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Is Healthy Eating possible on a tight budget?

The answer to this question is a resounding "Yes!" Based on the research evidence, many of our assumptions about healthy food purchases—that it takes either more money or a lot more money to eat healthfully— are simply incorrect. In this article, we would like to help set the record straight on some common food purchasing misconceptions and provide you with 10 practical tips for Healthy Eating on a tight budget.

The added cost of healthy food—it's not what you think

Is there anyone who doesn't assume that healthy food is more expensive? Whether it's a comparison between fast-food or a formal sit-down restaurant; or organic versus non-organic tomatoes; or a 12-ounce cola versus a freshly squeezed fruit juice—our assumption always seems to be that healthier equates with more expensive. But research findings in this area paint a different picture than we might expect.

One of the most comprehensive recent studies about healthy food costs appeared in 2013 in the British Medical Journal. The average price of foods in 6 different food categories was analyzed in over 27 studies from 10 different countries. Both healthy and unhealthy foods were included in the comparison. Average prices were calculated for dietary patterns that featured unhealthy foods. Average prices were also calculated for dietary patterns that featured healthy foods—for example, a Mediterranean Diet type of intake. When the average price of a non-healthy food day was compared with the average price of a Mediterranean Diet day (in other words, a day with food combinations that matched the standards of a Mediterranean Diet), the average price difference for a Mediterranean Diet day was indeed higher than the average price for a non-healthy day—but not by much. In the case of this Mediterranean Diet comparison, differences in price ranged from $0.10 to $1.95, with an average difference of $1.18 per day. In other words, it cost an average of $1.18 more each day to bring a non-healthy eating pattern up to Mediterranean Diet standards. Similarly, when non-healthy food intake was compared with the Healthy Eating Index (HEI), the price difference ranged from $0.07 to $3.02 per day, and with an average increased healthy eating cost of $1.61. In this case, it took $1.61 more each day to bring non-healthy eating up to healthy eating standards. When non-healthy eating choices were compared with the Alternative Healthy Eating Index, the average daily cost increase was $0.90 per day.

When all of the study findings were combined and analyzed, the average daily increased cost of healthy foods was $1.48 per day (and $0.29 per serving of food). On a calorie-basis, the average daily increased cost of healthy foods was $1.56 per 2,000 calories. In other words, for approximately $1.50 more per day, it is possible to change unhealthy eating choices into healthy ones. These findings do show that on average, healthy foods tend to cost more than unhealthy ones—but only by a small margin.

Additional studies have done a good job of putting this slightly higher cost of healthy eating into a broader perspective. While the average cost of healthy foods appears to be slightly higher than the average cost of unhealthy foods, this difference does not apply to every single healthy and unhealthy food. For example, we have never seen a study showing the average price of store-bought organic artichoke or store-bought organic cauliflower to be lower than the average price of store-bought non-organic artichoke and cauliflower. So in this case, the organic versions (which we believe have a greater likelihood of being healthier due to the prohibited use of many synthetic chemicals in their cultivation) appear to consistently cost more. But we have also seen studies in which the average price of store-bought organic tomatoes, carrots, and lettuce was found to be equivalent to—or sometimes even lower than—the average price of their non-organic versions. So in these instances, choosing organic did not add to the daily food cost and, in fact, might even have lowered it. Similarly, we have seen studies in which the average price of specific healthy foods—for example, a yellow/orange vegetable like sweet potatoes—was only $0.28 per serving and less than many commonly enjoyed nutrient-poor foods.

Research studies have also made it clear that food budgets vary widely and often have room for an increase of $1.00 per day. In one recent study on food spending in U.S. households, 20% of U.S. households spending the least amount on food averaged $68/week or $9.72 per day. The middle 20% averaged $108 per week or $15.40 per day, and the highest 20% averaged $211 per week or $30.11 per day. Similarly, in a 2012 Gallup poll, 22% of families estimated a weekly food budget of $100-$124 per week (and this percentage accounted for the largest single group of households), while 17% of households estimated $50-$99 of weekly expenditures on food, and 21% estimated $200-$299 per week. Generally speaking, these "households" and "families" consisted of three to four persons within the household or family. If you look at the numbers above and take U.S. food budgets that fall somewhere in the middle, it seems reasonable to treat $100 per week or roughly $15 per day as an average U.S. food budget. An extra $1.00 per day—the average amount needed to convert unhealthy choices into healthy ones—would mean an increase of only 5-10% using these numbers. The take-away here seems clear to us: there is strong evidence that you can eat healthy without breaking the bank.

Spending more is not always the issue

Individuals who spend the most money on food do not automatically end up with healthier food choices; this finding is common to many studies on food purchasing. For example, the highest income households in the U.S. spend three times as much money on food as the lowest income households. But these highest income households do not purchase three times the number of healthy foods. In fact, the percentage of food group purchases by U.S. families does not appear to change regardless of income. Whether food budgets are large or small, U.S. families tend to spend 35% of their available food budget on miscellaneous foods like snacks, treats, and frozen dinners; 21-28% of meats, seafood, and eggs; 12-15% on breads, cereals, and baked goods; 8-11% on dairy; and 17-19% on fruits and vegetables. In short, our overall food spending habits in the U.S. do not meet our public health recommendations for healthy eating, and it does not seem to matter how much money we spend.

