After the second of our two adult children moved out early last month, my wife and I committed to shifting to more healthy eating. Since it’s just the two of us now, we have much greater control over what we eat. On our last grocery shopping trip last week, we fully implemented the new strategy. We found what we long suspected, that eating healthy does cost more money.
If you’re going to make that transition, you need to be prepared for “sticker shock”. On our first grocery store run after our daughter moved out – when we were still buying what had become normal – our two week grocery bill was $154. That was in line with what I expected it to be, absent the extra mouths to feed. But on our trip last week, with the new direction toward healthier eating, the tab rose to an incredible $209 – for just the two of us! That’s a difference of $55, or over $110 per month.
The Mechanics of Our Much Higher Food Bill
It’s not hard to figure out which foods constitute “healthy”. We de-emphasized starches and processed foods in favor of meats and fresh fruits and vegetables. The meats category included a heavy emphasis on fish, poultry, and lean red meats
A recent article from the Washington Post, From fish to bacon, a ranking of animal proteins in order of healthfulness listed a hierarchy of animal proteins based on health benefits.
The list looks like this:
- Bison (go figure!)
- Lamb (which we don’t eat except on very rare occasions)
- Processed meats (bacon, hot dogs and sausage, though ham was also mentioned)
Our expectation was that greatly reduced purchases of starch-based foods, like pasta, potatoes and rice, as well as processed foods, would largely offset the greater emphasis on meats and fresh fruits and vegetables.
We were wrong.
What made it worse was that we didn’t even buy a lot of non-foods, like laundry detergent or paper goods, or processed foods, like cereals. The absence of those purchases may have even understated the higher cost of buying healthy.
Crunching the numbers, if it will cost us an extra $55 per shopping run to buy healthier foods, it will cost us an extra $110 per month, based on two shopping runs per month.
Now I don’t want to cry poverty here. With the kids gone, my wife and I are in a position where we can afford the increased grocery costs. And it may be a worthy trade-off in exchange for greater health benefits. However, as is usually the case, those benefits can be years in coming. The higher cost, of course, is immediate.
It Cost Just “a Little More” to Eat Healthy – or So “They” Like to Say
The healthy eating advocates like to tout the promise that eating healthy doesn’t cost much more than the alternative.
One study suggests Healthy vs. unhealthy diet costs only $1.50 more per day. If that’s the case, eating healthy will add at least $45 per person to a monthly grocery budget. For two people, it will be $90. That’s fairly consistent with the numbers I came up with for my wife and I, at $110 per month.
That increased cost figure is relatively harmless only to those who believe healthy eating is some sort of magic pill, giving access to the wellspring of perpetual health. I have my doubts about that, based on my observations of many other people. But that’s a discussion for a different day.
The Eating Out Effect
None of that takes restaurant eating into account, and that can no longer be ignored. According to the US Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, America’s Eating Habits: Food Away From Home, eating out surpassed eating at home in 2010 for the first time in history.
That being the case, it’s no longer a matter of the items on your grocery list, but how you eat when you’re away from home.
In general, eating at restaurants is less healthy than eating at home. Restaurant food, in nearly all categories, is simply less healthy. There’s a heavy emphasis on the use of salt, fats and creamy sauces and gravies that aren’t healthy, no matter how they’re packaged.
But there’s also an economic factor here. Upper income groups can afford to eat healthier restaurant meals. These include lean steaks and plentiful seafood. The middle and lower classes tend to lean toward fast food. Think hamburgers and French fries, fried chicken, pizza and tacos. All are a form of substantial junk food.
Is it any wonder 160 million American adults are considered either overweight or obese? That includes 75% of men, 60% of women, and a growing percentage of children.
The Link Between Poverty and Obesity
We should suppose the incidence of overweight and obesity are much more pronounced among the lower and middle classes, who can neither afford the cost of healthy eating at home or outside the home. There is a documented direct link between low income households and poor diet and obesity for all the reasons cited above.
Since meat and fresh fruits and vegetables are more expensive than processed foods – and by a lot more than a little – the financially constraineded cut corners by heavily relying on processed foods. That includes canned, boxed and packaged foods, that are packed with salt, sugar, and all kinds of undesirable chemicals.
There’s plenty of objective evidence supporting that shift. Trends are showing the poor are increasingly buying food at dollar stores. We shop at dollar stores regularly, but that’s to buy non-food items. It’s clear that all the many food products available in dollar stores are of the unhealthy variety. But they’re cheap, and that’s the draw for lower income classes.
An article in Newseek last December, Dollar Stores Planning for Permanent American Underclass, Sell More Groceries Than Whole Foods, highlighted that the expansion of dollar stores, despite the retail apocalypse, is demonstrating a clear pattern. In areas no longer served by more traditional retailers – including and especially grocery stores – dollar stores are increasingly becoming food stores.
If eating healthy were only a little more expensive than the alternative, the explosion of dollar stores wouldn’t be happening. It’s also no secret the expansion is most rapid in lower income urban and rural areas.
Can You Afford Higher Food Costs if You’re Already on a Tight Budget?
For a single person making over $50,000 per year, or a couple making over $100,000, paying extra for healthy food maybe a price worth paying. But if you’re earning substantially less, or if you have high debts or other obligations, healthy eating can be a budget buster.
Using my figure of $110 per month for a couple, it comes $1,320 per year. If you’re couple earning $50,000, that represents an increase in grocery expenses of 2.6% (of your income), and that’s before taxes are taken out of your income. That may be unsustainable on an already tight budget.
The restaurant dilemma is even more extreme. It may cost $15 for a couple buy burgers, fries and a soft drink at a fast food restaurant. But it will cost $60 for the same couple to buy a healthy seafood dinner at a moderately priced restaurant.
We can argue that someone on a tight budget shouldn’t be eating out at all, but that ignores the fact that eating out has become part of the modern American lifestyle. People do it as a stress reliever, for a change of pace, and because two or more people in the same household with full-time jobs often leaves little time for cooking – let alone healthy cooking.
These are the realities that are always underestimated or completely ignored in healthy eating debates. Well-to-do people may certainly be able to afford to do so. But the middle and lower classes will find themselves struggling within the confines of an already tight budget.
How are You Dealing with the Healthy Eating Dilemma?
My wife and I have just waded into making healthy eating part of our lifestyle. We had been trying to make gradual changes while our kids were still home, but it’s harder and more expensive to do when there are more mouths to feed.
It may be that our first healthy grocery store run was more expensive because it was the first. Our hope is that we’ll find ways to continue the pattern, but at lower cost.
But what are you doing to incorporate healthy eating into your diet, whether that’s at the grocery store or at restaurants? Are there any money saving tips you can offer?