminating processed oils and reducing processed foods. Quality olive oil is healthy, as are a few other oils, but not the ubiquitous vegetable-based processed ones (soy, corn, canola, and a few others) that are in everything. These unsaturated fatty oils also have relatively low limits on how hot they can be cooked before detrimental changes occur, and so if they are cooked with, or if they are heated during processing, it’s deleterious.
-Omega 3 is essential, and is usually under-represented in cheap, processed foods. You can increase ALA by eating flax, walnuts, or certain other foods. For recommended amounts of EPA or DHA, you usually need fish. Certain forms of algae, and the highest quality eggs, can provide certain amounts as well.
Science seems pretty sound on the importance of omega 3 fatty acids, and particularly DHA and EPA. There seems to be less certainty but still good research regarding the effects of too much omega 6 fatty acids, but considering the sheer quantity being consumed in only this recent time period, it’s probably best to keep consumption to a minimum (don’t worry about getting too little, since it’s in so many things.) Stick to high quality oils, and look up the maximum temperatures for which they can be safely heated.
Sugar is a big problem too. You get sugar from fruits if you eat them; you don’t need to add processed ones to your diet.
A fun-fact is that if you live in the US, some of your tax dollars go to soy, corn, and wheat subsidies (and tobacco subsidies), which are unhealthy in the general food system. Most of the crops grown are these sorts of crops.
Organic, Local, Naturally-Fed Meat, Eggs, and Dairy
Most meats work like this now: Big Agra takes a chicken, puts it into a crowded compact area, feeds it food that it wouldn’t normally eat in large quantities, selectively breeds it to be abnormally large, gives it antibiotics, and kills it when it’s a few weeks old (since it reaches a huge size very quickly). The same is true for cows; feed them the wrong kind of food in relatively poor conditions. In many instances, how they treat these animals is terrible.
As could be suspected, besides the animal rights issues involved, it doesn’t create the most nutritious product for humans.
Domesticated animals are significantly less nutritious than wild counterparts. Compare the nutrition of a wild duck to a domestic duck, or a wild turkey to a domestic one, to see huge differences. Secondly, things like pastured chickens and grass-fed cows, have big health differences compared to caged grain-fed chickens and corn-fed cows. This even translates to eggs; eggs from pastured chickens are better than eggs from conventional compacted chickens that are fed grain.
-One health benefit is that naturally raised animals are leaner. More protein and less fat than ones that are kept in small areas, fed food they wouldn’t normally eat, and so forth.
-Another is that natural animals tend to have more omega 3.
This carries over into products like eggs as well. Chickens that are fed grain instead of allowed to walk around eating a more natural diet, have way less DHA (beneficial omega 3 fatty acid) in their eggs. The highest quality eggs are useful as a rare significant source of DHA on land.
For dairy, the more pasteurized the substance is, it might be safer in the short term, but lacking beneficial nutrients compared to raw varieties. Before commercialized dairy farms became the norm, milk was generally safe.
Keep in mind that organic farms can “cheat” too. They generally get less output from a given animal, and need more space for animals, which brings up separate environmental and economic concerns. Things that say “free range” can be extremely misleading. When possible, as inconvenient as it initially may be, it’s best to buy only local animal products, and to know where those animals are kept and how they are kept. It also reduces the effects of transportation.
In addition, for those interested in environmental sustainability or animal well-being, only eating animal products that directly benefit your health, and that cannot be gotten in adequate quantities from plant sources, is advised. Output from animals is less efficient than output from crops in terms of land usage, since crops need to be raised for the animals, and much of the energy doesn’t go directly into the end-product. Plus, the biggest reason people don’t buy healthier foods is expense and inconvenience, and the highest quality animal products are the most expensive (compared to high quality plant products), and are more complex to cook.
Wild Caught Fish
As previously described, the health benefits of getting DHA and EPA omega 3 fatty acids in the diet are very important. These are best found in fish; even high-quality land animals have very little. Cultures that eat significant amounts of fish are correlated with increased health, in general. This can carry over into many other types of seafood, such as mussels and other shelled creatures.
But not all seafood is equal for human health. There’s the commonly known mercury risk, and there’s also a difference in quantity of omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids in fish. Swordfish, for example, is high in mercury. Tilapia is kind of low in omega 3’s.
The all-star fish for health is commonly cited as salmon. It’s low in mercury and high in omega 3 (DHA and EPA). Others are certain kinds of mackerel, tuna, halibut, and more. But even among these, not all varieties are equal.
