Everybody knows that they should “eat healthy”. The research done on the role of diet in prevention and treatment of a number of the top chronic diseases that plague our country is indisputable. We know we should do it, but why don’t we? There are a number of factors, to be sure, but one of the most common and most unfortunate misconceptions is that eating healthy is super expensive. This is simply not true.
Let’s first analyze the typical American food budget to gain some perspective. A 2015 USDA study shows that the average woman under 50 years old spends about $60 per week on groceries under a “moderate” spending plan while men under 50 spend about $70. On top of that, the average person will eat at a restaurant over 4 times per week, half of these meals being for lunch. A casual lunch averages at $10 per person. This easily means that a single female can easily spend $100 per week on food expenditure. A “moderate”-spending family of 4 is likely to spend approximately $1,062 per month on groceries, less if the children are under 5 years old, and less on thriftier plans. This data does not specifically account for variables in geographic location and household-income demographic. Keep in mind that single people spend more per person on groceries as compared to the amount spent per person in a family due to bulk meal preparation and so forth. While individual needs and desires of a household most certainly should be when deciding on a food budget, what I’m suggesting to you is that “eating healthy” can be done at the cost of, or in some cases cheaper than a “standard American diet”.
I am a person who has personally tracked food expenditures religiously over the years, especially the ones I spent in med school living on student loans. During these years, I made an effort to eat extremely health-consciously as well as money-consciously. From that data, I can report confidently that my food expenditure, including occasional restaurant-outings, rarely exceeded $80 per week or $320 per month. Given that I am female and given my stature and therefore inherently spend less than a larger male, we’ll say that my spending matches the national average for a single person. How is this possible when healthy foods like produce and sustainable farming costs so much? Here are some key ways to keep costs down without sacrificing nutritional value:
- Follow a plant-based diet. Diets that are largely made of plant foods are inherently less expensive that animal-protein diets. This is because the cost to raise and feed an animal is disproportionately higher than the food you get from it, translating that cost to the consumer, and unsustainable. The added benefit to this is that not only are you now consuming less of the things that create problems in our health (saturated fat, arachidonic acid, added hormones, higher-chain pesticide/herbicide residues, etc.), but you are now also adding infinitely more vitamins/minerals and phytonutrients into your diet by way of plants. If you do eat animal proteins, eat the highest quality, organic, grass-fed ones, and limit it to very small amounts, or only once or twice a week in your diet.
- Avoid eating out as much as possible. Brown bagging your lunch to work is a sure way to save hundreds of dollars over the course of a year. You can put that money in the bank, or you can use it to invest in higher quality grocery food items that might otherwise be out-of-reach.
- Use the dirty dozen/clean fifteen schedule for deciding what produce to purchase organic. Unless you have the financial means to spend “liberally”, as the survey puts it, you probably need to be a little choosey about what you buy organic, and that’s okay. Certain foods are much higher in transferable pesticide residue and should be consumed only in organic form while others transfer relatively little residue and are less of concern.
- Utilize coupons and bulk-buying effectively. The improper way to use coupons is to buy anything that you can get at reduced cost. This results in you buying more stuff you don’t need. Only use coupons that are relevant to your grocery list. There are nutrient-dense foods that can be purchased cheaply in bulk like beans and rice. Stocking up on these provides very economical staples for your diet that are nutritious and pocketbook-friendly.
- Prepare your meals in bulk. As mentioned previously in this article, studies show that single people spend more per person than families do. Part of this is because families produce a larger quantity at once, thereby using fewer resources to prepare the food compared to making each meal separately. Just because you’re one person, doesn’t mean you can’t take advantage of this trick!
Being health-conscious isn’t just for high-income people. In fact, I found that when I transitioned to a health-conscious diet, I actually saved money initially simply by decreasing cost on animal foods and cost on eating out where it was harder to find healthy options. This taught me that eating well simply requires a shift in perspective and developing some tricks.
Dr. Madalyn Otto, ND
Naturopathic Physician at Whole Health Concord