Food. I just said food, and you probably feel like I'm making a moral statement. I'm not. Just going to talk a bit about eating healthfully, and the costs associated with it.
Can you keep costs low while eating a healthy diet? My short answer, no. Eating healthfully is quite costly, but you can find ways to spend less money on your food while still eating a nutritious diet.
Here's my quick take on healthy eating and healthy wallets.
First, I'll define my parameters
I HATE, HATE, HATE, HATE, HATE when people claim to eat a "healthy" diet, and then fail to define health. What is a healthy diet?
I've spent the better part of six months reading about nutrition, and even many RD/MD/NTP authors fail to define what they mean by health. They tell compelling stories, but they don't actually explain what metrics an average Jane like me (or an average Joe like you) should look for in a nutritious diet.
From my reading, I've found that a healthy diet ought to hit three categories:
1. Nutrient sufficiency: Obviously, you need to eat enough calories, or you'll die. There's robust literature about this. You also need a certain level of macronutrients (fat, protein, carbs), and micronutrients (vitamins/minerals), fiber, and pre/pro-biotics in your diet to thrive. In general, all nutrients (both macro and micro) feature two laws that I will explain using economic terms.
The first will be Liebig's law of the minimum. Since most nutrients work in conjunction with all the other nutrients, the scarcest nutrient may limit your health. These days, it's really popular to supplement your diet with Vitamin D. Vitamin D is found nutritionally through egg yolks, beef liver and some fish. You can also get it through sunlight exposure (which is kind of neat). Anyways, if you want strong bones you need vitamin D in addition to Calcium. The moral of the story? You need to get at least the recommended daily value of all nutrients, every day.
The second law is the law of diminishing returns. The law of diminishing returns states that the first "dose" of something (in this case a nutrient) offers the most benefit. Subsequent doses offer less benefit, and at some point more could be worse. My example for this will be protein. Protein is incredibly important for being alive. Your body cannot produce nine of the essential amino acids to generate protein, so you have to eat them. The first bit of these amino acids you eat will keep you alive and functioning. The next bit will help you maintain muscle mass. The next bit will help you grow stronger (if you provide a muscle stimulus), and the next bit is pretty much unnecessary, and on for a bit until the next bit will actually kill you (protein toxicity is a thing).
A more obvious example is calories. You need enough calories to function, but too many calories will make you fat (which isn't so bad), but then the fat could lead to insulin resistance and morbidity (death) which is pretty bad.
To summarize, your diet must hit all the nutrients. To get all the nutrients you need without eating too many calories, you need to choose a lot of nutrient dense foods like meat, fish, olive oil, vegetables, tubers, and fruits. You'll also need to choose fewer nutrient weak foods like white and corn flour and highly processed oils (especially peanut and soybean). (As a side note, this is the best possible argument for being an omnivore. You cannot eat a plant-based diet and get all the required nutrients for maximizing health. You will need to supplement Vitamin B12, Vitamin D, Calcium, Iron, Zinc, Selenium, and possibly Vitamin A (depending on your ability to synethesize Beta Carotene).
2. Personal Reactivity: Now that I've dispensed the second-most controversial part of my health discussion, I'll talk about the most controversial part. That is personal reactivity. I'll start with the least controversial part of the discussion. If you're allergic to something, you shouldn't eat it. My cousin has a peanut allergy that could kill him. He should not eat peanuts. If you have celiac disease, you should go out of your way to not eat gluten. Like, ask about the fryer at the restaurant out of your way.
Of course, you don't have to be allergic to something to for it to cause you to react negatively. For example, about 23% of patients in this trial showed that they had persistent, non-celiac, gluten-sensitivity even a year after going on a gluten-free diet. I've found that it's pretty common for people to need to eliminate one or two of the following foods to improve their health (dairy, wheat, eggs, potatoes, tomatoes, nuts, peanuts, chicken, soy, or fish). However, just because some people have health problems associated with these foods, doesn't mean everyone should eliminate them.
