Have a special-needs diet? Here's how to eat smarter and save money

Six years ago, when doctors told Amy Twomey of Dallas that she had celiac disease, she was overwhelmed.

The only treatment for it is to stop eating all products that contain gluten, including wheat, rye and barley. That meant she had to give up many of her favorite foods or buy higher-priced gluten-free mixes and prepared foods.

Like many people who find themselves on restricted diets, Twomey found that eating carefully could be expensive.

"The budget was a huge issue, because we were in the middle of starting our family, and money was tight," says Twomey, 38, a freelance photographer and mother of three.

She has learned to adapt. Nutritionists say that whether the problem is celiac disease, lactose intolerance, allergies, diabetes or other issues, there are ways to make flavorful meals without breaking the bank.

Kathy Miller, a registered dietitian with the Cooper Clinic, says it can be cost-effective to cook or bake your own food from the raw ingredients allowed in your meal plan.

Since January 2006, food-item packaging has been required to note any of eight known foods or ingredients that can cause problems: wheat, eggs, milk, peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, fin fish and soybeans. And for celiacs such as Twomey, gluten-free flours can be found in local grocery stores.

For more money, you can buy ready-made mixes for some goods. But Miller notes that you need dedicated cookware, baking pans or a bread maker to prepare these gluten-free or allergen-free foods. Even a residual amount of an allergen can have dire medical consequences, depending on the severity of the allergy.

So if that's too much of an investment, it may end up being more cost-effective to allow yourself to purchase the occasional treat. Whole Foods Market, Central Market and bakeries, such as Sublime Bakery in Fort Worth, prepare ready-made gluten-free items.

Miller notes that increasingly, neighborhood grocery stores carry gluten-free products. So before you go to a high-priced specialty store, you should comparison-shop.

Do you need it?

While the occasional treat may elevate your mood, it's important to remember that you don't have to spend more money on special foods to stay healthy, says Sharon Cox, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator with Parkland Health & Hospital System. In fact, she has reservations about some treats aimed specifically at diabetics.

"There is not sufficient, consistent information to conclude that special, pre-made sugar-free foods will control blood glucose," she says. "It is the amount of carbohydrates that will affect blood-glucose ranges. Sugar-free products can be expensive and, if consumed in large amounts, can increase blood glucose and have other unpleasant side effects."

Sherry Davidson, a certified diabetes educator at Baylor Regional Medical Center at Plano, agrees.

"People are encouraged to read labels and keep carbohydrate, fat and protein [consumption] according to their meal plan," Davidson says. "Eating the proper portions can cut costs. Buying in bulk and dividing into proper portions at home, instead of buying individual-sized packages is also a great way to save money."

Making food yourself

Making your own meals, instead of relying on expensive ready-made foods, can be key to staying on a budget when you have dietary restrictions. Miller, of the Cooper Clinic, offers these tips for substituting ingredients:

Celiacs can substitute quinoa or rice flour for wheat or rye flour.

The lactose-intolerant can try Lactaid milk, goat, soy or rice milk, and most cheeses that are naturally low in lactose.

Those with egg allergies should not substitute Egg Beaters for eggs. Egg allergies are related to the protein found in the whites of eggs. Egg Beaters are made of egg whites.