Editorial: Eating healthy is expensive

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If you choose wisely, eating healthy does not have to break the bank.

grocery aisle
grocery aisle

Whenever I hear someone claim that healthy foods don’t cost more than unhealthy ones, I can only shake my head and wonder if this is actually true. I am a physician and not poor by any means. I own a farm and I can confirm that I make more money from organically raised products. Regardless, it sure seems like healthy options are more expensive than the cheap processed foods you see in the supermarket. I don’t know this for certain but the more I focus on buying fresh, minimally-processed foods, the more money I seem to spend.

The good news is that there are several research studies that have looked at this very question. One study performed at Harvard in 2013 showed that healthier meals add approximately $1.50 per day​[1]​. The highest impact is caused by less processed meats, vegetables, fruits, and nuts/seeds. This is especially true if you buy foods that are not in season. The degree of monetary impact depends on your income, but in my book, $1.50 might be worth in investment in your health.

A more timely study was performed in 2017 that looked at cooking healthy meals at home and found that cooking at home resulted in healthier meals and an insignificant increase in monthly costs​[2]​. It was insignificant but even a modest $57 (amount form the study) could be trying to a family budget. To be honest, the first study looks at organic and farm-raised products and the second does nto appear to delve into this area of the supermarket. Personally, I think organics are a waste of money.

Maybe the problem isn’t that healthy food is expensive. It is really what you define as healthy food. I try to avoid organics, but I also avoid processed foods that are high in additives, sugary, and salty foods. They may be cheap, but you will pay the cost saved in poor health outcomes. People who have more money generally live longer lives and this result might be tied to the ability to afford better quality food. Fortunately, it is likely not that simple.

The bottom line: People who cook at home more often, rather than eating out, tend to have healthier overall diets without higher food expenses. It is also more expensive to buy healthier whole foods, especially organic or free-range products, than processed foods. The research on both sides is conflicting. More research is needed. You do not need to buy these expensive products to cook and eat healthily.

References:

  1. [1]
    M. Rao, A. Afshin, G. Singh, and D. Mozaffarian, “Do healthier foods and diet patterns cost more than less healthy options? A systematic review and meta-analysis,” BMJ Open, p. e004277, Dec. 2013, doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2013-004277. [Online]. Available: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmjopen-2013-004277
  2. [2]
    A. Tiwari, A. Aggarwal, W. Tang, and A. Drewnowski, “Cooking at Home: A Strategy to Comply With U.S. Dietary Guidelines at No Extra Cost,” American Journal of Preventive Medicine, pp. 616–624, May 2017, doi: 10.1016/j.amepre.2017.01.017. [Online]. Available: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.amepre.2017.01.017

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About the Author

ChuckH
I am a family physician who has served in the US Army. In 2016, I found myself overweight, out of shape, and unhealthy, so I made a change to improve my health. This blog is the chronology of my path to better health and what I have learned along the way.

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