The answer to this question is a resounding "Yes!" Based on the research evidence, many of our assumptions about healthy food purchases—that it takes either more money or a lot more money to eat healthfully— are simply incorrect. In this article, we would like to help set the record straight on some common food purchasing misconceptions and provide you with 10 practical tips for Healthy Eating on a tight budget.
Is there anyone who doesn't assume that healthy food is more expensive? Whether it's a comparison between fast-food or a formal sit-down restaurant; or organic versus non-organic tomatoes; or a 12-ounce cola versus a freshly squeezed fruit juice—our assumption always seems to be that healthier equates with more expensive. But research findings in this area paint a different picture than we might expect.
One of the most comprehensive recent studies about healthy food costs appeared in 2013 in the British Medical Journal. The average price of foods in 6 different food categories was analyzed in over 27 studies from 10 different countries. Both healthy and unhealthy foods were included in the comparison. Average prices were calculated for dietary patterns that featured unhealthy foods. Average prices were also calculated for dietary patterns that featured healthy foods—for example, a Mediterranean Diet type of intake. When the average price of a non-healthy food day was compared with the average price of a Mediterranean Diet day (in other words, a day with food combinations that matched the standards of a Mediterranean Diet), the average price difference for a Mediterranean Diet day was indeed higher than the average price for a non-healthy day—but not by much. In the case of this Mediterranean Diet comparison, differences in price ranged from $0.10 to $1.95, with an average difference of $1.18 per day. In other words, it cost an average of $1.18 more each day to bring a non-healthy eating pattern up to Mediterranean Diet standards. Similarly, when non-healthy food intake was compared with the Healthy Eating Index (HEI), the price difference ranged from $0.07 to $3.02 per day, and with an average increased healthy eating cost of $1.61. In this case, it took $1.61 more each day to bring non-healthy eating up to healthy eating standards. When non-healthy eating choices were compared with the Alternative Healthy Eating Index, the average daily cost increase was $0.90 per day.
When all of the study findings were combined and analyzed, the average daily increased cost of healthy foods was $1.48 per day (and $0.29 per serving of food). On a calorie-basis, the average daily increased cost of healthy foods was $1.56 per 2,000 calories. In other words, for approximately $1.50 more per day, it is possible to change unhealthy eating choices into healthy ones. These findings do show that on average, healthy foods tend to cost more than unhealthy ones—but only by a small margin.
Additional studies have done a good job of putting this slightly higher cost of healthy eating into a broader perspective. While the average cost of healthy foods appears to be slightly higher than the average cost of unhealthy foods, this difference does not apply to every single healthy and unhealthy food. For example, we have never seen a study showing the average price of store-bought organic artichoke or store-bought organic cauliflower to be lower than the average price of store-bought non-organic artichoke and cauliflower. So in this case, the organic versions (which we believe have a greater likelihood of being healthier due to the prohibited use of many synthetic chemicals in their cultivation) appear to consistently cost more. But we have also seen studies in which the average price of store-bought organic tomatoes, carrots, and lettuce was found to be equivalent to—or sometimes even lower than—the average price of their non-organic versions. So in these instances, choosing organic did not add to the daily food cost and, in fact, might even have lowered it. Similarly, we have seen studies in which the average price of specific healthy foods—for example, a yellow/orange vegetable like sweet potatoes—was only $0.28 per serving and less than many commonly enjoyed nutrient-poor foods.
Research studies have also made it clear that food budgets vary widely and often have room for an increase of $1.00 per day. In one recent study on food spending in U.S. households, 20% of U.S. households spending the least amount on food averaged $68/week or $9.72 per day. The middle 20% averaged $108 per week or $15.40 per day, and the highest 20% averaged $211 per week or $30.11 per day. Similarly, in a 2012 Gallup poll, 22% of families estimated a weekly food budget of $100-$124 per week (and this percentage accounted for the largest single group of households), while 17% of households estimated $50-$99 of weekly expenditures on food, and 21% estimated $200-$299 per week. Generally speaking, these "households" and "families" consisted of three to four persons within the household or family. If you look at the numbers above and take U.S. food budgets that fall somewhere in the middle, it seems reasonable to treat $100 per week or roughly $15 per day as an average U.S. food budget. An extra $1.00 per day—the average amount needed to convert unhealthy choices into healthy ones—would mean an increase of only 5-10% using these numbers. The take-away here seems clear to us: there is strong evidence that you can eat healthy without breaking the bank.
Individuals who spend the most money on food do not automatically end up with healthier food choices; this finding is common to many studies on food purchasing. For example, the highest income households in the U.S. spend three times as much money on food as the lowest income households. But these highest income households do not purchase three times the number of healthy foods. In fact, the percentage of food group purchases by U.S. families does not appear to change regardless of income. Whether food budgets are large or small, U.S. families tend to spend 35% of their available food budget on miscellaneous foods like snacks, treats, and frozen dinners; 21-28% of meats, seafood, and eggs; 12-15% on breads, cereals, and baked goods; 8-11% on dairy; and 17-19% on fruits and vegetables. In short, our overall food spending habits in the U.S. do not meet our public health recommendations for healthy eating, and it does not seem to matter how much money we spend.
This disconnect between food expenditures and healthy eating can also be seen in our health statistics. Among all U.S. men, for example, the rate of obesity is unchanging across income groups. In other words, men in higher income groups are just as likely to be obese as men in lower income groups. Among women, women in lower income groups are more likely to be obese, and food insecurity rates are definitely highest among households headed by women whose incomes are at or below the federal poverty level. However, most obese women in the U.S. are not low income due to the large number of obese women in higher income brackets. Among all obese adults in the U.S.—including both men and women—41% have incomes at or above 350% of the federal government's designated poverty level. These numbers do not mean that poverty is somehow irrelevant as a health problem; or that having enough money to buy food is irrelevant as a health problem; or that we can ignore the role of cost in healthy eating. But these numbers do tell us that having enough money to spend on food is not the only key to healthy eating, and we should never assume that the amount of money we spend is going to control the healthiness of our diet.
Particularly in the area of fresh fruits and vegetables, we have seen numerous reports about public concern with rising costs and the increased difficulty of healthy eating. Industry analyses in this area show a somewhat different trend than is commonly assumed. In fact, two specific consumer preferences appear to account for over half of the increase in fruit and vegetable prices during the period 2005-2015: (1) a preference for year-round availability of certain fruits and vegetables, regardless of whether they are in season; and (2) a preference for pre-washed and/or pre-sliced fruits and vegetables that require less preparation and are, in many cases, ready to eat. While prices for commonly consumed whole fruits and vegetables have increased over this time period, increases have been much less steep than commonly assumed, particularly for certain fruits and vegetables available in season.
At WHFoods, we confident that you can enjoy healthy fruits and vegetables on a daily basis without having to pay more for pre-washed, pre-sliced, or non-seasonal produce. Our Nutrient-Rich Cooking videos will show you quick and easy methods for cutting and slicing our 38 WHFoods vegetables so that you can eliminate the need to purchase them in pre-sliced form. And throughout our website, we have tips for purchasing fruits and vegetable in season as a way to promote healthy eating on a tight budget. One article that you may find helpful in this regard is Healthy Eating for Less. To identify seasonal foods in your state on a month-by-month basis, we encourage you to visit Sustainable Table's Seasonal Food Guide. We also encourage you to consider two websites that can be helpful in finding local, seasonal foods: Local Harvest and USDA Agricultural Marketing Service Local Food Directories.
At WHFoods, we believe that your 10 best steps for healthy eating on a tight budget are as follows.
For more on Great Healthy Eating Habits: