Is it possible to eat healthy on a budget, or are healthy foods just too expensive?

I know this is a key question, with a smart and sexy reader asking it. So I want to give you a full answer.

The cost of eating healthy really depends on how we measure it. Typically we’ll think in terms of calories—and we want them cheap. (How many calories can I get for my dollar?) By this logic, when we compare two foods like lentils and sugar—which cost approximately the same per unit weight—sugar beats lentils for calories/dollar.

But that’s a pretty limiting way to determine value, right?

Bring nutrition into the mix—vitamins and minerals and fiber and everything our body needs beyond simple calories—and that equation doesn’t make so much sense. Junk foods—and animal products—often offer us more calories per dollar than fruits and vegetables, but it’s fruits and vegetables that make a cheaper meal. When we measure the value of our food by serving size (dollars per meal), plant foods take the prize.

In fact, calories/dollar aside, fruits and vegetables prove the more economic option by all measures!

If you lay out a hundred calories’ worth of cheese, meat, candy, fruits and vegetables on a table, the only ones that will look like a reasonable-sized snack are those last two. More importantly, of course, fruits and vegetables are by far the most nutrient dense of the bunch. To get comparable nutrition for a serving of meat, we’d have to spend three times as much. Now that’s some perspective.

In short, by replacing meat and other animal products with cheaper, more nutritious foods like grains, legumes, fruit and vegetables, we’ll actually come away from our meals healthier, better satisfied, and with more money in our pockets!



W. O. Atwater. Foods: Nutritive Value and Cost. USDA 1894 NA(NA):1 – 30
Carlson, Andrea, and Elizabeth Frazão. Are Healthy Foods Really More Expensive? It depends on How You Measure the Price, EIB-96, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, May 2012.
A. Drewnowski. The cost of US foods as related to their nutritive value. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 2010 92(5):1181 – 1188
C. L. Connell, J. M. Zoellner, M. K. Yadrick, S. C. Chekuri, L. B. Crook, M. L. Bogle. Energy density, nutrient adequacy, and cost per serving can provide insight into food choices in the lower Mississippi Delta. J Nutr Educ Behav 2012 44(2):148 – 153

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