This disconnect between food expenditures and healthy eating can also be seen in our health statistics. Among all U.S. men, for example, the rate of obesity is unchanging across income groups. In other words, men in higher income groups are just as likely to be obese as men in lower income groups. Among women, women in lower income groups are more likely to be obese, and food insecurity rates are definitely highest among households headed by women whose incomes are at or below the federal poverty level. However, most obese women in the U.S. are not low income due to the large number of obese women in higher income brackets. Among all obese adults in the U.S.—including both men and women—41% have incomes at or above 350% of the federal government's designated poverty level. These numbers do not mean that poverty is somehow irrelevant as a health problem; or that having enough money to buy food is irrelevant as a health problem; or that we can ignore the role of cost in healthy eating. But these numbers do tell us that having enough money to spend on food is not the only key to healthy eating, and we should never assume that the amount of money we spend is going to control the healthiness of our diet.

Rising costs for healthy food

Particularly in the area of fresh fruits and vegetables, we have seen numerous reports about public concern with rising costs and the increased difficulty of healthy eating. Industry analyses in this area show a somewhat different trend than is commonly assumed. In fact, two specific consumer preferences appear to account for over half of the increase in fruit and vegetable prices during the period 2005-2015: (1) a preference for year-round availability of certain fruits and vegetables, regardless of whether they are in season; and (2) a preference for pre-washed and/or pre-sliced fruits and vegetables that require less preparation and are, in many cases, ready to eat. While prices for commonly consumed whole fruits and vegetables have increased over this time period, increases have been much less steep than commonly assumed, particularly for certain fruits and vegetables available in season.

At WHFoods, we confident that you can enjoy healthy fruits and vegetables on a daily basis without having to pay more for pre-washed, pre-sliced, or non-seasonal produce. Our Nutrient-Rich Cooking videos will show you quick and easy methods for cutting and slicing our 38 WHFoods vegetables so that you can eliminate the need to purchase them in pre-sliced form. And throughout our website, we have tips for purchasing fruits and vegetable in season as a way to promote healthy eating on a tight budget. One article that you may find helpful in this regard is Healthy Eating for Less. To identify seasonal foods in your state on a month-by-month basis, we encourage you to visit Sustainable Table's Seasonal Food Guide. We also encourage you to consider two websites that can be helpful in finding local, seasonal foods: Local Harvest and USDA Agricultural Marketing Service Local Food Directories.

10 practical tips for healthy eating on a tight budget

At WHFoods, we believe that your 10 best steps for healthy eating on a tight budget are as follows.

  1. Don't assume that healthy eating will cost you a lot more money. Studies show that assumption to be false.
  2. Don't assume that spending more money will guarantee healthier food choices. There's no research evidence for that assumption either.
  3. Don't assume that healthy vegetables—even organic vegetables—will cost more money. You've got to make your vegetable purchasing decisions on a vegetable-by-vegetable and season-by-season basis. In any season, you can find specific organic vegetables that either won't cost you more than non-organic ones or might cost you a small amount more but not enough to upset your food budget.
  4. Buy seasonal. In-season purchases are especially important with vegetables if you need to maintain a tight budget.
  5. Purchase whole foods and prepare them yourself in your own kitchen. Especially in the vegetable food group, pre-washed, pre-sliced, ready-to-use and ready-to-eat veggies are closely linked to higher food costs. On a tight budget, washing and slicing on your own will pay huge dividends.
  6. If the price difference between organic/non-organic is too great, consider purchasing local, seasonal foods that have been grown in the same way as certified organic foods, just without the actual certification process. You can use the website resources described earlier in this article to find local, seasonal foods in your area.
  7. Whenever possible, consider growing some of your own foods, including perennial herbs that you only plant once and can use in the kitchen year-after-year. Some native food plants (although, of course, not all) can do extremely well on their own, without much caretaking on your part. For this reason, they can be grown without the added expense of fertilizer, irrigation, or other gardening steps.
  8. Coupons, specials, and membership co-ops: Many retailers offer member-only sales and other discounts for regular patrons. In addition, money-off coupons are available for many healthy, brand-name products. When trying to follow a strict food budget, it's definitely worth investigating various options that might available to you in your local community.
  9. Sometimes buying in bulk can be a great way of minimizing cost. This is a particularly effective strategy for purchasing vegetables that will keep for a longer period of time (for example, potatoes or onions).
  10. Plan ahead, make grocery lists, avoid impulse purchasing, and make good use of leftovers: eating healthy on a tight budget cannot happen by chance. You won't accidentally stumble onto a healthy, inexpensive diet. Healthy eating on a tight budget does not have to be a burdensome chore because it can become almost second nature with some experimentation and practice. But it does require you to become organized with your food purchases (if you are not already) and to make the most of what you buy. Planning ahead and cooking ahead can work wonders in this regard, as can the use of today's dinner leftovers for tomorrow's lunch. Being organized does not have to take any of the joy out of your meal plan! In fact, it can often make your meal plan more satisfying, by taking the possibility of Healthy Eating and placing it more easily within reach!

