Spending a Fortune on Food in Order to Eat Healthily

October 20, 2010 in Food Economics by Joyce Bunderson

It appears that many people have accepted some research and opinion published over the past few years to the effect that eating a healthy diet is more expensive than eating a poor junk food-type diet. I’ve heard many nutritionists espouse this idea. I have argued that it need not be so expensive, and Doctor Grandpa has written posts to show that the true cost of eating poor food is much, much more than eating healthy food. While sharing our point of view in these blogs, much of it seems to have fallen of deaf ears. The fact is that if a person is educated to rely on research to guide their points of view, it often means that that person needs valid research to win a debate.

For those of you who question the modest cost of good foods, I happily report the results of some current, highly credible research.  One of my favorite public health nutrition schools, Harvard School of Public Health has published in the September 1, 2010 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, a study that helps straighten out the misconception that you need to spend a lot of money to eat a heart-healthy diet.

Even though Adam M. Bernstein and his colleagues adjusted their review of spending for energy (statistically removed the calories per person factor) when evaluating the nutrition level for the 78,191 participants, it was still a fairly complex index developed to make the evaluation. Many decisions were made to decide which foods were associated with the outcomes observed. I’d say that that there are still many areas left to look at in the future as related to the food budget and a heart-healthy diet; but this is a great step in the right direction.

First, I want to share one of Bernstein and his group’s concluding statements: “Although spending more money is associated with a healthier diet, large improvements in diet may be achieved without increased spending.” They also say that spending more on nuts, soy and beans, and whole grains was associated with a better diet and spending more on red meat, processed meat and high fat dairy were associated with a less heart-healthy diet. In addition, they also mentioned “Fish and poultry, vegetables, and fruit and fruit juice offer the next best investment.”

Second, I will share some anecdotal information of why I always believed that you could eat a heart-healthy diet in the U.S. without breaking the family budget.

  • I’ve been cooking for over 40 years, and have managed to do so at a modest cost.
  • When my children were young, sometimes their father was out of work; I was a stay-at-home mother, who learned how to stretch a dollar, when dollars were scarce.
  • I also want to mention that my grandmother, who fed a family of seven during the depression, raised me, providing many examples of frugal but hearty eating.

To me, it’s not exactly a “news flash” that eating healthily does not have to be expensive. Aside from my argument, that if you don’t spend money on healthy food on the front end, you will likely pay for it at the doctor’s office or the hospital later; I want to share a few observations; hints and nutrition tidbits that may help you eat a heart-healthy diet for less money. The researchers said that the ‘trick’ is to spend more on plant-based foods and less on meats. If you follow this website, this is not new information, but recent and credible validation.

Fruit and Vegetables

  • When I think of a heart-healthy diet (which, of course is really a healthy diet to avoid diabetes, heart disease, cancer and a host of other disease states) I think of fruits and vegetables first. Check out this short podcast of an interview at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) -- Jennifer Foltz MD, where she shares the fact that we Americans are actually consuming fewer fruits and vegetables than last year. Nationwide, Americans are only eating about a third of the fruit goal and a quarter of the vegetables. The vegetables chosen are frequently white potatoes, often consumed as French fries. Ouch! And orange juice is the most popular fruit option; if you’re in either of these groups, consider trying not to get your starch in deep fried fat, and try eating a whole orange instead of drinking juice. It will notch up your healthy fiber intake.
  • So many people have commented to me that ‘vegetables are expensive.’ I don’t know how that assessment is made and what the vegetables are compared with, or even which vegetables they’re referring to; but when I go to a local market that carries beautiful vegetables for a good price, I’m almost always shocked to see the nice size of the basket full of fruits and vegetables that I get for the money I spend. If you’re a long time readers of this blog, you probably know that Dr. Grandpa and I eat much more than the average amount of vegetables.

One good cost saving tip is to eat vegetables in their season. If you don’t really know which vegetables are “in season,” just look at the advertisements for the grocery stores on a given week. Usually the pictured fruits and vegetables are advertised at a special price (and are even sometimes a loss leader – which means that the store is not making much of a profit, but wants you in their store in hopes you will buy more profitable items as well. Certainly if you’re choosing Swiss chard instead of spinach, it’s going to take a bigger nibble out of your food budget. The point here is that the variety can make a difference. You can serve nourishing vegetables having similar nutrients with a fairly wide range of price – check out the difference between pumpkin and some of the other winter squashes; you may discover that with herbs or spices you can make the less expensive one taste just as wonderful as the costlier one.

Protein foods

  • In my experience this is one of the main areas that might drive up the food budget, but by choosing wisely can control it while at the same time improving the nutritional value of meals. In the olden days, when people were on a tight budget, they often turned to beans and rice, which together provide excellent protein. It seems that it is no longer common knowledge that you can get all the protein that you need from a meal of whole grain and legumes. Some budget-friendly ideas are:
    • Spread peanut butter on whole grain bread (try a little banana, raisins, preserves or jam to sweeten the deal). Peanut butter sandwiches can help you move away from the expensive processed meats that cost more and  drag you away from an alternative nourishing diet at the same time. I like the peanut butter with no added oils. An additional option is almond butter; you can make it yourself or purchase without any added oils – nice option!
    • Check out the thousands of bean and rice menu items available on the Internet. Substitute whole grain rice or wheat berries for white rice to notch up the nutritional value of the meal. Cooking dry beans is about as easy and budget-friendly as it gets. If you use canned beans, consider rinsing them to reduce the sodium or buy the low sodium versions. Just taking low sodium canned black beans, cooked brown rice and mixing in some salsa is a super fast meal-in-minutes, that’s nourishing and budget friendly. If you don’t feel satisfied without animal protein, think about adding a little drained canned chicken breast chunks or chopped leftover chicken or fish.
    • Eggs are an excellent low fat protein food for an incredible budget price.
    • Don’t forget canned fish. Salmon patties are a favorite of mine.
    • Nuts and soy products like edamame or tofu, can replace or reduce the amount of meat needed in a recipe.
    • Consider roasting a turkey and serving for a meal or two. Then take the leftover meat off the bone and chop it into pieces. Package the boneless meat into one or two-cup portions in zip lock bags and freeze – Viola! You are ready for your next stir-fry or casserole. When you make stir-fry or casseroles, you can increase the whole grains or vegetables in proportion to the expensive animal protein foods. Great for the budget! Of course, one of the most budget friendly meals can be created by making a delicious turkey-vegetable soup with whole grain noodles or brown rice – don’t throw that carcass out!


  • Whole grain pastas have been vastly improved over the past year or two. Sometimes they cost a little more, but undoubtedly, the difference is not enough to make a significant budget difference. The nutritional difference is, however, definitely worth the small difference in price.
  • Whole grain muffins and pancakes can be fairly easily made from scratch, or you can buy them from Dr. Grandma’s.
  • Whole grain breads are becoming more readily available. This is a price that I hope you are willing to pay – huge nutritional benefit for the price difference.

Eating at home and controlling what goes into your belly and your family’s, is really worth the effort. Being willing to sacrifice a little convenience (plus saturated fat, sugar, sodium and plenty of additives), by purchasing the ingredients, can not only save calories but lead to lower cost, healthier eating. Eating out is one of the biggest and most difficult challenges to getting a budget-friendly nourishing diet on a regular basis. I suggest that if you’ve been relying on inexpensive junk food to nourish yourself or your family, that you begin identifying a change or two each week that will lead to a happy budget and a healthy body; changing slowly is less daunting and less likely to be abandoned – new habits will be created.