I've always heard that eating healthy costs more, but I started a new diet recently and over the first seven weeks I've dropped 15 pounds without doing a minute of exercise. That's probably more a testament to how bad my diet was before more than anything else, but I also found that the household food bill went on a diet too.
The conventional wisdom didn't stack up in my experience. But then again, my diet was not conventional either. It's a version of the no- or low-carb diets such as Atkins, South Beach, The Zone Diet, etc. The money saver for me was beans. Beans are cheap and were recommended as a daily staple for my particular diet: Slow-Carbing as described in the book The 4-Hour Body by Tim Ferriss.
Now, I should point out that the diet I'm following is fairly strict. Six days of the week, I have to avoid carbs as much as possible. No dairy, no fruit, no bread, no pastas. And if you've ever tried any diet, as soon as they tell you there is something you are not allowed to have, it's all you think about. Luckily, the diet does allow for up to two glasses of red wine a night. That's all it took to really sell me on giving it a try.
Ironically, as I was writing this column, a few articles popped up on Google News reinforcing the notion that eating healthy comes with higher costs. There was a proper academic study that concluded added sugar and saturated fats are cheap sources of calories while eating the recommended nutrients, and presumably protein, was more expensive. The new U.S. dietary guidelines are partly aimed at curbing obesity but would have an economic impact that could make sticking to the guide difficult, especially as the U.S. teeters near a second recession.
For example, the study found that the average person was consuming 700 milligrams less potassium a day than suggested. The cost for one person to add 700 mg of potassium to their daily diet was estimated at $380 (U.S.) a year, or $1,520 a year for a family of four. For context, the average Canadian family is spending in the neighbourhood of $2,500 a person a year for all food, according to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's latest report. (The report was published in 2005 and was based on data collected in 2001 so, factoring the stiff increases in the cost of food in general, that figure may be on the low side.)
Conversely, a man 31 to 50 years old should have been able to consume a well-balanced diet for $2,451.28 a year in Ontario in 2010, according to the results of the Nutritious Food Basket survey. This is less than the average cited in the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada report for what people are actually spending. The Nutritious Food Basket survey is designed specifically to ascertain the cost of buying healthy foods congruent with current nutrition recommendations. This would seem to indicate that eating healthy costs less, not more, than the average diet.
Sticking to the diet is hard. But saving money was pretty simple: drinking water 90 per cent of the week, eating lots of beans, buying unprocessed foods, buying in bulk and not eating out as much.
If you want to avoid the minutiae of sifting through an itemized list of what is healthy and what is not, but are still looking to make a change for the better, finding the healthier foods generally means shopping the perimeter of the store and avoiding the inner aisles when possible. Staples such as milk, eggs, raw meats and vegetables are designed to be located around the circumference of the store so that you spend as much time as possible in the inner aisles, where the more-processed, less-healthy foods tend to be.
If you've been putting off improving your diet because of the perceived financial strain, it turns out that eating healthy can actually cost less in some cases. Of course, this doesn't take into account the expense of having to buy smaller clothes.
Comparing Cost and Nutrition
Selected nutritional data of lower-cost, healthier foods versus more expensive processed/prepared foods. Serving sizes determined by product manufacturer.
BBQ chicken wings
46 cents per serving, 210 calories, 1 gram fat, 11 grams fibre, 15 grams protein
$1.32 per serving, 250 calories, 16 grams fat, 0 grams fibre, 18 grams protein
62 cents per serving, 170 calories, 2.5 gram fat, 3 grams fibre, 7 grams protein
$1.02 per serving, 240 calories, 8 grams fat, 2 grams fibre, 12 grams protein
Preet Banerjee, B.Sc, FMA, DMS, FCSI is a W Network Money expert and blogs at wheredoesallmymoneygo.com . You can also follow him on twitter at @PreetBanerjee.