With skyrocketing food prices, a healthy diet may seem out of reach. But, as some families found, it can be simple. CÉCILE MEIER reports.
Fa’aosofia and Patrick Daly used to get takeaways twice a week and spent most of their grocery money on meat.
The few vegetables they bought often ended up rotting in the fridge. And despite going to the gym five days a week, Fa’asofia felt unhealthy.
Now the couple swap meat for legumes and seasonal vegetables, rarely get takeaways and plan their meals so nothing gets wasted.
Fa’asofia, who teaches academic writing at the University of Canterbury, is not focused on losing weight any more. Rather she is working on sleeping and eating well.
The changes were small – but the results came. The couple have lost a bit of weight, they have more energy and are saving about $50 a week on groceries. Their weekly food budget has come down to about $90.
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Fa’asofia took part in a new lifestyle and cooking programme, Puāwai-Kai, accessible through their GP. The free eight-week course teaches how to manage stress, improve sleep and how to cook affordable, healthy food with seasonal vegetables and fruit.
University of Otago, Christchurch researcher, Dr Allamanda Faatoese studied the impact of a pilot version of the program on 32 people as part of her research into the heart disease risk among Canterbury’s Pacific communities. She found all the Pasifika participants lost body fat at the end of the course – with the majority also lowering cholesterol and increasing social connection.
The research project recorded changes in blood pressure, cholesterol profile, blood sugar, weight and body fat.
Early analysis of the three groups of Pasifika families found all participants dropped body fat and triglyceride levels – a type of fat in the blood, with high levels increasing the risk of conditions such as heart attack and stroke.
The biggest change participants made to their diets was to massively increase their fruit and vegetable intake.
But fresh produce is expensive. So how to do this without breaking the bank?
Faatoese says it doesn’t have to be fresh only. Frozen, canned, dried and tinned fruit and vegetables are cheaper and still high in nutrients and fiber.
The idea is to add as much of it in whatever people normally eat.
“A quick meal at home might be your two-minute noodles. Add in some veggies, and it’s going to increase the fiber and nutritional content of the food,” she says.
Fa’asofia Daly much prefers fresh vegetables, so she hunts down bargains at supermarkets and vege shops and only buys what is in season.
A recent haul consisted of cauliflower, broccoli, onion, pumpkin, tomato, ginger and kumara, which she cut into small bits and threw in a boiler. She used some of it to make a big soup that would be the couple’s dinner (with toast) for the whole week, and the rest divided up into containers for lunches.
The couple buy beef bones to boil up with the vegetables and enrich the flavour. Once a month, they treat themselves to a whole fish with taro and banana.
“We used to have this poverty mindset. When we go shopping, we would always think we can’t afford it. The food has gone up in price, but I know I am going to use everything I buy.”
Previous research and conversation with families shows it’s really hard for people to eat healthy food when they are surviving week-by-week on minimal wages and supporting a family, Faatoese says.
The courses were successful because they involved the whole family and provided all ingredients for the cooking sessions, which meant there were no barriers to trying a different approach. It only used pantry staples and affordable food.
“We are not asking people to get rid of everything in their pantry and go buy the latest superfood, but how can you make small changes to what you already eat and make it healthier,” Faatoese says.
When Samuel Hidray Equbazgi arrived in New Zealand in October 2019, he did not know how to cook, or how to use local ingredients. The former Eritrean refugee survived on fast food and junk food.
Equbazgi, who works as a cross-cultural worker for the Red Cross while studying social work, used to study, stare at his phone until 2am, then skip breakfast in the morning. He had no time to exercise.
“It was really draining.”
His weight was fine, but he was constipated, chronically tired and anxious. Now he throws in fresh veggies with his usual pasta lunches, walks and bikes to go places, makes sure he gets enough sleep and eats breakfast.
Cooking is still a challenge, but he has started making soup and chickpea curries. But perhaps the cheapest and most useful change for him was to drink more water.
Many participants used to skip breakfast, but research shows people who have healthy breakfasts – cheap and healthy options include porridge and sweetbix – are more likely to make better food choices throughout the day compared to those who don’t, Faatoese says.
Swapping blue for green top milk and using lentils instead of mince are easy ways to reduce saturated fats, Faatoese says.
Not adding sugar to hot drinks, replacing sugary fizzy drinks with water and reducing salt don’t cost anything and can make a big difference, she says.
“Choose one goal and stick with that until it becomes normal, and then you find another goal,” Faatoese says.
Tony Johnston finished the course just before Christmas. The just-retired investment administrator says he wanted to learn how to keep on top of his health because he has Parkinson’s disease. He also wanted to lose weight.
He learned simple recipes with ingredients he had never used before such as split peas, lentils and chick peas. He now ensures his plate of it includes food of many colors rather than just beige. He drinks more water and goes to bed earlier.
He has not saved money, but his grocery bill has remained the same despite a big increase in fresh produce.
Pegasus Health chief operating officer Lisa Brennan says the Puāwai-Kai team trialled the program with a wide range of people including refugee communities, older people and Māori and Pasifika groups before making it available through general practice or via its website. It found that allowing whole families to attend the course was the way to go.
“Cooking together improves confidence and motivation to cook at home, which can be a strong predictor of good overall health,” Brennan says.
“A really nice flow-on effect of making and sharing kai is the social connection that comes from it.”