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Best Nutrition Bang for Your Buck

November 26, 2013 by Michael Greger M.D. in News with 16 Comments

Best Nutrition Bang For Your Buck

When measured on a cost per serving, cost per weight, or cost per nutrition basis, fruits and vegetables beat out meat and junk food:

Most Americans don’t even meet the watered down Federal dietary recommendations. Some have suggested this is because healthy foods are more expensive, but is that true? It depends on how you measure the price.

For over a century the value of food has been measured cost per calorie. If you were a brickmaker in Massachusetts in 1894, you may have needed more than 8000 calories a day. The emphasis was therefore on cheap calories. So while beans and sugar both cost the same back then–5 cents a pound–table sugar beat out beans for fuel value.

Of course food offers much more than just calories, but they can be excused for their ignorance, since vitamins and minerals hadn’t even been discovered yet. Even to this day, though, when the cost of foods are related to their nutritive value, the value they’re talking about is cheap calories. When you rank foods like that, then indeed junk food and meat is cheaper per calorie than fruits and vegetables, but that doesn’t take serving size into account. If you measure foods in cost per serving or cost per pound fruits and vegetables are actually cheaper (see the graphs in my 3-min video Eating Healthy on a Budget). For all metrics except the price of food calories, the USDA researchers found that healthy foods cost less than less healthy foods.

Most importantly, though, which is going to have the most nutrition? In the graphs in Eating Healthy on a Budget I show the average nutrient density of fruits, vegetables, refined grains, meats, milk, and empty calorie foods. Turns out that while junk food may be 4 times cheaper than vegetables, there’s 20 times less nutrition. For meat, we’d be spending 3 times more to get 16 times less.

Conclusion: “Educational messages focusing on a complete diet should consider the role of food costs and provide specific recommendations for increasing nutrient-dense foods by replacing some of the meat with lower-cost nutrient-dense foods…Modifying traditional mixed dishes to incorporate more beans/legumes and less meat may be a cost-effective way to improve diet quality.” That’s good advice for everyone, not just low-income populations.

In my video, Eating Healthy on a Budget, I also show what 100 calories of cheese, candy, chicken, chips, bread, oil, fruits or vegetables looks like.  Which hundred calories do you think would fill you up more? I explore the calorie density of other foods in my video Diet vs. Exercise for Weight Loss.

I have some other videos along the same vein:

Hasn’t the nutrition of our crops declined over the decades though? Or is that just supplement manufacturer propaganda? Find out in my video Crop Nutrient Decline. And if you want to strive to maximize the nutrient density of your diet, check out Calculate Your Healthy Eating Score.

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death and More Than an Apple a Day.

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Dr. Michael Greger

About Michael Greger M.D.

Michael Greger, M.D., is a physician, author, and internationally recognized professional speaker on a number of important public health issues. Dr. Greger has lectured at the Conference on World Affairs, the National Institutes of Health, and the International Bird Flu Summit, testified before Congress, appeared on The Dr. Oz Show and The Colbert Report, and was invited as an expert witness in defense of Oprah Winfrey at the infamous "meat defamation" trial. Currently Dr. Greger proudly serves as the Director of Public Health and Animal Agriculture at the Humane Society of the United States.

View all videos by Michael Greger M.D.

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  • guest

    And what about the price of health care? Heart disease, diabetes, and cancer go hand-in-hand with meat-based diets. By eating vegan, we greatly reduce our health care costs.

    • Charlie

      You got a good point! Think we should pass a law or two? I mean… if they’re not gonna do it on there own, the prison industry is booming in this country, and it’s not like we don’t know what to do with people who don’t get in line.

  • DH

    I posed this elsewhere, but wanted to put it on the most current feed.

    Each day for breakfast I eat a ton of raw veggies and on the side I make a smoothie mixed with following items:
    -1/4 cup frozen blueberries
    -1/2 cup unsweetened almond milk
    -4-5 heaping tablespoons of nuts & seeds (almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, pecans, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds)
    -2 brazil nuts (selenium!)
    -2 tbsp. of wheat bran
    -1 tbsp. of wheat germ
    -1 tbsp. of hempseed
    -2 tbsp. of flaxseed (whole)
    -1 tbsp. of raw cacao nibs

    Does anyone think this contains too much fat? If so, what substitute would you recommend for all the nuts and seeds?

    (A small modification I am going to make is to change from raw nibs to cacao powder, but this won’t drop the fat all that much – perhaps by 1-1.5 g only)

    THANKS FOR ALL YOUR HELP!

    • Bruce Gray

      that’s a lot of nuts and seeds to take every day. if you don’t do more than 4hrs/wk of cardio exercise, or work in a heavy manual job, I’d suggest you halve it.

      thanks to MM for this focus on energy vs nutrient density, and dietary cost/benefit. It’s one of the most compelling reasons to eat more like a vegan. And somethng govt bodies will presumably not wake up to for another 30 years.

      • DH

        Bruce, I do 7 hrs/wk of cardio exercise involving high interval vs moderate interval on an exercise bike. What would you put in place of the half of nuts and seeds I should take out — I was thinking, perhaps, using a neutral flavored bean like black kabuli chickpeas or frozen green soybeans. I mix all this up in a ‘magic bullet’ – the size is not overly large, maybe 2 cups’ worth at most.

        Legumes in that smoothie would give me far less fat, probably less calories, equal or more fiber, definitely more carbs (which could be good or bad, depending on your perspective), and a different spectrum of nutrients, especially B vitamins. I eat a couple leguminous servings per day. On the other hand, I am not sure how this is going to taste….only one way to know, of course!

