Do You Spend Enough on Healthy Food?

Everyone knows the joke that it’s so expensive to shop at Whole Foods it should be called Whole Paycheck, and as much as I adore my local Whole Foods markets, I can’t seem to walk out without dropping at least a hundo.

But in a recent interview, Whole Foods co-founder John Mackey said he believes we’re not spending enough on healthy cuisine. He pointed out that 50 years ago we spent about 20 percent of our incomes on food, while today we spend 7 percent, and that we’ve become accustomed to cheap, low-quality fare.

He made a good point. And while not everyone can afford to shop exclusively at Whole Foods (including me), a recent government analysis challenged the notion that healthier foods actually cost more.

The USDA report found that per portion—an important distinction—healthier foods are no more expensive than their highly processed counterparts. Researchers looked at more than 4,000 foods and found that items such as carrots, beans, lettuce, and bananas are all less expensive per portion than soft drinks, ice cream, candy, and sweets.

In addition, when you look at the true cost of food, which factors in the public health and environmental ramifications, healthier foods are far, far cheaper. But big-picture perspective aside, take a look at this meal comparison:

Cheese Pizza
1/2 medium or 4 slices, delivery on special
Calories: 960
Fat: 40 g
Saturated Fat: 18 g
Carbs: 108 g
Fiber: 4 g
Sodium: 2,120 mg

Pasta Primavera
Homemade from 1/2 cup each fresh tomatoes, onions, mushrooms, and spinach sautéed in 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil with 1 clove minced garlic and 1 teaspoon dried Italian herb seasoning, tossed with 1/2 cup cooked 100% whole-wheat penne, and topped with 1/4 cup organic part-skim shredded mozzarella cheese
Calories: 360
Fat: 20 g
Saturated Fat: 6 g
Carbs: 25 g
Fiber: 6 g
Sodium: 205 mg
*Plus a whole lot more vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants

While the total cost of groceries for the pasta dish is much greater than the price of a pizza, it’s actually less per meal, about $3.50 versus $5.00. So while your grocery bill may go up, preparing healthier meals can actually help your daily food costs go down. And although it may take more time and a commitment to cooking more meals at home, the nutritional differences and impact on your waistline can be pretty darn drastic.

Are you surprised by the per meal cost differences? Just in case you’re curious, here are the digits per ingredient:
1/2 cup each fresh tomatoes, onions, mushrooms, and spinach: $2.00 total
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil: $0.25
1 clove minced garlic: $0.10
1 teaspoon dried Italian herb seasoning: $0.12
1/2 cup cooked 100% whole-wheat penne: $0.20
1/4 cup organic part-skim shredded mozzarella cheese: $0.83  

What’s your take on this topic? Would you be willing to skip a manicure in order to spend more at the supermarket? Do you think of healthier food as an investment? What’s your biggest barrier to eating healthier? Please tweet your thoughts to @cynthiasass and @Shape_Magazine.

Do You Spend Enough on Healthy Food? -2

Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she's a SHAPE contributing editor and nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. Her latest New York Times best seller is S.A.S.S! Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.

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