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$Monday: You can't afford a poor diet.

Nobody can. You've heard that "it's expensive to be poor." This is the gut-wrenching truth about eating poorly: real food costs a lot less than health care for preventable disease. So if you think you can't afford to eat well, it really means you can't afford to live. And that ain't right! While economic stress has a lot to do with access to healthy food, finding a way to eat well is the only way to avoid more poverty and a (probably shortened) life of suffering. The good news is that eating well is easier than our consumer culture--which feeds like a parasite off of the sick, poor, and tired--has led us to believe.


When I was in college, I had a classmate who nearly died (thereby wasting his college tuition!) when he attempted to save money by eating nothing but instant ramen. It's sort of a cliche or a joke in our culture to do that, because food is one of those expenses we obviously all have, and the grocery store is a place where we seem to have cheaper and more expensive options. Cheap junk food is a trap, though. You wouldn't think to yourself, "Gas prices are high right now, so I'm going to put some sewer water into my tank and see what happens." Yet we do that kind of thing to our own bodies to save 20 cents here and there and end up sick, missing classes or work, and eventually dependent on hundreds of dollars of prescriptions every month. Eating junk to save money is a kind of sad, false martyrdom to late capitalism that nobody should try.

But this isn't a junk food shaming post. As I declared at the start of this new decade, I'm looking for ways to turn every aspect of life into a playground, not a prison. Two of the basic components of any time-tested, proven, reliable, sustainable healthy diet (Mediterranean, Okinawan, etc.) are variety and joy. I don't believe in absolute restrictions in a person's diet unless there is a real allergy, sensitivity, or medical emergency to address--under the guidance of one's personal doctor, not a celebrity chef or YouTuber. Instead of restricting flavors and nutrients based on dietary fads, slowly killing our souls as well as our guts, it works better to focus on filling up on foods we know to be healthy, that make us feel good. Instead of strictly controlling our intake, we can experiment and try new things and learn new recipes and venture outside of our comfort zones, seeking to broaden our palates and expand our culinary landscapes with new combinations of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and just enough protein to make eating fun and fulfilling and life-sustaining.

Back when I was a young adult who "couldn't afford to eat well," I found ways to do it anyway--because giving up on eating properly is giving up on life. For a few months, my  husband and I even stood in charity lines for grocery store leftover handouts of produce and fresh bread. Some of the bread was stale, and some of the produce was spoiled or infested with bugs that we had to pick off by hand. It was not ideal, but I'd rather my food be ugly and blemished than my own body, rotting from the inside out by consuming nothing but soda and snacks from the convenience store across the street.

Sometimes eating as well as possible is not fun--not the same kind of fun as going out to your favorite restaurant and getting a free slice of birthday cake. But it's an investment in future enjoyment of life. It's a lot harder to heal a chronic illness than to power through a temporary sojourn from deliciousness. And it's not a binary choice either--I learned how to make some pretty tasty dishes from those humble handouts, like French toast from stale bread and wonderfully seasoned stews and casseroles from the picked-over produce. Some good feelings, like good slow cooker recipes, take a while to simmer--pride in overcoming adversity, the thrill of adventure, satisfaction in wresting independence from the trappings of poverty.

And wow, does everything else taste better in comparison, now that I have the financial freedom to buy the foods I prefer and the memory of surviving hardship.

The foods I choose to buy now aren't necessarily expensive. One of my family's stand-by recipes is the (now apparently trendy) thing of just tossing a bunch of chopped, oiled, seasoned fresh veggies (mostly potatoes, which are cheaper than potato chips) on a sheet pan and baking them to a caramelized crispness. Also there is literal beans and rice. What's wrong with that? We eat it all the time--in burritos with cheese and whatever condiments and veggies we feel like.

And I've learned to pay close attention to the way I feel after eating different foods, not just how I feel and how things taste while I'm eating them. I've noticed that certain foods make me bloated if I eat too much of them or on an empty stomach (which doesn't mean I avoid them entirely), and that eating a fresh apple reduces bloating and soothes my stomach when I need relief. Humans are complex critters, so no two people are affected in the exact same ways by all foods. It takes attention, mindfulness, and in some cases the guidance of a medical professional, to figure out what works best for each unique body.

But nobody, nobody, nobody can build health or wealth by treating their stomach like a dumpster.

Don't be that guy who literally starved himself to pay for college (which you can't complete if you're brain-damaged or hospitalized or dead, in case that was unclear). Mother yourself like the badass nonnas in your family tree who ensured that your ancestors survived through hard times. Nourish yourself, by any means necessary. Crash parties, stand in charity lines, get free samples, learn new skills, dumpster dive all your clothes, give up entertainment, start a potluck club, whatever it takes--but don't ever try to save money by giving up breathing air, drinking water, or eating the real food that keeps you alive and doing all the things you want to do with your life. If there is anything standing between you and healthy eating--your job, your relationship, your location, anything--re-evaluate that other stuff before you agree to, well, eat sh*t and die.

Fad diets and cheap junk food are traps designed by corporations to keep you helpless and hemorrhaging money for supposed quick fixes and medical care. Don't fall for it. This is your life, your one wild and precious life, so put yourself first. Tie on your oxygen mask. Stay hydrated. Feed yourself like you would feed a child in your care. You can't afford not to.

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