Does Healthy Food Cost More Than Junk Food?

by in Food News, June 21, 2012
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Does eating well cost more money?

Does following a healthy diet mean dishing out more dough? Not necessarily. A new study published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture revealed that healthy food isn’t any more expensive than junk food.

The Studies
With more than one-third of U.S. adults being overweight and a push from the Obama administration to fight rising obesity levels, this new study sheds light on budgetary concerns when it comes to healthy eating.

Previous studies were highly criticized for comparing the cost of food per calorie. These studies found that pastries and chips and cheaper than fruit and veggies. The newest study conducted by the Agricultural Department compared cost of foods by weight or portion size which reveals that grains, veggies, fruit and dairy foods are less costly than most meats or foods high in added sugar, salt, or artery-clogging saturated fat. The study found that carrots, banana, lettuce and pinto beans were all cheaper per portion than soda, ice cream, ground beef or French fries.

The Issues
Using the cost per weight or portion also makes more sense. When you compare foods per calories, there is no consideration taken for the quality of the calories or its satiety value (meaning, how full you will feel after eating the food). You may devour an unsatisfying donut for 300 calories but feel very satisfied after a 95-calorie apple. Furthermore, if you’re eating that 300 calorie donut you’re not getting nearly as many nutrients. Higher calorie and fatty foods have also been associated with a higher long-term healthcare costs from chronic diseases like obesity, cancer, diabetes and heart disease.

Shopping on a Budget
Knowing simple shopping tricks can also keep your food costs down. Use these tips on your next trip to the market:

  • Buy seasonal produce — out of season fruits and veggies cost more.
  • Plan your meals and choose recipes based on the supermarket circular, seasonal produce and healthy foods that are on sale.
  • Look for coupons in print or online of healthier options. Remember to check the manufacturer’s website for coupons and special deals.
  • Write out a shopping list of what you need to cook healthy meals and snacks to avoid spending more on impulse buys when you’re at the store.
  • Instead of buying food that comes in single containers like apple sauce, nuts, raisins, yogurt and whole wheat pretzels, buy them in bulk or in larger-sized packages. When you get home, divide them into single-serve containers.
  • Pre-cut fruits and veggies tend to be pricier. Buy them whole and prep them at home.
  • Go meatless on Mondays or any other day of the week. Meatless options like fruits, veggies, grains and legumes were found to be cheaper.
  • When you do opt for meat, calculate how much meat you really need based on 4-5 ounces per serving.
  • Some foods that cost a pretty penny at the market, are easy (and cheaper) to make at home such as salad dressings and tomato sauce.

TELL US: How do you purchase healthy food on a budget?

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Comments (376)

  1. Rich says:

    I just priced a typical salad I make and take to work for lunch. For pricing I went to a famous online grocery store (also famous for being pricey)

    broken down to what I consider to be servings (not the same as packaging most of the time)
    1/4 red bell pepper…………….$0.50
    1/4 cucumber…………………..$0.20
    1/2 large carrot…………………$0.07
    1/4 yellow squash……………..$0.20
    1/8 pint cherry tomatoes………$0.50
    1/2 container spring mix……..$0.83
    3 oz chicken tenders………….$0.60
    2tbls yogurt caesar dressing….$0.60

    total damage ……………………$3.50

    This is usually enough for me for lunch. I pretty much had this for dinner tonight (substitute 4oz home grilled salmon for chicken)

    Will this leave you stuffed to the gills like McDs? No. It will leave you filled and nourished. After a week or two on diet lower in carbs and fat, the heavy feeling associated with full will not be necessarily.

    People talk about costs like they are in "survival mode", like they need to make sure they get every possible calorie for their dollar. This is insane. Calories are cheap. A serving of fries will keep you alive for a day, but calories are not the only important measurement in food. If they were we would all just be drinking corn oil (the cheapest form of calories available).

    We need more than that, and fast food just does not deliver. All McDs has is fat, sugar and a tiny amount of protein. This does not constitute a meal. As Michael Pollan would put it… "It is an edible food-like substance".

  2. Faith says:

    All my meals are planned by what's on sale and what I have on hand. I never plan a weekly menu – most of the items are never on sale, so I make with what I buy. I rarely buy processed or "boxed" foods, I always cook with real food.

