Forget the Hype – Eating Healthy Does Cost More Money

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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.

Forget the Hype – Eating Healthy Does Cost More Money
Forget the Hype – Eating Healthy Does Cost More Money

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:

  • Fish/seafood/shellfish
  • Turkey
  • Chicken
  • Bison (go figure!)
  • Pork
  • Beef
  • 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?

( Photo by edgarzunigajr )

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8 Responses to Forget the Hype – Eating Healthy Does Cost More Money

  1. Hey, once you get over the shock of that grocery trip, you may need to re-evaluate your grocery shopping techniques to find better savings. I live on a tight budget which I mentioned many times on this blog and yes it is possible to eat and buy healthier foods on a budget but the trick is how you shop and prepare your foods. First, plan a system of meals and from that figure out which items should be stocked as in your pantry at all times–beans (dry or canned), spices, rice of choice, pasta, grains (oatmeal, quinoa, lentils, barley.etc.), pasta, and condiments. From this basic pantry, you have the ability to make multiple types of meals. Second, plan out your freezer use–date everything in it ( I use a brought dated and rotate by the oldest date) Actually do the same thing with the pantry. Since you are buying for two, you should be packaging by the amount needed to make a meal for four (one meal twice for two). When shopping take advantage of family packs, you save more this way. You can always ask the meat or fish department to cut up a large portion like a big roast into tow pieces. I do that whenever I buy the fresh pork butt with the bone and get two separate roasts and the bone is easier to cut around that way. With the fish, get a big piece (about a pound and half size) and have then cut it into two and wrap each separated before putting into the package that they label. An adult portion for fish is about a half to three-quarter pound pre-cook weight and remember there’s no food waste with fish especially if you buy filet over steak cut. If you buy a steak cut, then one steak per adult. With all meats, if you buy the family pack and store in the freezer by meals, in the long run, you will save. Third, perishable produce, buy by the season and also look at frozen versions, especially the steamer bags of vegetables which are flash-frozen. I like them better especially during the winter when I can’t find many choices in the produce aisle. Whatever you buy fresh only buy want you will eat and use within the time limit of quality which isn’t long. Invest in a bread box to keep your bread from exposure to temperature in the kitchen and if you have too much bread, put it in a freezer bag and freeze it and only take out the slices needed a quick warmup in a toaster or oven will do the job. Dairy products are to be brought by need also, obviously no more gallons and you can buy a larger egg for the same price or buy the 18 pack if you both enjoy eggs with breakfast. Dairy is one section where you want to buy a better quality product (organic over GMO). Buy butter in sticks and keep most frozen. Look for the sales and stock up.
    The key of all of this is to buy by need. Since you have had a family, you always had something on the front of the refrigerator door held up with magnets. Get a shopping list pad for the door and only put an item on the list when you don’t have the item–like no milk, no broccoli, butter. This will become your shopping list instead, because your menus are based on what is in the home, rather than making a menu based on your shopping.
    You won’t be able to control prices but you can take advantage of sales by your need and still have room to buy a few cheat items but those also can be planned purchases. it does take planning and more home cooking over quick prepared microwaved which really aren’t healthy for you. And you can your ice cream too. I am definitely not rich but I eat healthier foods since I gave up processed foods and learned to read labels and plan meals using pantry items. It may take a full season (about 4 months) for you to figure out how to buy and use your food and how to make leftovers enjoyable. Aim for minimal food waste and you will save down the road. Set up a budge to spend, plan menus, use a grocery list of items needed, try not to impulse buy (it helps to not go to the store when hungry or thirsty) shop multiple stores to see if you can save by the sales offerings. I have the ability to chose from 5 different supermarkets depend on where I am in travel by public transportation, including Whole Foods, which my Amazon Prime membership now helps in costs and specials. Cut out the junk foods and see the savings.

  2. Hi MariaRose – We’re already doing a lot of that (keeping the pantry stocked with staples, keeping a list – and recording prices as we shop, buying in quantity and freezing, and making liberal use of leftovers). But it was disturbing that even though we bought very little in the way of processed foods, the bill was still so high. More than a week later, we don’t even have any snack foods in the house.

