The first wealth is health.  —  Ralph Waldo Emerson

The other day when I was in a grocery store looking over some avocados, I overheard a conversation between a couple that were also looking to purchase  some avocados.  After admiring them, they looked at the price of 2 for $3.00.  After exclaiming at the price, they put them down, left the produce aisle, and headed into the aisles full of boxed, canned and packaged foods where they can buy thousands of calories of poor-quality, nutrient-poor, processed foods that are filled with sugar, fat and salt for the same $3.00.  This is the same scenario many of us go through as we try to feed our families every day.  I understand this same dilemma as I have tried to feed my family of nine over the years, all within an ever-diminishing budget.

People have been complaining about the high prices of healthy food for decades.  It’s one of the biggest arguments against eating better and including more whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, and nuts and seeds in our diets.  It certainly appears to be easier, more convenient and cheaper to eat in a less healthy manner.  In fact, most Americans’ eating habits do not meet even the Federal dietary recommendations.

But  wait!  Let’s move the kaleidoscope a bit for a new shift in perspective.

There have been plenty of reports and studies that have reinforced this misconception that healthy food has a high cost to it, but a report released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture turns all the old reports on their heads.  All the previous studies have focused on a cost per calorie basis.  On the surface, that makes sense.  Calories are the fuel our bodies require to move and function.  We focus on them, count them, and obsess over them.  Americans, especially, eat well more calories than we need each day.  The odd paradox in this is that food insecurity – not knowing where the next meal is coming from or worrying that we will not have enough money to feed our families – leads to obesity, diabetes, and other chronic diseases.

Since the 1970s, we’ve been consuming, on average, an extra 500 calories per person.  When you eat unhealthy foods that come in the form of cheap, artificial foods that include things like high-fructose corn syrup, the costs of medical visits, co-pays, prescription medications, and other health services skyrocket.

We all know that many of these foods are bad for our health.  It also affects the costs associated with our health care.  There are some studies that show that health care costs related to obesity are $118 billion per year.  That’s more than twice the cost of expenditures related to smoking!  72% of Americans are overweight and over one-third are medically obese.  One-in-three children today will be diabetic in their lifetime and, for the first time in our history, life expectancy is declining.

A report from the Worldwatch Institute called, “Overfed and Underfed: The Global Epidemic of Malnutrition,” documented the real costs of obesity related to poor diet – and this does not include other effects from a poor diet such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, dementia, osteoporosis and other autoimmune diseases.  Some of the conclusions are:

  • Obese people account for a disproportionate share of health-related absences from work.
  • Obesity accounts for 7 percent of lost productivity due to sick leave and disability.
  • 7 percent of all of North Carolina’s healthcare expenditures are related to obesity.
  • Obese people visit their physicians 40 percent more than normal weight people.
  • Obese people are 2.5 times more likely to require drugs prescribed for cardiovascular and circulation disorders.
  • Over 100,000 people a year have gastric bypass surgery.

However, the over consumption of calories also means we’ve been looking at the cost of food incorrectly.  We know we are overdoing it when it comes to calories.  But maybe, to help us out, why not take a look at our food on a price per weight or price per serving basis.  This publication by the USDA also calculates the cost of meeting the recommendations for each food group. For all measurements except the price of food energy (calories), the authors found that it didn’t cost as much for healthy foods compared to less than healthy foods (defined for this study as foods that are high in saturated fat, added sugar, and/or sodium, or that contribute little to meeting dietary recommendations).

So, healthy foods are more expensive per calorie, but are far less expensive when looking at weight or serving size.  Whole grains, beans, vegetables, and fruit are much less expensive in a price-per-gram or price-per-serving size way.    Is eating healthy really more expensive?  Not even remotely.

Processed foods trick us into thinking we are saving money, but we eat much more of them before feeling full and satisfied.  A single serving of fresh fruit contains antioxidants, fiber, water, vitamins, and minerals and leaves us feeling more sated then a less expensive donut.   Processed foods lead us to overeat and as we consume more servings, the price climbs.  These are unnecessary calories that the body turns into fat.  These processed foods are also very poor in nutrition – even if they are cheaper – containing none of the vital vitamins, minerals, water content, and fiber necessary for your body.  Therein lies the hidden costs of cheap, convenient food.  The idea that you can save money by eating well is further supported by studies like the one published by the American Dietetic Association that shows eating well to lose weight is actually cheaper than eating poorly.  The authors of the study concluded that “adopting a lower-energy, nutrient dense diet did not increase dietary costs over time.  Consequently, cost should not be a barrier in the adoption of a healthful diet.”

Here are some ideas to get you started:

  1.  Listen to Gandhi.  Yes, Gandhi!  He said that we should never mistake what is habitual for what is natural.  Case in point:  Some Chinese are very poor and yet they eat extremely well — small amounts of animal protein with an abundance of vegetables.
  2. Be willing to learn. We have to learn new ways of shopping and eating, new ways of ordering our priorities around our health and nutrition that supports our well-being, even if it is hard at the beginning.
  3. Do your research.  There are ways to find cheaper sources of produce, whole grains, beans, nuts, and lean animal protein.  You just need to seek them out.  It doesn’t all have to be organic.  Simply switching from processed foods to whole foods is a HUGE step in the right direction.
  4. Make an effort.  Eating healthy does take more planning.  It may require you to find new places to hunt and gather for your family.  You might have to reorder your priorities regarding where you spend your money and your time so that you can make healthier eating choices.

Remember, eating healthy foods without spending a lot is possible – and you can do it.