For one, farming vs wild matters. Wild salmon often have more omega 3 and usually more protein than the fattier farmed variety. Secondly, among wild caught fish, the method of catching matters. For instance, certain methods of catching tuna tend to hurt a lot of other species, and capture the oldest, highest-mercury individuals. Other methods for catching tuna aim for the younger lower-mercury type and don’t catch many other species. It’s sustainable when caught in the right amounts.
It’s pretty easy to find reliable sources for which fish contain good omega 3 contents, which fish are high in mercury, and which fish are considered to be sustainably caught.
Fish-oil supplements can help supply EPA and DHA too, but again, quality matters. Avoid the cheapest brands which may have rancid oil, more use of chemicals, etc.
The constant theme here that you’ve probably noticed is that when producers of animals cut corners for profits, the result is less humane treatment of animals, reduced amounts of protein and omega 3 fatty acids, and increased amounts of total fat and omega 6 fatty acids (often because they’re feeding the animals the same previously-mentioned foods that are high in omega 6 that humans eat).
Organic Vegetables and Fruit
You’re probably not a fan of toxins on your produce or in your environmental waters. Most of us are not fans of desertification and reduction in quality top soil that comes when farmers forget sustainability in exchange for profits. It’s possible that you’re not too keen on the idea of covering nearly 20% of the total land area of the US (the percent used for cropland) with chemicals. You might not be particularly happy with the huge dead zones in coastal waters that are largely created by fertilizer run-off, including the 8,500 square mile one in the Gulf of Mexico that is caused by run-off from the Mississippi River which is in turn caused by fertilizers across the country. Unfortunately, organic farms can be “intensive farmers” just like the conventional type, and use a lot of fertilizer if they don’t manage the land well.
Conventional produce has questionable nutritional content as well. There have been conflicting studies regarding nutrient content of organic vs. conventional produce, but the general patterns seems to be that vitamin levels aren’t hugely different, but mineral difference are significant due to a difference in soil quality.
The preferable solution is smaller farms that use natural crop rotation and natural pest control to output quality produce and minimize the damage to the surrounding area. As one could imagine, that tends to cost more.
“Organic” and “Conventional” are rather misleading terms to begin with. “Conventional” is new, only a generation or two old on this huge scale with antibiotics, pesticides, genetically modified organisms, and so forth. “Organic” is how it has mostly been done throughout history.
For optimal health, the biggest percentage of a person’s daily intake of food in terms of volume should be fruits and vegetables. Especially vegetables. Visibly, it should be a large amount, since fruits and vegetables are mostly made up of water and therefore have a low amount of calories and energy for their volume. A meal with equal volume portions of chicken and vegetables is not balanced; although equal in volume, the chicken dominates the plate of food in terms of calories. A balanced meal has a much larger volume of vegetables.
Carbs and Grains
Getting adequate amounts of all three macronutrients (protein, fats, and carbs), as well as the vast array of micronutrients, is important. Don’t be afraid of the good types of fat in moderation; nuts, olive oil, coconut oil, avocados, and animal fats to an extent. Loading up on a huge amount of carbs is generally worse. You don’t need a lot of carbs; only enough to fuel your energy burn.
Grains are generally a subtle but potentially significant problem in the current diet. They count among some foods that humans just generally didn’t adapt to eat very well. A separate example is milk; you don’t exactly see a lot of adult animals consuming milk from other species. So the rate of dairy intolerance is radically statistically different among different races, since some cultures domesticated animals for dairy consumption and built up a tolerance for it over time, and some didn’t. By default, adult animals don’t drink milk, but some of us developed the ability to do so.
The other food that is similar to this is the whole assortment of seeds, including many grains. Natural objects that are designed to produce a new plant, generally have defenses against consumption. Either they are good at not being digested and end up getting harmlessly ejected from an animal un-digested, or they make the animal not want to eat them. Grains are a subset of this, and have become the basis of diets in the US and many other countries. Wheat is the most commonly cited problem, since it contains gluten, which causes acute digestive problems in a small part of the population, and subtle digestive problems in a larger percentage of the population. Rice is a grain too, but a large percentage of the anti-nutrients that cause digestive problems are removed before consumption. In general, it’s optimal to avoid too much grain, too many seeds in general, except for some of the ones that are known to be fairly digestion-neutral and healthy. Keep in mind that most of these don’t cause acute digestive problems for most people; they cause subtle problems over time.