        THANKS FOR KINDLY REPLYING!!

        • stacy

          What else are u beating during the day? Please post ur total cals and macronutrients

          • DH

            Hi Stacy, please see my detailed response to Bruce above. With thanks, DH

        • Bruce Gray

          kudos for having the patience to spend 7hrs/wk on a stationery bike. I am a keen cyclist in a club of 450 members and I av 200-500km/wk on the road. No one I know has the patience to do 7hrs on a trainer! As alluded by Stacy, consideration of your breakfast meal to the detail you are asking requires consideration of your total diet. By my calculations, your smoothie is somewhere between 800 and 1000 Calories. As a guide, if you weigh 75kg, have an office job, and the bulk of your cardio is trainer, you will average around 2400 Cals a day. Hence, you might ideally split that as 800Cal in AM, 900 in PM, 700 in evening. Personally, I’d suggest you include two cups of mixed berries, and 2 cups of greens (kale, arugula, mint, asian greens, broccoli). Other ideas – 2-3 times a week half a beetroot, several tablespoons of raw whole ginger. search this site for respective health benefits.

          • DH

            Thanks Bruce for all this input.

            Stats are – 59 kg (around 125-128 lbs) and while I used to consume around 2200 kCal/d, my diet has changed a fair bit and I no longer clock the kCal because there are many items I could not find in calorie counting software. But here’s the breakdown:

            For breakfast, I eat the shake in question and raw cruciferous veggies plus a carrot. For lunch, I eat a lemon whole grain orzo pasta dish (with a lot less pasta than beans), soybeans, walnuts, lemon juice, black pepper, and on the side steamed cruciferae plus carrot. For dinner, I take a salad with black kabuli chickpeas, tomato, green onions, mixed leafy vegetables, nutritional yeast and I use a dressing Michael Lederer posted on this site that consists of pureed tofu, soymilk, shallots, garlic, lemon juice, fresh basil, flaxseed — this replaced recently a tahini-based dressing.

            I try to reduce my carbs a fair bit because I run a real tendency towards metabolic syndrome and the whole bit. 2 cups of mixed berries might be difficult, carb-wise for me. I could do all the greens (except kale – I am allergic) but one of the ways I reduce portion size at breakfast is that I make everything in a small magic bullet (it’s probably around 2.5 cups max content), rather than use a large vitamix or even nutri-bullet. Would be difficult to stuff all those vegetables and beetroot into the shake and of course greens and beetroot might not give me a lot of energy to get my day going (?).

            The way I do the bike is run a TV or kindle at the same time.

            So you wouldn’t replace half the nuts/seeds with something like soy flour or chickpea flour? Actually the latter is high in carbs, but the former not so much.

          • Bruce Gray

            if you have blood sugar issues, i’d steer away from flour, which would spike your blood sugar more so. Until you stabilize, I’d say eat whole berries and make the shake a green smoothie as discussed but with only the 1/4 cup berries for taste. You want to get to the bottom of what’s causing Met Syndrome .Late nights, poor sleep, overactive mind, psychoemotional stress….can all contribute.

          • DH

            Hi Bruce,

            Last I checked, my metabolic syndrome had completely abated with ~40 lbs of weight loss. I have a family history of this condition, but all my markers have now normalized. Since I achieved this weight loss through carb restriction, and plan to maintain it with a plant-based diet, I’d still like to stay away from carbs.

            You are right about flour, although I believe legume flours are denser with protein and fiber than are grain flours.

            Today I dumped half the nuts and used some kabuli black chickpeas (which are substantially lower in starch than regular white chickpeas). I found no difference in taste and still enjoyed the “smoothie” (in quotations because it looks more like a sundae that you eat with a spoon). Vis a vis greens, they won’t fit into my magic bullet system unless I pre-chop them very fine. I could certainly do this instead of legumes. I find it hard to keep up with all the foods one has to eat, even on a whole foods plant-based diet. The greens would be easier if I moved to a larger volume mixer like a Vitamix, but I know I’ll run into portion control issues there, since I’ll always be able to mix up bigger batches for breakfast.

            Last I checked, the overall calorie content of what I was making was about 1100-1200 kCal (not including the raw cruciferous veggies and carrot consumed on the side), but now that I am dumping half the nuts/seeds, this will likely go down.

            I’m allergic to kale and have not tried “mint, asian greens” – hopefully not in the same family or genus as kale.

    • aco

      i’d say eat this on the days you workout and dont use any of it on the days u dont workout coz your body needs a rest from anything you do! Add some black sesame seeds , purple sweet potato, tumeric, garlic ,fenugreek ,celery(organic) and crenberries too in substitute for some of the above

      • DGH

        Thanks for the advice. What do black sesame seeds add?

  • Dov

    We love our fruit and vegetables, but here in South Africa we are finding that fruit and vegetables are getting more and more expensive. To put it in perspective: 500g if grapes costs R35. 500g of mince is around R20. Recently we found watermelon to be R60 which is ridiculous!

    • Ashley

      Here in UK, 500g grapes costs £2 or more… which is about 200R.

  • Amanda Baker

    Good morning, Dr Greger. Belated thanks for this article. I was hoping you might be able to comment on how your advice changes for those who do not have fair access to food facilities. How does the balance change if you don’t have good shops in your neighbourhood, plus secure and suitable food storage plus cooking skills & facilities? What can we be doing to support those tackling such challenges? Many thanks.

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