  3. Kat says:

    I think if you are a good cook and have plenty of seasonings and healthy oils (remember the upfront cost of these items) you can eat healthy, but the additional costs of these extra items to make your healthy meal feel satisfying need to be considered. The extra time it takes to pack and prepare these meals needs to be factored (my time is money too). Plus dollar for dollar processed refined, preserved foods last longer on your pantry shelf than fresh foods do so there may end up less waste. Plus if you are one or two people it is ridiculous to buy foods in bulk and risk them going stale and then thrown out. If healthier foods were in fact just as inexpensive to consume, why is it that you never see an Entree salad (like chicken breast and salad) on the dollar menu at fast food restaurants? Because they don't want to absorb the added cost. Things to think about.

    • Mary Fitz says:

      If processed, refined, preserved foods last longer on your pantry shelf, imagine much longer they stay in your stomach, intestines, and liver. Do you prefer to be a toxic waste dump?

  4. Laura says:

    Fresh fruits and veggies from a farmer's market can be quite cheap. Check out your local international markets for other good deals! If you take care to buy mostly in-season produce, you will save even more!

  5. Anne says:

    I can eat healthy for much less than going to McDonalds. Stretching the food I buy is the key to eating on a budget. First of all I buy organic where ever it's available. If I cook chicken for a Caesar salad I put a sandwich portion of the cooked meat in a plastic baggie and make my lunch with it the following day. Adding some lettuce and tomato from my garden gives me a "free lunch". Never waste food. Eat that fruit before it goes bad in the fruit bowl I always say. If I am throwing out food because it has gone bad I feel guilty so I only buy enough that I know I will eat or freeze. It always helps to buy food items that I know I can spread out over several different dishes. Like a carton of shredded cheese, or a bag of sliced mushrooms. Stir fries are my favorite with vegetable from the farmers market. It's so easy and it goes a long way. One night on rice and the next night a slightly different combination with some chicken on the side. Also, if I splurge on a nice meal out, I always stop eating short of cleaning my plate so that I have enough for a sandwich the next day. That works for meals I prepare at home too.
    But besides all this, homemade vegetable soups are by far the most healthy and least expensive. On $15, I can make 8 good servings of soup and freeze them. That is less than $2 per meal. My favorites are Butternut squash, asparagus, potato leek, Kale, and split pea.

  6. Mary Fitzpatrick says:

    I am celiac and must prepare everything from scratch. Micronutrients (from fresh fruits and veggies) are essential for my autoimmune condition so of late I have started juicing them once or twice a day. My grocer has excellent but expensive fresh produce. So I shop early Monday morning and ask to see what they have in the back room that they consider not salable (bruised, over-handled, etc). They sell it to me
    for practically nothing, including the organics. Another way to reduce the expense of shopping healthy is to not buy (or consume) as much. Smaller portions save money and calories.

  7. Christoph says:

    It's wonderful to discover there are people who believe in healthy eating, as a way of life – and not just as a fad. Fast food and processed (factory manufactured) and lack of physical activity is what is driving our dramatically increased obesity, diabetis, cancers and other diseases.

    For people who are "tired & have no time," you can prepare a dinner consisting of real food in under thirty minutes. Cutting open processed cans of nutritionless (and irradiated) green beans, opening a box of frozen fish or chicken sticks and laboratory produced "potatoes," takes just as long as creating a fresh meal. I will take a fresh porkchop, easily cut some fresh green beans, peel a small potato and have my meal ready in 20-30 minutes. I have to only be attentive to when to turn and pull the chops from the pan.

  8. Christoph says:

    If you want a more extensive meal, place fresh, already cut-up chicken thighs, breasts and legs into the oven – they take 40 minutes at 350 degrees and bake themselves while you change into more comfortable clothing after coming home from work. Fresh vegetables and salads are easy and made quickly – while the chicken or cornish game hen is making itself.

    Cooking is not a "chore." The 20-30 minutes spent in the kitchen (which you will do anyway) is great wind-down time. Talk to your children (or yourself) or your partner.

  9. Christoph says:

    I have not purchased a "can or bag" of food in over 40 years. I find Saturdays or Sundays to be great opportunities to make chicken stock from left over bones – it makes itself. I spend 30 minutes a week to prepare doughs for and pizza. I can go on and on…It's a delusion created by marketers that self prepared meals are laborious, save time and are healthy.

    Unless you have some actual health difficulties, eat anything you want (real food), eat reasonable portions and take the time to be physically active in some manner (excersize, instead of watching television). Because real, non-processed has flavor and is filled satisfying calories, you will find you eat less and, as a consequence, spend less on your groceries.

    Shop the periphery of your grocery store – there is no "real, produced by nature" food in the aisles.

  10. Christoph says:

    I have not kept this blog up to date, in term of recipes – you might find it humerous.

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