Other Health Products
If you want to moisturize your skin, you could use a mixture of “water, butyrospermum parkii (shea butter), cetearyl alcohol, glycerin, petrolatum, ceteareth-20, hydroxyethyl, urea, mangifera indica (mango) seed butter, theobroma caco (cocao) seed butter, ethylhexyl isononanoate, tocopheryl acetate, octyldodecyl myristate, hydrogenated polydecene, cetyl esters, cycopentasiloxane, dimethicone, fragrance, isohexadecane, c13-14 isoparaffin, sodium hydroxide, stearic acid, carbomer, mineral oil, phenoxyethanol, methylisothaizolunone, methylparaben, propylparaben”, also known as Jergens Shea Butter Deep Conditioning Moisterizer.
Or you could use quality coconut oil.
In general, the substances we put on our bodies, cover our home interior with, and clean with, follow the first approach. Of those two products, both of them serve their function very well, and one of them costs a little more. Many carpets have toxins, and furniture and paint can have toxins as well. Being energy-efficient, we seal ourselves up pretty good in our homes too, which can lead to indoor air being less healthy than outdoor air. It’s not just a psychological thing that people love getting “fresh air” in the countryside.
It’s useful to be wary of chemicals to a certain extent, and minimize the amount that come into one’s home. Certain types of plants have been shown to effectively remove certain air toxins, and keeping windows open for fresh air can help.
People in developed countries, on average, don’t get enough exercise these days. Jobs are sedentary, tv is popular, the internet is ubiquitous, and convenience is the best thing ever.
It’s fortunately rather easy for a reasonably healthy person to get adequate exercise. It doesn’t take a lot of time at all. Daily low-intensity cardio burns fat, improves the mood, and gets the heart going. Intense sprinting once or twice a week helps too. Strength training a few times a week for short or moderate amounts of time can get the blood flowing and increase muscle mass, which helps keep a person healthy in the right quantities.
Doing too much cardio for too long can actually be detrimental. Unless you’re training for a competition, running for hours just isn’t necessary, or even helpful, for optimal health. Cardio produces acute inflammation during the actual work out but decreases inflammation overall. Too much cardio, however, increases systemic inflammation for days. Plus it can cause a variety of common injuries due to repetition. Lifting too heavy weights can be less than optimal for the muscle and skeletal system. If you don’t currently exercise enough, consider exercising quite a bit more, but make it easy by sticking to a varied and spontaneous set of shorter workouts that are more fun to do.
Breaking up an 8-hour work day with regular movement can be really important. Depending on your work environment and attire, you could do a few push-ups, throw a few air punches, or simply go for a walk and stretch your legs a bit.
What it comes down to is that varied and often exercise for relatively short periods of time can be highly beneficial. Sometimes it can be uncomfortable at first for those who are not used to it, but try a 30-day challenge or something similar to get over the initial difficult part. After a fair bit of exercise routine, it might become somewhat hard not to exercise.
If you want to save money, I propose spending less money on depreciating assets (expensive cars, fad electronics), less money on eating out (you pay top dollar for “conventional” meats and “conventional” produce and farmed fish, cooked in processed oils, anyway), less excess (unnecessarily large houses with unnecessarily high energy costs and maintenance, and the opportunity cost of a huge mortgage), but spending more money on food.
I realize not everyone can spend more on food. But I wager that the audience for this sort of website can. For those who truly can’t, there are some areas that are more important than others, and can take precedence until one has more finances to put towards good health. The rough order of importance I’d suggest is:
1. Eliminate highly processed oils and most processed foods.
2. More fish or fish-oil in general.
3. If you eat meat, look for meat from healthier animals (sustainably wild caught fish, grass-fed beef, organic chicken, the smaller and more local the farm, the better).
4. Buy organic fruits and vegetables rather than conventional vegetables and produce.
5. After those, then one can focus on what goes on one’s body or in one’s house rather than in one’s body. Check what chemicals you’re using.
Costs can also be reduced by planting your own vegetable garden. It gives you fresh air and acts as a low-intensity fat-burning workout as well.
I can cook a dinner of wild-caught Alaskan salmon, a small side of quality rice, and a big organic vegetable salad topped with extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar for a per-person cost less than what it’ll cost to eat out at a standard sit-down restaurant. Or, I can cook a vegetable-tempeh stir fry for approximately what it would cost to go to McDonald’s.
The topic of food is one where I think minimalism and frugality take totally different paths. Sometimes less is better, and generally spending a bit more money on food and products that are healthier and more sustainably produced makes a lot more sense than the alternative.
In short, investing in our health and our environment is a more important investment than any dividend stock we’ll ever pick.