How to Start the Endo Diet on a Budget

Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional. As always, please consult with your doctor before making any dietary or lifestyle changes!

*Author’s Note: I usually use the term “people with periods” to talk about patients with endometriosis, in order to be as inclusive as possible. I don’t plan to stop doing this. I recognize that transgender and nonbinary folks also struggle with endo, and that speaking of endo in terms of “women” and “females” can be an incredibly dysphoric experience for them. That being said, I chose to use the term “womxn” in this context to emphasize the societal constraints and discrimination unique to those of us who present as female, while still maintaining an inclusive definition of the endometriosis community.

Having endo is expensive. We don’t often talk about it — probably because, as womxn,* we’re discouraged from talking about money (it’s not something that “good girls” do) — but between medical debt, copays, and prescription meds, the cost of having endometriosis is steep. And that doesn’t even take into consideration the lifestyle changes needed to manage endometriosis on a daily basis.

For me, freelancing has been one of the biggest gifts for my health. It allows me to take time off as needed for medical appointments, adjust my working hours when I’m fatigued or in pain, and gives me the flexibility to work more or less depending on how I feel. But freelancing is also incredibly unstable, especially compared to the salaried job I had before. Thanks to COVID-19, I’ve been struggling more than ever, between trying to pay my bills and stay healthy with an inflammatory disease.

Living on a limited budget, with me freelancing and David working as a medical resident, we try to cut costs wherever we can — but one of the places I’m not willing to compromise is my health. Eating a gluten-free, dairy-free diet for endometriosis sometimes means buying pricey supplements or substitutes. The way I see it, though, it also prevents me from making expensive emergency room visits, only to be told there’s nothing the doctors there can do for me.

Still, I recognize that not everyone has the privilege of paying steep price tags for better health. In college, when I cut ties with my dad, I experienced living on an incredibly limited budget firsthand. Thankfully, I received financial support from my mom, but admittedly, there were more than a few weeks when I couldn’t afford to grab a coffee or Chipotle with my friends because I needed to buy groceries or pay my credit card bills. At the same time, I was also incredibly stressed and always getting sick — I had recurrent vaginal infections; one time, I had strep throat for almost a month.

These two experiences have taught me a lot about managing my endometriosis through diet. Getting sick all the time taught me the importance of taking care of my health, by eating well, exercising, going to therapy, and taking my meds, while living on an extreme budget taught me how to save a quick buck on my grocery bills. As I incorporated the endo diet into my lifestyle, I valued the tangible changes this diet made in my everyday health and quality of life, while still looking for ways to save money where I could.

Anyone with endometriosis knows that endo doesn’t strike when it’s most convenient for us. Endo doesn’t care about our budgets or whatever else is going on in our lives at the time. It’s entirely up to us to look out for our physical health by making investments in proper nutrition to help us manage endo, while looking out for our financial health by cutting costs whenever possible. As I said before, our physical health is a necessary investment to make in our present and our future — and we need to value it, even as we work toward our financial goals.

That’s where this blog post comes into play. Whether you’re a college student struggling to keep up the endo diet on a budget or a freelancer like me reeling from lost income due to COVID-19, I’m here to help. Today, I’m sharing a few of the ways that I save money on the endo diet to help this lifestyle change feel less impossible and more realistic for your wallet.

Change how you look at your diet.

The gluten-free, dairy-free diet for endo can already feel overwhelming. So many of us grew up on a standard American diet of boxed mac ‘n’ cheese and delivery pizza. For a lot of us, eating gluten-free and dairy-free is outside our comfort zones.

When adopting a diet that’s different from what you’re used to, it’s important to keep motivation in mind. Especially when there’s a steep price tag associated with it, any lifestyle change requires you to know your “why.” Remembering your motivation in times when the going gets tough reminds you why you started this journey in the first place, and helps you combat the urge to quit.

For me, it helps to look at food as medicine. If your loved one just had a heart attack, you probably wouldn’t buy them a fast food burger and fries for dinner. In fact, one of the first lines of treatment for hypertension — a precursor to cardiovascular disease — is the DASH diet, which focuses on eating plant-based whole foods and minimizing added salt and sugar. So, why should endo be any different?

Treating your endo as if it’s not as serious as a heart attack, or as if the endo diet isn’t as important to maintaining your health as the DASH diet is to preventing heart disease, minimizes the challenges you go through on an everyday basis as a result of endo. As womxn in the healthcare system, we already face so much discrimination and disbelief. Don’t add yourself to the list of people trying to erase your symptoms or write off your pain as “normal” when it’s not.

My doctors recommended I try a gluten-free, dairy-free diet for my endo. The way I see it, this recommendation is the same as any of the prescriptions they’ve written me. I strive to take it just as seriously, and as a result, I’ve had excellent results in terms of the endo diet’s effect on my overall health, the severity of my pain, and my quality of life.

