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How to buy healthier groceries without blowing your budget (it’s possible!)

What factor has the single biggest impact on your waistline? No, it’s not your willpower, your education, your access to gyms, or even your age. Surprise: It’s your income. The more money you have to spend on food, the healthier you are and the lower your BMI is, according to a new study from the Hospital Del Mar Medical Research Institute.

Call it the celebrity weight-loss conundrum: Have you ever thought to yourself “Well I could be as thin and fit as [insert gorgeous starlet here] if I were rich enough to have a personal trainer, my own chef, a top of the line home gym, a fridge full of organic produce and access to the smartest consultants!” It turns out you’re kind of right—money can buy all those things and they do help, especially when it comes to food.

According to a new Spanish study, being able to increase your budget for nutritious food by just a buck or two a day translates into serious health benefits. The researchers followed 2100 people for ten years and found that spending just $1.50 more per day on food corresponded to eating 74 grams more vegetables and 52 grams more fruit per person per day. Conversely, when people spent less on food they ate less fresh produce and far more fast food and baked goods.

And fruits and veggies are definitely worth spending an extra buck on. According to a 2014 study, people who got their daily produce slashed their risk of dying by any cause by 42 percent.

Unfortunately food prices are going up so the problem is only going to become more pronounced. The USDA’s Economic Research Service is already predicting that food prices will rise two to three percent in 2016, with fresh produce going up even more. And they added in their December 2015 report that these figures don’t take into account the effects of all the weird weather we’ve been seeing. Surely years of drought in California followed by torrential rains will impact the price of healthy staples like oranges, avocados and almonds.

But before you worry that your average salary will doom you to an early death, know that there are ways to eat healthfully without breaking the bank. Yes, money helps but lack of money doesn’t mean you can’t be healthy. Here are a few tips to help you get started living a caviar lifestyle on a tuna fish budget. (And let’s be honest, tuna fish tastes better than caviar. Yeah, I said it.)

1. Change “I can’t” to “I can”. Yes, I’m starting with a mental trick. As a fitness professional I’m amazed at how often people ask my advice about improving their health and then immediately give me a laundry list of all the reasons they can’t. And I get it—life is hard and we all have things we have to work around (except for the aforementioned celebrities perhaps). But instead of looking for all the reasons you can’t make your health a priority, start looking for ways to make it work. You’ll be surprised at how quickly your brain will start coming up with solutions to your problems.

2. Get the good coupons. Too often coupons are for junk food. This is especially true for mailbox and newspaper mailers. Instead, look at the weekly store mailers, store apps and in-store coupons. Lots of stores now are offering discounts on fresh produce, whole grains and meat.

3. Make a menu in advance. If I could offer just one tip to slash your budget, it would be this one. Planning ahead is a pain, yes, but it’s a pain that pays off (literally). Get a cheap calendar and write out a whole month of dinners in advance (or just do a week at a time) and jot down your grocery list while you’re at it. I make this easy by assigning each day of the week a theme, like vegetarian, Mexican, soup and salad, Italian, etc. Once you get in the habit it will take you ten minutes a week, max.

4. Plan around sales. Plan your menu with the grocery mailer sitting next to you. Look at what fruits, veggies, meats and grains on super sale and then plan your meals around that.

5. Limit yourself to going to the store once a week. Target has a $100 cover charge (for me anyhow) and we won’t even talk about Costco or Sam’s Club. Limiting the time I spend in the store is key to sticking to my budget. I’m a terrible impulse buyer so the less I can put myself in the way of temptation, the better.

6. Don’t go hungry. Shopping on a hungry stomach is a guaranteed budget — and calorie — buster.

7. Buy less junk food. First, if it’s not in the house, you can’t eat it. And second, it frees up cash for healthier fare. Splurge on a treat or two and then devote the rest of your budget to food that will fill you up, not out.

8. Don’t just shop the perimeter. Yes, you read that right. I hate it when people say to only stick to the outside of the grocery store where all the fresh food is. There is a lot of super cheap healthy food on those inside shelves! Canned tuna fish, bags of dried beans, jarred tomatoes, tins of nuts, bags of oatmeal, rice or amaranth, olive oil and vinegar are all great staples to keep on hand that can be made into quick, healthy meals.

None of these are earth-shattering tips, I know. But sometimes it helps to be reminded of the basics and to know you’re not in this alone. As food prices continue to rise, we have to get smarter about how we spend our limited food budgets but you’ll be well rewarded for your effort!

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