Is It Actually Cheaper To Eat Healthy?

Recently, I've been buying nutritious and healthy foods on the cheap. In a perfect world, we'd love for everything to be free, but that's never going to happen. So I'm here to help you dive into the tangled web of food, cost, and nutrition!

December 14, 2015
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Eating Healthy: Is It Really More Expensive?

Recently, I went to the supermarket to purchase strawberries for a pie. The price was a little discouraging, but I ignored it. Then I saw a pile of avocados, which made me dream of guacamole. But when I looked at the price tag I had a mild panic attack. No way was I paying $2.50 for one avocado. I meandered over to the store-made guacamole. The fresh guac was $5…was this a joke? Then I saw the pre-packaged, pre-made, manufactured guacamole coming in at a manageable $3. Now that was something I could handle.

See what just happened? I passed up the healthier option of homemade guacamole for something that was most likely squeezed out of a tube and full of enough sodium for a whole country.

Which brings us to the crux of the problem: Is healthy food more expensive than unhealthy food, and if so, by how much? Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health have delved into the numbers and concluded that healthy eating costs about $1.50 more per day than unhealthier diets. Although this may seem like a small amount, it quickly adds up, especially for families already struggling financially. On a larger scale, that’s approximately $550 a year, which obviously can be a huge burden.

Why are healthy foods so expensive? Is it because of the cost that farmers incur in harvesting crops? Not necessarily. The BMJ (British Medical Journal) did a little bit of investigating on their own and came to these conclusions. Essentially, current policies in place focus on producing large quantities of inexpensive foods (this adds up to $300 billion in government subsidies, to be precise). The way these foods are farmed, stored, and marketed is all aimed toward the consumer. Sales are favored for these highly processed foods for the greatest industry profit. There has been talk of raising taxes on these unhealthy foods to deter consumers from purchasing them, but that is still up for debate.

So, where is this $1.48 difference seen? For starters, unhealthy meats and proteins are considerably cheaper than their healthier counterparts, as discussed by The BMJ. There’s a 29-cent difference between the two, and that number is conservative. There is a much smaller gap (three cents) in the cost of healthier versus unhealthier grains; dairy is 0.004 cents cheaper, and the list continues. It’s not just your imagination. Unhealthy foods are cheaper.

Just Kidding, They’re Not

On the other hand, there are reasons to believe that cheap food is actually more expensive. When you eat unhealthy food, you’re not only polluting your body and setting yourself up for future health problems, you’re also hurting the economic security of our country.

Unhealthy foods are loaded with fats, sugars, and ingredients that I can’t even pronounce. While you’re purchasing that frozen, gooey lasagna, or eating a Big Mac and fries, you might not be thinking about what’s actually happening inside your body. Not to mention that the obesity rate has skyrocketed, as more and more pre-packaged foods are introduced in our stores. More than one-third of Americans suffer from obesity, which ends up costing them money. Obese individuals visit their physicians 40 percent more than average-sized patients, and they account for 7 percent of lost productivity at work because of an increased use of sick leave and disability programs.

Overall, on a day-to-day basis, healthy food is pricier. There’s no denying that. But when you look at the bigger picture, you’ll realize that the consequences vastly outweigh the money you’re saving now. It’s been established that our government has a hand in making unhealthy food so accessible, and advocates have been clamoring for change. But until this occurs, what can you do to ensure that you’re eating healthy on the cheap?

Frozen Versus Fresh

I typically have regarded frozen food as one of the unhealthier choices, and in some situations it is. Pre-made pot pies and enchiladas cannot be good for you. They’re laden with chemicals; you can taste this when you sink your teeth into them. However, there are benefits to buying frozen products. For example, frozen veggies and fruits are much cheaper than fresh produce.

Let me address a common concern: How well is nutritional value retained? Isn’t fresh produce preferable, better, and healthier? Here’s the thing: The fresh fruits and vegetables at your local grocer aren’t necessarily as nutritious as you’d hope. Within three days of when vegetables are removed from their vines or pulled from the ground, their nutritional value begins to diminish, with 80 percent of vitamin C being lost, for instance. With our current technology, freezing doesn’t damage food; it actually preserves the vitamins and minerals.

The caveat is that some foods freeze better than others. The Daily Mail has a list of the “do”s and “don’t”s for all your freezing questions. Red meat freezes better than white meat because it has a larger amount of fat. This fat means there’s less water content, thus the pesky ice crystals that cause freezer burn won’t be forming on your ground beef. Chicken, on the other hand, has high water content, so it’s recommended that you only freeze white meat for six months or less. Generally speaking, if you’re freezing food for a reasonable amount of time you should be good to go. Frozen produce may not be ideal when you want to eat your vegetables plain, but if they’re an ingredient in a stir-fry or casserole, they should be your number one choice.

Splurging Can Be Okay

Sometimes you have to splurge if you want to eat healthy. With careful budgeting, it can be done. Personally, I’ve reduced the amount of meat I consume so I can have healthier organic meat and produce options. A good guide is trying to avoid “The Dirty Dozen” at all costs. It’s a funny name but scary truth: The Dirty Dozen is a list of fruits and vegetables that test positive for high pesticide residue. Try to find organic versions of these items when you can:

The list for 2015:  

-Apples
-Strawberries
-Grapes
-Celery
-Cherry tomatoes
-Sweet bell peppers
-Peaches
-Spinach
-Cucumbers
-Imported snap peas
-Nectarines
-Potatoes

Cutting Costs

How exactly can we cut costs when it comes to buying healthy food? Prices of seasonal fresh produce are considerably lower during summer months. When winter arrives and prices creep up, it’s time to turn to frozen veggies. Frozen meats can be found year-round, but it’s best to find items that are organic or have minimal additives. This can present a significant challenge, but stay on the lookout for organic frozen food when you can.

Another cost-cutting option is a no-brainer, but does take some effort. Don’t forget about coupon clipping, menu planning, and sale shopping. Coupon clipping is pretty obvious, but most people don’t think about menu planning. Figuring out what you need for the week and writing it down is a fantastic way to keep from making impulse purchases. Also, it’s good to have a few recipes in your back pocket. If you go to the store and chicken breasts are full price but a pork tenderloin is on sale, go for the tenderloin. Another way to save money is by purchasing store brands; they’re typically less expensive than name-brand products.

It may take a bit before you get the hang of buying healthy food without destroying your budget. A great resource for purchasing cheap healthy food is your local grocers themselves. They’ll typically tell you when items are going on sale and what’s the best bang for your buck. If you build a rapport with your butchers, they may even give you discounted prices. If you take the time and make the effort to shop for deals, you’ll be healthier and happier before you know it.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Staff Writer