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OK, trick question: What costs more? Eating healthfully or eating poorly? Most of you would probably guess that eating well costs more than eating poorly. And you would be wrong.

"Come on," you might argue. "Who can afford to live on California plums and imported olive oil?"

It's true that out-of-season raspberries are astronomically expensive and that a lunch of grilled salmon and spinach salad will set you back more than a Happy Meal will. But it's also a fact that by making smart choices, you will not only improve your health and lose weight, you can also save enough money to afford a fancy vacation next year.

 

Why cheap eats cost a fortune
Even if it did cost more to eat well -- and it doesn't -- most of us in the U.S. have enough money to eat healthfully. As a nation, we spend only 10.4 percent of our disposable income on food, less than half of what a typical family spent in 1929.

Still not convinced that it's possible to eat well on the cheap? Take a look for yourself with this one-day meal plan. You'll find that you not only can cut two-thirds of the fat and shave a whopping 700 calories, but you'll save yourself at least $7 a day, or more than $2,500 a year, compared to eating processed fast food or "cheap" junk food. And that even includes using pricier timesavers like bagged salad greens, which cost more than regular lettuce. You'll save even more if you use coupons, buy in bulk and purchase sale items.

Unhealthy meal plan

Breakfast
Cost: $5.60
1 large coffee-bar café mocha
1 cranberry-orange scone

Snack
Cost: $3.25
1 energy bar
1 bottle fruit-flavored drink

Fast-food lunch
Cost: $5.47
Double cheeseburger
1 regular order french fries
1 medium chocolate shake

Snack
Cost: $1.68
1 ounce potato chips
12-ounce cola

Dinner
Cost: $2.39
1 pork chop
1/2 cup broccoli with cheese sauce
1/2 cup packaged rice mix
1 cup iceberg-lettuce tossed salad
1 tablespoon creamy bacon dressing

After-dinner snack
Cost: $0.44
2 apple-cinnamon-filled cookies

Total cost: $18.83

Unhealthy Day Nutrition Score: 2,794 calories, 44% fat (138 g; 60 g saturated), 45% carbs (317 g), 11% protein (80 g), 12.4 g fiber, 12.4 mg iron, 1,178 mg calcium.

Healthy meal plan

Breakfast
Cost: $1.13
2/3 cup oatmeal cooked in
1 cup 1% milk and 1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 cup orange juice

Snack
Cost: $1.00
1 banana
1 cup low-fat fruit yogurt

Fast-food lunch
Cost: $4.66
Grilled chicken sandwich, hold the mayo
1 carton 1% milk
1 orange (from home)
1 cup carrot sticks (from home)

Snack
Cost: $1.00
1 cup grapes
Ice water with lemon

Dinner
Cost: $3.08
Pork stir-fry made with:
3 ounces lean pork, sliced thin
1 cup frozen stir-fry vegetables
1 tbsp. hoisin or soy sauce
1 tsp. minced ginger
1/2 cup steamed instant brown rice
1 cup Italian blend salad greens (pre-bagged)
1 tbsp. creamy bacon dressing

After-dinner snack
Cost: $0.50
1 baked apple

Total cost: $11.37
Savings: $7.46

Healthy Day Nutrition Score: 2,003 calories, 21% fat (47 g; 14 g saturated), 59% carbs (297 g), 20% protein (102 g), 30.5 g fiber, 10.5 mg iron, 1,329 mg calcium.

Surprisingly little research has been done on the price of eating well, though experts have plenty of opinions. "It does too cost more!" insists Adam Drewnowski, Ph.D., professor in the departments of epidemiology and medicine at the University of Washington in Seattle. "It's the low-quality food that's cheap." Agreeing with Drewnowski are scientists at the Rowett Research Institute in Scotland, whose study concluded that adding fruits and vegetables to the daily diet jacked up the grocery bill.

On the other hand, scientists at the Research Institute at Bassett Health Care in Cooperstown, N.Y., found that a person following a heart-healthy diet instead of eating fast food and "cheap" junk food saved $8 a week on the shopping bill. Dietitians at the National Cancer Institute's 5-A-Day program made a few healthful changes in a typical menu and saved almost $1 a day. And my own plan, at left, can save you more than $7 per day and 700 extra calories.

Why the difference in results? "It's a difficult subject to study," explains Susan Krebs-Smith, M.D., research nutritionist for the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md. "People can eat poorly on a tight or a loose budget, just as they can eat well for more or less money."

More is less
More than half of Americans eat too much, and the extra pounds cost the average overweight person $5,000 in added health-care bills over a lifetime, according to a study published in the March 1996 issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Then there's the $33 billion Americans spend annually on weight-loss products and services, according to a study published in the August 1996 issue of Scientific American. Getting the most calories for your buck is far less cost-effective than getting the best possible nutrition for every dollar you spend.

And less is more
The bottom line? You don't have to be wealthy to eat healthy. Pound for pound, you'll pay less for raw foods like rice or fresh fruits than for processed, canned or frozen foods like bacon and chocolate-chip muffins. You'd probably jump at the chance to save hundreds of dollars on your annual taxes. Try these cost-effective recipes and you'll do the same with your food bill and feel a whole lot better than you ever felt after a visit to your accountant.

Cheap tricks
For the biggest nutritional bang for your buck, follow these money-saving tips:

Use meat as a complement. Meat accounts for a third of the average food bill, so instead of a T-bone steak, serve beef stew. You'll reduce your dinner bill by half and your fat calories by nearly as much.

Choose raw over processed foods. In general, the less processed a food, the more nutritious and cheaper it is. A serving of frozen hash browns is 29 cents, while a potato costs just 17 cents.

Bag the chips. A small bag of potato chips may seem inexpensive at 40 cents. But price them by the pound and you're paying a hefty $6.40. The typical American consumes nearly 6 pounds of chips a year. Switch to something healthier, say oranges, and you could pocket $32 a year on snacks alone.

Save on produce. Apples, oranges, bananas, carrots, cabbage and onions are affordable year round. Use expensive exotica like mangos, papaya or baby field greens as an occasional garnish.

Buy in bulk. Get oatmeal, rice, nuts, tea, dried fruit, sugar and other dry goods from bins at discount groceries and co-ops. Join a warehouse club and split jumbo-size purchases with friends.

Go generic. Store brands often cost less, but quality varies. Buy only the brand-name products that are worth the extra cost.

Switch proteins. Americans consume more than 8 ounces of meat a day; substitute beans twice a week and you'll save hundreds of dollars a year. A 1-pound bag of kidney beans costs 89 cents and makes 12 servings, while a pound of hamburger costs $2 and only serves four.

Eat in. If you're like the average American, you spend 47.5 percent of your food dollar in restaurants, where food is more expensive and higher in calories and saturated fat.

Replace the McDonald's bag with the brown bag. Fast-food prices are especially deceptive. A double cheeseburger may cost 20 cents less than a home-made grilled chicken sandwich. But add in the cost of french fries and diet soda, and suddenly you're out way more than you'd spend on a healthful brown-bag lunch.

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