Another dimension related to personal reactivity is pro-inflammatory vs. anti-inflammatory. The study linked is a meta-analysis of pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory foods. Basically, some foods cause a stress in your body, and this chronic stress leads to insulin resistance (type 2 diabetes, possibly alzheimers) and heart disease (maybe various types of cancer too).
The most inflammatory foods are all the most delicious foods like white flour, processed oils (that's soy, peanut, or corn oil), sugar, high fructose corn syrup, processed meats, alcohol, artificial sweeteners (maybe not Stevia or Xylitol, but I'm not sure). So we shouldn't eat tons of those foods. But interestingly, certain people have inflammatory responses to healthy foods like spinach, tomatoes, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and to be completely honest everything but red meat and water (seriously).
In the event that you're body is really struggling, you may want to consider therapeutic diets. For MS, the "Carb-specific" diet shows promise, A Ketogenic (high fat, low carb) diet shows some good signs with certain people with certain cancers (although it's bad for other people). A low FODMAP diet makes sense for those with irritable bowel syndrome. Weirdly, these diets have gained followings among people who don't want to use them for medical therapy.
To summarize, some foods won't agree with you under any circumstances. Don't eat those. You should also limit the number of pro-inflammatory foods you eat, and aim to heal underlying disease states that can help you tolerate normally healthy foods that are pro-inflammatory to you.
3. Spontaneous caloric sufficiency: For most of human history, and indeed, in some parts of the world today, people struggle to eat enough calories (much less other nutrients). The human body is indeed pretty marvelous at dealing with states of deficiency. Per point one, it's not optimal for health, and somewhere along the line, you'll pay the consequences with your health, but it's a marvel.
Contrary to popular belief, the body is also pretty good at dealing with surplus calories too. Your body tends to burn at least a little more energy when you eat more than you would normally expend. Plus, your body will use the extra calories to store fat which is just fine for health (even quite good in many cases). You have to pack on quite a lot of extra weight for the weight (or fat) itself to impair your health.
But in our society of food abundance, that also prizes "hyper-palatable" foods, it's easy to eat too much food and put on too much weight. Even foods that aren't particularly pro-inflammatory (think potatoes with butter and salt or steak) could be eaten to excess. Now start pairing those with even moderate amounts of junk foods (like a few servings of ice cream per week, or a couple of sodas), and you can see why many people eat too much food every day.
On the start of my health journey, I played with tracking my food. I just wanted to get an idea of how many calories I ate, and how much protein, carbs, etc. I ate. This habit was enlightening on two dimensions. First, I naturally ate around my caloric needs except when I ate multiple servings of junk food (then I overate). Second, trying to restrict carbohydrate intake made me feel like crap, and led to unsustainable caloric deficit (For some, this is okay though).
I found a moderate protein, fat, and carb diet yields spontaneous caloric sufficiency for me. Other people will need high carbs/low fat. Other people need high protein (up to 35% for safety), high fat and low protein. When it comes to spontaneous caloric sufficiency, eating less junk is one key. Figuring out your personal macro ideals is the other key.
Okay, that's about all I have to say about health generally (for now). For me in particular, I would note that I'm not peculiarly sensitive to any foods, but the pro-inflammatory foods throw me off my game more than they used to. I can eat a piece of cake, but not two. I can eat some ice cream, but not a shake. A few fries are fine, but a burger and fries make me feel a little gurgly.
Based on my definition, how much does it cost to feed a family of four healthfully?
Lately, our average spending is around $100-$125 per week. I'm finding a few shortcuts that are helping me reign in the cost. However, the extra savings is likely to go towards better meat products. Nonetheless, here are my basic tips for working towards a healthier diet without spending too much money.
Make your starches work
Starchy foods are super-cheap, but they can either promote health or destroy it. Yes, white bread costs $.89 per loaf. No, eating white bread won't promote health.
Unfortunately, for many people upgrading to wheat bread isn't really that healthy either. Compared to other starch sources, wheat, corn, and rice don't offer much nutrient value.
Instead of focusing on those inexpensive calorie sources, I recommend focusing on nutrient powerhouses that are equally cheap. Lentils, black beans, and chickpeas are inexpensive. As long as you soak these babies for 18+ hours before cooking them, you'll get rid of any anti-nutrients (things that prevent nutrient absorption), and you'll get loads of vitamins and minerals along with a healthy dose of carbs (and a little protein).
I've been making Mujadara (lentils, rice and onions), and keeping it for my lunch starches. It's filling and inexpensive (PS I don't use pine nuts as the linked recipe recommends. It's quite delish without them).
Potatoes and sweet potatoes (yams) are also a cheap and nutritionally packed source of calories. I roast these at the beginning of the week, and eat them with eggs for breakfast.
I'm not sure why, but bananas are crazy cheap. We pay around $.39 per pound, which comes out to about $.15 per banana. Bananas are cheap, easy, and appropriate for deserts or snacks. (I freeze them, blend with a bit of chocolate and enjoy banana ice cream).
I'm rounding out my personal starch choices with rice, oats, bulgar (which costs $.99 per pound making it nearly as cheap as flour), corn tortillas, popcorn, and some wheat bread. I eat a ton of calories (around 2500+ per day), so I use inexpensive starches and fat to fill in calorie gaps when I don't need as much nutrient density.
I should say, my family is a little slower to adopt the alternative starch solutions. They eat a lot of oats and potatoes, and Rob will eat legumes, but the kids like bread. At least we save a little money by eating very little breakfast cereal, crackers, pizzas, muffins, cakes, etc. (Also, I admit that I've consumed a few too many rice noodles to be considered frugal. Now, I plan to reserve these for special events).
Be fat savvy
Fat makes food delicious, but it's also needed to fuel your brain's activity. Right now, low fat isn't as popular as it was growing up, but I see the pendulum starting to swing towards low fat again. Aggggh! Eat fat for fun and profit!
Okay, so when it comes to fat, my number one source of fat is animal products. If you're eating them anyways, you can get a ton of nutrition from the fattier bits. Fatty fish have proven health benefits, so it's great to eat them from a nutrition standpoint. Unfortunately, they cost an arm and a leg (around $7 per pound, so we eat them rarely).
Eggs (with the yolks) provide a ton of nutrients along with healthy saturated fats, and a standard carton costs less than $.60. Cage-free eggs have mild animal welfare benefits, but no nutritional benefits. Pasture-raised eggs are the gold standard, but these cost nearly ten times as much as conventionally raised eggs, but with a more limited additional benefit (nutritionally speaking). Because eggs are chicken embryos (unfertilized), they are more protected from environmental problems compared to the actual chickens. When it comes to upgrading for food quality, eggs are last on my list.
Beef also yields a nice dose of fat along with deliciousness, and we can find conventional beef for about $2-$3 per pound on sale. Personally, I've had no symptoms that make me think I need to upgrade to grass-fed/grass finished beef. If you've had hormonal issues, you may need to upgrade which makes beef quite a bit more expensive (around here it's about $6-$12 per pound for grass-fed/finished based on the cut).
In terms of added fats, canola oil, olive oil, and cod liver oil have proven benefits (I only eat the first two). Avocados and grass-fed butter are also rising stars. In terms of cost, Canola is the least expensive, and olive oil comes next. We consume a lot of both oils, with somewhat less butter. Avocados are pretty expensive, so we reserve them for times when they are on sale (am I bad millennial to say I don't love avocados?).
Veg before fruit
When it comes to nutrients, vegetables and meat (which I'll address later) are the superstars. Fruit has a lot of nutrients too, but on a calorie per nutrient basis, it's pretty expensive. Vegetables are especially easy to turn into frugal, nutrition stars because you can cover them with inexpensive, but nutritious fats.
Ideally, I like to eat 6-8 servings of vegetables per day, and maybe 1-2 servings of fruit (because it's delicious, and I can afford it). Rob and the kids eat closer to 2 servings of vegetables and 2-3 servings of fruit (although, yesterday my kids consumed an entire pound of peppers, so you really can't predict what they will eat).
