Written by Elizabeth Boham, MD
Eating Healthy Actually Costs Less

Eating Healthy Actually Costs Less

We’ve all noticed the explosion of cheap processed foods, and sometimes even water can cost more than soda. So, how is it possible that eating healthy actually costs less? It all depends on how we measure the cost of food.

As a physician and nutritionist, I have been fighting this perception that healthy foods cost more for years. A study by the USDA showed that although healthy foods may cost more per calorie, they actually cost considerably less by any other metric. Many healthier foods, such as fruits and vegetables, appear to be more expensive because they are low in calories. But, if nutritional value (such as mineral and vitamin content) is used to calculate the cost of food, then it actually costs LESS to be on a healthy diet. This is a very important distinction to make. 

If we measure how much food costs per calorie, it is true that a hamburger, fries, and soda is often less expensive than a dinner of brown rice, salmon, and vegetables. But because these less healthy foods (defined for this study as high in saturated fat, added sugar, and/or sodium) are low in vitamins, minerals, and nutritional value, it would cost a lot more to eat enough to reach the dietary recommendations. Considering that the purpose of eating is to obtain both calories and nutrients, eating healthier is actually the better deal for your body.

With the explosion of obesity and obesity malnutrition worldwide, this is an important conversation to have. Most people, even those with malnutrition, are getting enough calories in their diet. What many people are missing are vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients as well as proteins and healthy fats. Because of this, we now see people who are severely overweight or obese who also have markers of nutritional deficiencies. People with obesity malnutrition have the metabolic consequences of obesity, increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer with the health consequences of malnutrition, like decreased immune function and the increased risk of infection and cancer.

It is important that we change how we calculate the cost of food. We need to calculate the cost based on vitamin, mineral, or protein levels. We need to work to get the word out that healthy eating actually costs less when we weigh-in the nutritional content of the food. Even though eating junk food seems less expensive, getting all of the nutrients into your family’s diet on a budget takes planning and thoughtfulness. Just because you are full does not mean that your body’s needs have been met.

Here are some of my top money-saving ideas for eating healthy:

  1. Incorporate beans as a source of protein. A little animal protein goes a long way, so use it as a condiment. Have protein at every meal, but divide your protein intake between animal (eggs, fish, meat, and poultry) and vegetable protein sources (beans, tofu, legumes, nuts, and seeds).
  2. Join a farm share. This is a less expensive way to get local, fresh, in-season vegetables into your diet. 
  3. Fruits and veggies that are in season are quite affordable (the USDA did an analysis on this). 
  4. Utilize frozen vegetables and fruits. Produce is frozen quickly after harvesting, making this an efficient way to incorporate more fruits and vegetables into your day.
  5. Eat less. Most of us are just eating too many calories. Don’t waste your money on empty calories. These foods are not good for your wallet or your waistline.
  6. Skip the prepared coffees. This is an expensive habit that is often full of unwanted sugars that increase your risk of metabolic disease. Opt for homemade organic black coffee and try adding a little MCT oil for an extra energy boost. 
  7. Get a reusable water bottle and fill it up at home. Don’t waste your money on bottled water. This is good for you and the planet.
  8. Cook more. This is the best way to get more whole foods into your diet, reduce waste, and cut way back on the cost of your food. We need to focus on teaching children how to prepare real whole food meals.
  9. Join the policy advocates who are working to change our food system on the government level to influence price. Encourage our government to create policies that will raise the cost of packaged and heavily processed foods and use the cost savings to make healthier foods less expensive. This podcast with Dr. Mark Hyman and Dr. Dariush Mozzaffarian is full of great ideas.  

 Have I convinced you yet? Now, let’s spread the word. 

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