How to Follow a GI or Food Allergy Diet on a Budget
Influenced by both unemployment and poverty, millions of Americans were estimated to have experienced food insecurity in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic.1 Food insecurity occurs when a household does not have regular access to enough food for an active and healthy lifestyle. Families who require special diets such as those associated with food allergies and GI conditions may fear food insecurity due to increased food costs and limited access to safe foods for their children.
Cambrooke was founded by the parents of two children with Phenylketonuria (PKU), a chronic medical condition, who recognized there was a need for improved food options for children with chronic metabolic disorders like PKU. They also recognized the necessity for improved options for food allergy and GI families. With employees who have worked directly with families living with GI and food allergic disorders, Cambrooke understands the challenges these families face related to the expense of managing special diets and paying for specialty formulas.
Let’s explore some tips for maintaining a budget on special diets:
Talk With Your Healthcare Provider or Dietitian
Not only do families managing GI issues and food allergies find themselves spending more on food, but they also are more likely to encounter increased healthcare costs. In fact, families of children with food allergies and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) absorb more out-of-pocket costs than other childhood diseases.2,3
These costs can include clinician visits, emergency department visits, hospitalization, medication, specialty formulas, and specialty foods for the dietary management of their condition and are often overwhelming for many families.
Nearly two-thirds of patients want to speak to their physician about out-of-pocket costs for items such as formula, but only 15% report doing so.4 Speaking up can help relieve some of the stress related to financial worries. Your healthcare provider may be able to recommend a lower-cost alternative that is nutritionally appropriate for you or your child’s condition. If you’d feel more comfortable bringing up this cost of care conversation, ask for a private environment to initiate the discussion. Points to bring up include:
- Expressing challenges that you are facing paying for medical expenses;
- Sharing specific concerns about the cost of treatments;
- Explaining how the cost may be affecting your ability to follow your doctor’s recommendations; and
- Asking about budget-friendly options
For families using junior amino acid formulas and paying out of pocket, EquaCare Jr. is a lower-cost alternative providing similar nutrition to current junior amino acid-based formula options. Priced at least 25% less than comparable formulas, this could save a family consuming 1000 calories per day of amino acid formula nearly $2000 a year. Ask your healthcare provider if EquaCare Jr. is appropriate for your family.
Focus on ingredients
Familiarize yourself with the labeling requirements established by the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA). Learning to properly read a food label and to identify allergens in food products can not only keep your family safe but can help save money as well.
Reading labels will make you less reliant on expensive products that market themselves as “allergy-friendly” and may allow you to opt for less expensive, store brand and generic products that you identify as safe.
Relying on your healthcare team for support with label reading and product ideas is another way to increase your knowledge and expand your product options. Ask your healthcare team to provide you with ideas for possible safe foods to help expand your options rather than focusing on foods not allowed.
Plan Your Meals
The grocery store can be overwhelming and expensive if you are not prepared! Grocery shopping can be difficult for families dealing with food restrictions, and considering the pressure of reading labels and checking prices in the store, you may feel like it’s impossible.
You may want to set aside time to plan meals for the entire week, which can reduce stress, save time at the store, and cut down on food waste. Follow allergy-friendly blogs or join a Facebook group where families share their favorite recipes. Prepare meals in bulk and freeze leftovers to prevent waste. Having allergy-friendly items in the freezer can ensure you always have safe food options and can help to avoid unnecessary costs. Also, researching and planning allergy-friendly meals that do not involve specialty foods are key steps for maintaining your food allergy budget!
Enroll in Food Assistance Programs
While food assistance programs such as pantries and government support exist, families often find there are limited options for those requiring specialized foods. Women, Infants, & Children (WIC) is an income-based supplemental nutritional program for pregnant/breastfeeding women and children up to age 5-years-old that offers nutritious foods and iron-fortified infant formulas. 5 Authorized foods typically include milk (soy milk option provided if specified); a whole grain such as pasta, brown rice, or oatmeal; cow’s milk-based cheese; eggs; tofu; peanut butter; canned fish; beans; fruits and vegetables.
According to the USDA, no allergy substitutions exist for cheese, eggs, and canned fish. The substitutes offered for other food categories, if allowed by the state, may still be unsuitable for those following special diets and/or those with severe allergies.
WIC may not be suitable in providing adequate nutrition for a food allergic family. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) may be a better resource. SNAP provides benefits to eligible families on a benefits transfer card that can be used to purchase eligible foods at the grocery store. However, SNAP benefits may not stretch as far for those on special diets since specialty foods have higher costs and may deplete SNAP funds more quickly.
When visiting a food pantry, always let the staff know about your food allergy. Ask to speak with a supervisor to explore safe food options and additional resources related to specialty foods.
Based on your location, food allergy-specific assistance programs may exist. The Food Equality Initiative based in Kansas City provides a supplemental nutrition assistance program for those with a variety of food allergic disorders who meet financial qualifications. Porchlight Community Services is a San Diego-based client choice food pantry focused on providing healthy food choices while being inclusive of all food diets.
Personal Experience from a Cambrooke Employee
As a registered dietitian, my special interest in nutrition is based on helping underserved populations have access to affordable and healthy food. Food is linked to many health outcomes, and I believe education about preparing or accessing simple and nutritious meals is important and should be easily accessible.
In college, I taught cooking lessons to children at an inner-city church in Columbus, Ohio using Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program and food pantry staples. Working with children and helping them learn basic nutrition and cooking concepts was fun and rewarding. In addition, I drive a monthly Meals on Wheels route delivering nutritious and balanced meals to homebound seniors and veterans in Columbus for the past 6 years.
Working at a small, family-focused company like Cambrooke allows me to continue to balance my passion for spreading nutrition education and awareness while helping families in the GI and allergy communities.
Written by: Catherine Eitel, GI/Allergy Account Specialist
How Cambrooke Can Help
At Cambrooke, we are here to support your special nutrition needs by offering a more affordable complete nutrition formula for those on specialty diets or those living with food allergies. You can visit us at essentiallybetter.com to learn more and work with your healthcare team to see if EquaCare Jr., our lower-cost junior amino acid-based formula option is best for your child.
- The Impact of the Coronavirus on Food Insecurity in 20201 and 2021. Feeding America. https://www.feedingamerica.org/sites/default/files/2021 03/National%20Projections%20Brief_3.9.2021_0.pdf
- Gupta, R et al. 2013
- Park KT, et al. 2019
- Hardee, JT, 2005
- Committee to Review WIC Food Packages; Food and Nutrition Board; Institute of Medicine; National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine; Rasmussen KM, Latulippe ME, Yaktine AL, editors. Review of WIC Food Packages: Proposed Framework for Revisions: Interim Report. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2016 Jul 6. 8, Meeting Diverse Dietary Needs and Preferences: Considerations for the WIC Food Packages. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK379064/