Even in-season, conventionally grown fruits seem to be fairly expensive, but vegetables can be extremely frugal. We eat a lot of canned tomatoes (I cook with these), cabbage, onions, carrots, and peppers which are cheap year round at Aldi. I'll also buy a lot of whatever vegetable is on sale, and usually some leafy vegetable like spinach or lettuce. Even with a huge haul, I usually spend less than $40 on vegetables per week (this includes what I spend on herbs, tubers, etc.). Then I add another $10-$15 worth of fruit. I usually buy whatever is on sale plus apples.
Now the real question with fruits and veg is to buy organic or not. First, it's important to note that conventional and organic fruits and veg are equally nutrient dense. Second, both are covered in herbicides and pesticides- organic pesticides are just less bad for the environment (in most cases).
That's not to say these are pesticides are healthy to consume, they definitely aren't, but buying organic doesn't necessarily enhance the quality. Some people report that eating organic seems to aid their digestion, so it could be worth consideration if you have bad digestion (or hormonal issues). Personally, I think if you want to increase your food quality, I would consider starting a garden. It's costly in terms of time, but it's the best way to make sure that you're eating real quality.
Power up with (some) protein
I often hear frugal people say that you don't need to eat meat to get protein. That's true. You can get some protein through soy, legumes, and other plant sources.
However, animal-based proteins offer superior nutrient density. Women only need about 50-75 grams of protein per day, and men need just 75-100 grams which is just about two decent servings of meat. To me, it seems worthwhile to eat a few servings of meat since we can afford it. I would even go so far as to say if you're only eating starch (say rice or potatoes), I would say that a dollar's worth of eggs or beef would be better than a dollar's worth of vegetables. Of course, nobody in the US eats only starch. So, I have to be careful with my recommendations. Nonetheless, one or two servings of meat, and a serving of eggs is a great way to get a ton of nutrient density at a frugal price point.
Beef in particular has Vitamin B, D, Iron, Zinc, Magnesium etc. Beef is unlikely to cause cancer, and it's generally safe to eat conventionally raised beef (which I can buy for $2-$3 per pound). I will happily make the argument that grass-fed beef is nutritionally superior based on Omega-3/Omega-6 ratios, but broadly speaking I'm happy with my conventional cows. I should mention, that beef is one place where I upgrade to grass-fed more often than I used to. It's only about twice as expensive ($6-$9 per pound).
Chicken is an extremely cheap source of protein, but it's not quite as loaded with vitamins and minerals as beef is. Still, at $.69 per pound it seems like a good frugal choice. The one thing that worries me about conventionally raised chickens is that they are filled with antibiotics that could spell gut disaster. I've switched to mostly antibiotic free chicken which is still quite cheap (less than $2 per pound), and at least a bit better (but not the best). My next food quality dollar will actually go towards pasture-raised chicken. These are chickens without growth hormones and without antibiotics. Interestingly, I've seen a lot of turkeys advertised as hormone/antibiotic free without being certified organic.
When it comes to meat, the key is understanding how much you really need. 50 grams is just 200 calories of protein. 2 eggs, a quarter pound of ground beef, and some lentils get you where you need to be. Add a bit of chicken stir-fry, and you've hit 75 grams easily.
Cook most of your foods (and grow it if possible)
Even though I'm eating a lot more healthfully, we haven't killed our budget. Honestly, we're about 20% higher than we were, but I could healthfully bring us back to our baseline. It would just be a bit more work.
The key to keeping costs in line is cooking EVERYTHING yourself. You can save time by buying pre-cut veg or butcher box, or whatever, but that convenience comes at a steep price.
If you focus on health, avoid dogmatism, and cook yourself, you may be surprised by how little you have to spend to eat healthfully. Now, I will say, my diet has room for improvement. I've explained the places (especially animal products) where I would like to increase my spending. The key for me is to make space in the budget for those upgrades. If my health were in a dire place, I would make the space. Given the luxury of currently good health, I'm waiting for an income bump first.
I'm a wife, a mom, an employee, and a personal finance nerd who is devoted to spreadsheeting my way through life.