    This is going to be an adjustment for us, in no small part because for years we were buying for 4 to 6 people. Going down to two is a big change. We’ll adjust going forward, because we have no choice for health reasons. But there’s no question, it still costs more to buy healthy than the processed foods most people buy and eat as staples. We never bought too many processed foods anyway, and maybe that’s the problem. When you start buying lean beef, rather than ground beef, and chicken breast rather than chicken parts, you’re just going to pay more. Seafood in particular is more expensive than other types of meat, so we’ll have to find a balance.

    We had a failed experiment a couple of weeks ago, in which we bought two turkey thighs. The price was good, but we found that as much as we like thigh meat in a whole roasted turkey, it isn’t the same when you cook them separately, probably due to the lack of internal basting that happens when you roast the whole bird. We found that to be true of Turkey breast as well, and that’s not an inexpensive cut.

    Our goal right now is to move more toward meals that consist of meat and two vegetables, cutting out the starch. That’s hard to do when you’ve spent your whole life following the gospel of “meat, starch and vegetable” as being the ideal for a balanced meal. Fortunately, we long ago switched from white bread to whole-wheat, which is at least a small improvement. And yes, we do favor real butter over margarine, and olive oil over the various vegetable oils. But in both cases, the substitution is more expensive. Each cost about three times more than the less-expensive item.

    I fully understand why the poor and people on tight budgets eat unhealthy diets. It’s often presented as if it’s their fault for not making better choices, but if you don’t have the extra money for healthier food, what do you do?

    In this article I’ve presented the healthy eating issue as a personal problem, but it really is a national one. And it’s one of the major reasons small scale farming has become unprofitable and largely collapsed. The vast majority of “food” being sold and consumed is coming from large-scale agri-business farms, heavy in GMOs, and from factory processed foods that are cheaper but way more unhealthy. In a typical grocery store you practically need a map and a compass to find the foods that aren’t bad for you.

    The strategy we’re using is the “buy mainly from the perimeter of the store, in”, since fresh produce and meats are on the perimeter, while the inner aisles are dominated by processed foods. Last week about $45 of our grocery bill was fresh produce. We may need to balance that with frozen. But it’s summer and there’s just more good produce available that won’t be around (or won’t be affordable) when winter hits.

  3. The trick to buying is to keep a well stocked both pantry and freezer, plus learning how to not have waste. Meats and fish can be frozen for future use, just pack them away in meal portions. I also cook for two which is hard because most recipes call for at least 4 servings. I had to make a rule in my home about nothing gets thrown out and we eat leftovers. I cook a main entree which I can make multiple meals but I change the sides for each serving. At least I haven’t had to do what my parents did once a week which was to combine all leftovers into one pot to finally get it all eaten. You do have to make more home cooked meals, which means all meals to save money and use your perishable items. I also learned what is a correct portion size by trying out one of those meal delivery plans occasionally, which told me that to satisfy my son, I had to give him a double portion, hence I cook for 4 portions and have leftovers, for another meal. There’s a lot of vegetables that can be frozen from fresh if you use the right technique, which will help in overall costs. During the summer, you should get to a few farmers market and buy there, too. But don’t overbuy more than you will use in the best shelf life. I just brought peaches 🍑 on Sunday and finished them today. If they were riper I would have only brought enough for two days (Sunday and Monday) , especially since it is not recommended to store them in the refrigerator. Come fall and winter, I get 🍎 both gala and granny to snack on. I buy the bags with the small apples that they label kid size because of the price and quality. There’s plenty of food blogs that help with grocery shopping for fresh and healthy foods. Last but not least, start a food diary of your meals—use a composition book and jot down each meal consumed each day plus snacks (everything you eat). If writing it on paper is problematic for whatever reason, there are apps that can be used by going hard copy will actually show you things about how you are really eating and how to make it better.

  4. I really like your idea of frequenting food blogs. I don’t go to those and never thought of it. But since we’re turning a new chapter in life, that makes a lot of sense. Thanks MariaRose!