    For more on Great Healthy Eating Habits:

    1. Does Healthy Eating require cooking on a regular basis?
    2. Are grocery lists and organized food plans required for Health Eating?
    3. Does Healthy Eating require three meals each day?
    4. Are snacks a good thing or a bad thing for Healthy Eating?
    5. Does it matter if dinner is the largest meal of the day?
    6. How consistent does my diet have to be in order for me to stay healthy?
    7. Is it possible to create a well-balanced diet without paying attention to portion sizes?
    8. Is it okay for me to "eat on the run?"
    9. Just how common is "eating on the run?"
    10. Problem 1 with "eating on the run"—getting distracted from the process of eating
    11. Problem 2 with "eating on the run"—eating too quickly for our body systems:george,421]
    12. References for "Is it okay to "eat on the run?"
    13. References for "Is it okay to "eat on the run?"


    • References
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    • Beydoun MA, Powell LM, and Wang Y. The association of fast food, fruit and vegetable prices with dietary intakes among US adults: Is there modification by family income? Social Science & Medicine, Volume 66, Issue 11, June 2008, Pages 2218-2229.
    • Bowman SA. A comparison of the socioeconomic characteristics, dietary practices, and health status of women food shoppers with different food price attitudes. Nutrition Research, Volume 26, Issue 7, July 2006, Pages 318-324.
    • Carlson A and Frazao E. Food costs, diet quality and energy balance in the United States. Physiology & Behavior, Volume 134, July 2014, Pages 20-31.
    • Daepp, MIG. Prices and availability of healthy foods across St. Louis. American Economist 60.2 (Fall 2015): 209-224.
    • Drewnowski A. New Metrics of Affordable Nutrition: Which Vegetables Provide Most Nutrients for Least Cost? Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Volume 113, Issue 9, September 2013, Pages 1182-1187.
    • Goulet J, Benoit L, and Lemieux S. A Nutritional Intervention Promoting a Mediterranean Food Pattern Does Not Affect Total Daily Dietary Cost in North American Women in Free-Living Conditions. The Journal of Nutrition138.1 (Jan 2008): 54-9.
    • Jahns L, Scheett AJ, Johnson LK et al. Diet Quality of Items Advertised in Supermarket Sales Circulars Compared to Diets of the US Population, as Assessed by the Healthy Eating Index-2010. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Volume 116, Issue 1, January 2016, Pages 115-122.
    • Krukowski RA, McSweeney J, Sparks C, et al. Qualitative study of influences on food store choice. Appetite, Volume 59, Issue 2, October 2012, Pages 510-516.
    • Marian L, Chrysochou P, Krystallis A, et al. The role of price as a product attribute in the organic food context: An exploration based on actual purchase data. Food Quality and Preference, Volume 37, October 2014, Pages 52-60.
    • Monsivais P, Mclain J, and Drewnoswki A. The rising disparity in the price of healthful foods: 2004—2008. Food Policy, Volume 35, Issue 6, December 2010, Pages 514-520.
    • Nakamura R, Suhrcke M, Jebb SA, et al. Price promotions on healthier compared with less healthy foods: a hierarchical regression analysis of the impact on sales and social patterning of responses to promotions in Great Britain. Am J Clin Nutr. 2015 Apr;101(4):808-16.
    • Ogden CL, Lamb MM, Carroll MD, et al. Obesity and Socioeconomic Status in Adults:
    • United States, 2005—2008. Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity. CDC National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) data brief No. 50. December 2010. US Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics.
    • Pechey R and Monsivais P. Supermarket Choice, Shopping Behavior, Socioeconomic Status, and Food Purchases. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Volume 49, Issue 6, December 2015, Pages 868-877.
    • Rao M, Afshin A, Singh G, et al. Do healthier foods and diet patterns cost more than less healthy options? A systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ Open 2013;3:e004277 doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2013-004277.
    • Rehm CD, Monsivais P, and Drewnowski A. Relation between diet cost and Healthy Eating Index 2010 scores among adults in the United States 2007—2010. Preventive Medicine, Volume 73, April 2015, Pages 70-75.
    • Rodiger M and Hamm U. How are organic food prices affecting consumer behaviour? A review. Food Quality and Preference, Volume 43, July 2015, Pages 10-20.
    • Skuza N, McCracken V, and Ellis J. Compensation fees and willingness to pay: a field experiment on organic apples. International Journal of Food and Agricultural Economics3.3 (Jul 2015): 1-13.
    • Wolfson JA and Bleich SN. Fruit and vegetable consumption and food values: National patterns in the United States by Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program eligibility and cooking frequency. Preventive Medicine, Volume 76, July 2015, Pages 1-7.

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