Treat meat as a side dish.

When I think of the traditional American diet, a quarter-pound cheeseburger is one of the first things that comes to mind. Meat is often the star of the show on the American dinner plate. While there’s no medical reason for you to cut out meat altogether — especially lean, white meats like chicken and turkey — on the endo diet, I’ve found that minimizing the amount of meat I consume helps me cut down my grocery bill and encourages me to eat more plant-based foods like fruits and veggies.

Beyond managing endometriosis, there are still compelling health benefits for eating a flexitarian diet. The term “blue zone” describes a geographical region of the world where people live longer, healthier lives than average. Some blue zones include Italy, Greece, and Japan. Researchers have found that one of the commonalities in these blue zones is that people in those regions eat a primarily plant-based diet, eating meat, on average, only five times per month. Eating less meat, therefore, appears to promote longevity and reduce chronic disease risk.

Processed and red meats in particular — staples of the typical American diet — are linked with chronic disease development and earlier mortality. That’s why when I do choose to splurge on meat, I opt for lean meats like chicken, turkey, or pork. While organic meat is more expensive, I think it’s worth buying organic meat less often, as opposed to conventionally farmed meat more frequently. When it comes to managing endo, buying organic meat minimizes your exposure to artificial hormones (which are often fed to factory farmed animals to “fatten them up” before slaughter) that can further disrupt your endocrine system.

Stock up on pantry staples.

Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes…. all of these foods are “safe” to consume on the endo diet, and safe for a limited budget. So, why do we think of a gluten-free, dairy-free diet as so expensive? I think it’s because we see lots of influencers in this space splurging on pricey alternatives to our favorite foods — think Daiya ‘pepperoni’ pizzas and Amy’s rice macaroni and cheeze. However, I’m of the opinion that it’s healthier to eat gluten and dairy that’s cooked from scratch than it is to rely on packaged foods.

If you’re going to adopt a gluten-free, dairy-free diet for endometriosis (such as the endo diet), replacing bread and cheese with processed alternatives won’t benefit your health or your wallet. Foods like French fries, corn pasta, soda, and margarine are all technically gluten- and dairy-free, but still have an inflammatory effect on your body that could lead to an endo flare. And, these expensive packaged foods use greenwashing to charge you extra for products marked with marketing language such as “organic,” “natural,” and “gluten-free.”

Some of the least processed and most affordable foods you can eat on the endo diet don’t require you to shop in a special section of the grocery store or buy a box with some bougie certification on it. I like to stock up on pantry staples like salt-free canned beans (garbanzo, black, and great northern are my favorites), canned tomatoes, canned artichoke hearts, raw cashews (which can be soaked to make creamy dairy-free sauces), and almond milk, in addition to fresh produce. Making your own endo-friendly substitutes for things like salad dressing, crackers, and cookies can also save you from paying the “natural” and “organic” tax at the grocery store.

Batch cook whenever possible.

On lazy days, I understand the urge to rely on frozen meals from the grocery store — but giving into that urge may be doing you more harm than good. Even when a frozen meal is marked “gluten-free,” “dairy-free,” and “organic,” you’re still potentially sacrificing nutrient content and exposing yourself to inflammatory ingredients by opting for a frozen option.

Marketing terms like “gluten-free,” “dairy-free,” and “organic,” aren’t heavily regulated and don’t prevent companies from loading their products with salt, sugar, and preservatives. Seeing these words on a label doesn’t even necessarily guarantee that a product is actually what it says it is, since companies basically only need to meet enough regulations when using these terms so as not to get sued for using them. You’re best off looking for product certifications from the USDA and independent organizations like the Gluten-Free Certification Organization and Vegan Action. However, for your wallet, these certifications can mean a huge markup on price tags, since the cost of certification is often high for manufacturers.

Still, I understand the need for convenience in this crazy world we live in — which is why I highly recommend saving a few go-to recipes that you can scale up to cook in batches. You can then freeze the leftovers to create your own frozen meals that are free of preservatives, yet still just as convenient as the “real thing.” While often associated with dieting and the “clean eating” movement (blergh), meal prepping is also a great way to ensure you have lazy meals available for busy weeknights. The blog Simply Taralynn has an awesome guide to gluten-free, dairy-free meal prep on a budget — I highly recommend you check it out!

Additionally, frozen fruits and veggies don’t compromise nutrient content, but will save you a quick buck compared with buying fresh. I always like to stock up on frozen veggies like zucchini noodles, cauliflower rice, broccoli, and kale, which can be turned into a quick and easy meal by simply adding a whole grain and a protein, as well as pineapple, mango, and spinach, to blend into my favorite green smoothie with a bit of almond milk for a speedy breakfast or snack.

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