  5. As an update MariaRose, today we’re heading out to hit a few local farms for fresh fruits and vegetables. We’ll need to eat those in the next few days otherwise they’ll go rotten in a hurry.

  6. You can freeze fresh if you do it right–all information is online. Even the Consumer 101 show talked about how to freeze fresh items for future use. Ziploc freezer bags work well if you don’t have a food saver machine which vacuum seals the bags. Good luck with this and enjoy the fresh items, you get. You will taste the difference.

  7. Hi sir! It DOES cost more to eat healthy but here is what I have done. First of all, I have multiple health issues (Lupus, RA, etc) so in order for me to eat healthy, I have not had Cable TV in probably 23 years, or longer. I also have no long distance on my home phone and I have no cell phone. That might sound a bit drastic BUT, it works for me. I also shop bulk when I can and I hit the Farmer’s Market almost every week. The key to buying there is GET TO KNOW THE FARMERS! Many of the Farmers go home after a gig on Saturday or Sunday and do not want to haul everything back home. You can get SUPER DEALS right before the markets close! I tell people to go walk around the first time and get a feel for the farmers, etc. The next time, come with small bills, they love one dollar bills and then purchase a few things. I have gotten killer deals right before closing. Also, farmers like repeat customers. I always get a deal and do not let anyone tell you that shopping there is “just too expensive.” I challenge you to go to your regular supermarket and compare green leaf lettuce to one at the Farmer’s Market. I can buy a head of lettuce from my local farmer the feeds a family of 4, it’s that big. The grocery stores offer puny heads that cost more. If you have a GROCERY OUTLET, get to the know the owner. I shop at the one near me and they take orders for special items, if they can get it and it is always cheaper. I eat meat and two of the Grocery Outlets I shop at sell meats from small, family-owned farms at $1.00 or more less than your regular store. Off the top of my head, Portugese Sausage (Linguica) I just bought for almost $1.60 less at my Grocery Outlet. Also, if you can go in with someone, buy BULK and then split the cost. COSTCO is good but WINCO? That store has better options in regard to beans, if you eat them and the WINCO by me, offers beans in Bulk Bags, 20 pounds or more. I spoke to the regional buyer for WINCO, asking him where he purchases his beans from, who are the farmers, what are their techniques, etc. I liked his answer. You can also purchase the beans, rice, and long-term food storage buckets (1 gallon and 5) and prep your own food! Never hurts to have a couple of buckets on hand. Lastly, VONS does the BUY 5 or more at…. $.69 (sometimes less ore more, depending on the item). I routinely buy organic beans and some other items and stock up because I can afford them, buying them that way. 99 Cent Stores get a bad wrap, but honestly, they sell products from Greece, Poland and other countries that do NOT use GMO Products. Be careful of the dates but I use products well past the purchase date. That really makes no difference to me once I get it home. 99 carries ANNIE’S ORGANICS as well as other organic foods. The Dollar Tree by me sells VILLAGE HARVEST COCONUT TUMERIC ORGANIC BROWN JASMINE RICE. I bought all of them up. I also purchase the bottled Asparagus from Peru. I make Cream of Aspargus and use coconut milk as my base. I buy Coconut Shreds in bulk ( you can split the cost with someone) and then make your own Coconut Milk. It is super easy, lasts roughly 10 days in your fridge and you know what’s in it! Don’t be discouraged! Just be smart! By the way, I LOVE YOUR ARTICLES!

  8. Hi Terri – I love your strategy of cutting out cable TV. The commercials are poison to a healthy diet! You seem to have a lot of stores by you that enable you to take advantage of lower prices. We need to do some experimenting on that front. I want to try some local Asian markets. We made some progress on the last shopping run Friday night. We got the bill back down to $150 where I think it should be. But then we also bought $30 of produce at a local farm. We’ll have to try your strategy of waiting until just before closing to buy at lower prices.

    What I find interesting is that when you change your diet, you really change your lifestyle. It’s that basic, but that’s part of what makes it so hard as well.

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