Is good nutrition developing a bad reputation based on outrageous costs?
A growing trend of studies touts the immense cost of eating fresh, nutritious food. Conventional wisdom seems to claim that the cost can keep you from being able to eat as healthfully as you might like and worries many who would otherwise prefer to consistently buy & prepare un-processed, highly natural foods.
But is eating healthy really as expensive as everyone claims?
No. No, it’s not.
Study Claims A Healthy Diet Costs 10x More – But Is It Misleading?
Much of the recent rabble surrounding the price of food stems from a 2007 study by University of Washington researchers about the price of snack foods compared to fresh fruits and vegetables. In particular, the study claims that eating a healthy diet can cost up to 10 times as much as a diet based on junk food. Well, no wonder people don’t eat healthy! With numbers like that, who could afford to?
As it turns out, though, the study uses price per calorie as it’s only metric for determining the cost of food. This means that when comparing junk foods loaded with fat and sugar to nutrient-dense foods like spinach, broccoli or apples, the junk food is going to dominate calorie count every time!
If we discount the fact that the calories in junk food are, by-and-large, nutritionally worthless, a more appropriate metric would be price per serving. Fruits and veggies, by nature, have a much lower calorie count per serving (hint: that’s partly why they’re better for you).
Let’s look at an example:
|Nacho Cheese Doritos (11 oz bag)||$2.99||11||1540||$0.0019||$0.27|
|Twinkies (6 ct box)||$1.99||6||900||$0.0022||$0.33|
|Baby spinach (6 oz bag, 8 cups)||$1.99||8||50||$0.04||$0.25|
|Broccoli crowns (about 4 cups)||$0.99||4||120||$0.01||$0.25|
|Gala apple (6oz)||$0.24||1||80||$0.003||$0.24|
It’s pretty clear that the junk food items (that would be the Doritos and Twinkies, in case you’re wondering) are the champions of price per calorie, both coming in at fractions of a cent. But when we look at the price-per-serving numbers, all of a sudden the playing field levels, making the fresh fruit and veggies actually come out a bit cheaper!
How Much Does It Really Cost To Eat Healthy?
According to a New York Times article1 about the study, the average American spends $7 a day on food – nearly $50 a week – so I decided to put together a healthy meal plan for a day to see how it compared to the national average. While I do live in Klamath Falls, Oregon, which is less expensive than a metropolitan area, this daily plan is for a 6-foot-3, 200-pound man, so I’m not exactly skimping on calories here. Check it out:
- Scrambled eggs with cheese
- Oatmeal with raisins and honey
- Turkey sandwich with whole-grain bread, cheese, avocado, tomato and lettuce
- Grilled chicken breast
- Steamed broccoli
- Baked sweet potato
Shopping list in hand, I set out for my local supermarket, ready for the massive grocery bill I was about to face. You can imagine my relief when I found that my little shopping trip was not nearly as costly as the doom-speakers would have me believe. Fresh fruit and vegetables are actually not that expensive and even the meat and dairy is quite reasonable, if you know what to look for. Here’s the breakdown of what I bought:
|Shopping List||Price||Price per serving|
|Brown eggs (30 ct)||$3.58||$0.12 per egg|
|Frozen chicken breasts (4 lbs)||$10.72||$1.34 per 6-oz breast|
|Deli style turkey breast (1 lb)||$4.99||$0.31 per 1-oz slice|
|Mozzarella cheese (2 lb)||$4.98||$0.16 per 1-oz slice|
|100% whole wheat bread (18 slices)||$1.69||$0.09 per slice|
|Oatmeal (42 oz)||$2.18||$0.21 per ½ cup serving|
|Sweet potato (1 medium)||$0.37||$0.37 per potato|
|Gala apple (1 medium)||$0.24||$0.24 per apple|
|Avocado (1 medium)||$0.88||$0.88 per avocado|
|Broccoli (1 head, about ½ lb)||$0.49||$0.25 per cup serving|
|Roma tomatoes (5 ct, about 1 lb)||$1.19||$0.24 per tomato|
|Romaine lettuce (1 head)||$1.99||$0.20 per cup serving|
|Almonds (½ lb)||$3.40||$0.42 per 1-oz serving|
|Honey (local, 12 oz)||$3.59||$0.15 per Tbsp serving|
|Raisins (½ lb)||$1.50||$0.19 per 1-oz serving|
The meat and cheese were the most expensive part of the whole trip, but even so, they were not unreasonable. Now here’s how those prices apply to the meal plan for the day:
|1 slice mozzarella cheese||$0.16|
|1 cup oatmeal||$0.42|
|1 oz raisins||$0.19|
|1 Tbsp honey||$0.15|
|2 slices whole wheat bread||$0.18|
|3 slices turkey breast||$0.93|
|1 slice mozzarella cheese||$0.16|
|½ Roma tomato||$0.12|
|½ cup Romaine lettuce||$0.10|
|1 chicken breast||$1.34|
|1 sweet potato||$0.37|
|1 cup broccoli||$0.25|
|1 Gala apple||$0.24|
|1 oz almonds||$0.42|
Wow…so there you have it: a whopping $5.83 for me to make healthy meals throughout the entire day. That’s 17% below the national average!
As you can see, these studies that count calorie-value, and the articles promoting them, are misleading at best… and dangerously disingenuous at worst. It’s this kind of self-perpetuating nonsense that makes people give up on the notion of a healthy diet. If you have hugely-popular mainstream media like the New York Times spreading the idea that most people will never be able to afford nutritious food, what kind of chance do they have?
Healthy Meals Do Require Planning…
That said, there are some challenges to eating fresh, healthy foods that you don’t face with the prepackaged, highly-processed stuff. Often it’s these issues, not cost, that are the biggest barriers for people to make the switch.
- Fresh food goes bad quickly – This means that you have to go shopping more often and use the food you buy before it spoils.
- Requires preparation – It’s much easier to dump milk and cereal in a bowl or pop a TV dinner in the microwave than prepare a fresh, healthy, well-rounded meal.
- Requires planning – Because of the first two challenges, it’s almost a necessity to plan your meals ahead of time so you have everything you need on hand.
5 Tips For Eating Healthy on a Budget
Often eating healthy is not as convenient as buying boxed dinners or going for a quick fast food lunch, but there are a few things you can do to make it easier and more cost-effective:
- Prepare in batches – Make large quantities of soups, quiches, etc. that you can eat throughout the week. This will save you time and help you use up fresh food so it doesn’t go bad.
- Get in a routine – You’re going to have to take regular trips to the grocery store so make it part of your weekly routine. It’s helpful to set aside half a day to plan, shop for, and prepare meals for the rest of the week.
- Buy frozen – You can save a lot of money buying frozen foods and they are the next best thing to fresh. The foods will also keep longer so you may not have to shop as often.
- Buy in bulk – Like buying frozen, buying items in bulk, especially at a wholesale grocery store like Costco can save you a lot of money. Just make sure you can use it all before it goes bad!
- Shop sales – This is kind of a no-brainer, but buying food that is on sale, or produce that is in season, will not only save you money, but add some variety to your meals. I like to think of my shopping trips as hunting and gathering expeditions – I never know what I’m going find!
- A High Price for Healthy Food January 2011. Available at: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/12/05/a-high-price-for-healthy-food/. Accessed March 27, 2013. ↩
You Can Eat Healthy Without Breaking The Bank
And there you have it: it IS possible to eat healthy without taking out a second mortgage or selling your firstborn, regardless of what popular culture tells you. In fact, it can be very reasonable if you’re willing to put in the time and effort.
One last thing to consider is that the benefits of living well and eating a healthy diet are measured in years, not dollars. Years of good health. Years without relying on medications to get by. Years of happiness. One trap you should never fall into is putting a price on your health. As a wise man said long ago:
“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” – Hippocrates
Do you have any tips for eating healthy without breaking the bank? Leave a comment below!