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Eating Healthy on a Budget

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

May 3, 2013 |
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Supplementary Info

Sources Cited


Images thanks to kobsu, Fir0002Onef9day, Evan-Amos, and Hrushi3030 via Wikimedia commons; Daniel Oines at Flickr; USDA, Pingpongwill at en.wikipediaHorst Frank at de.wikipediaRenee Comet via National Cancer Institute and Wikimedia Commons; and Maxím Fetissenko.


Most Americans don't even meet the watered down Federal dietary recommendations, but is it because healthy foods are more expensive? Are healthy foods really more expensive? 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, so the emphasis was on cheap calories. So while beans and sugar both cost the same back then, 5 cents a pound, 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. But even to this day, when the cost of foods are related to their nutritive value, the value they're talking about is cheap calories. And 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. For all metrics except the price of food calories, the USDA researchers found that healthy foods cost less than less healthy foods.

Here's a 100 calories of cheese, candy, chicken, chips, bread, oil, fruits and vegetables. Which hundred calories is going to fill you up more? Most importantly, though, which is going to have the most nutrition? Here's the average nutrient density of fruits, vegetables, refined grains, meats, milk, and empty calorie foods. So 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. More money for less nutrition. 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. Beans and raw vegetables are less expensive, nutrient dense, and may be more satiating, so, for example, incorporating more beans/legumes and less meat may be a cost-effective way to improve diet quality," not only for low-income populations, I might add, but for everyone.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by Jonathan Hodgson.

To help out on the site please email

Dr. Michael Greger

Doctor's Note

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 nutrienbt density of your diet, check out Calculate Your Healthy Eating Score.

For some context, please check out my associated blog post: Best Nutrition Bang for Your Buck

If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here.

  • veggivet

    Just imagine what the comparison would be like without all those government subsidies, otherwise known as your tax dollars, that go to hide the externalities in the true cost of animal agriculture.

    • Plantstrongdoc

      Great point. Your tax dollars and euros are subsidising foods that will kill you (and your government will save money on pension) or make you sick in younger age (and you will pay through tax or insurance for treatment) instead of foods that will save you and the planet. Michael Greger is so trustworthy – he is not in this for the money – proceeds for charity on books and DVD`s – and definitely not to get popular in the medical community. The bulk of evidence points only in one direction: A whole food plant based diet.

  • Thea

    The logic and visuals in this video are simply awesome. I LOVE it. Great job!

  • Nelson

    I wish people would finally wake up. Dr. Greger, when will you be on Dr. Oz’s show? I am really interested to watch as Dr. Oz unfortunately wavers (I find) on his views depending on who is on.

  • painterguy

    I have asked myself this very question, i.e., “can people afford to eat healthy?” I know beans are cheap, but what about them fruits and vegetables? Now I know. I’ve looked at the long game scenario also—what if you did pay a bit more for the good stuff?, wouldn’t you save money by not having as much health care cost. What about all those extra years you may live? What about just feeling healthier and happier?

    • Thea


  • Plantstrongdoc

    Actually – if you look at it in another way, the standard western diet is cheaper. From the standard western diet you can get fat, cancer, hypertension, stroke, diabetes, impotence, heart attack and osteoporosis – If you eat a low fat whole food plant based diet you probably get nothing. 1 diet and 8 diseases…..thats cheap !! :-)

  • Daniel Mueller

    I started a discussion on with the low carb folks.

    Unfortunately, they keep insisting on their false claims and even ridicule Dr. Greger, which I mentioned as a good point against low-carb.

    It is under the 1 star reviews for Taubes’ “Why we get fat” book.

    regards, Daniel

    • Cory Goldblatt

      I enjoyed reading that rant although you should consider avoiding trying to debate people who are so attached to their ideas. Dr. Greger’s work has completely changed my life when I randomly stumbled across his DVD’s over 3 years ago (way before this site was up.) Whenever I showed them to people, they would always have excuses about why this isn’t practical or even claim that there is some sort’ve agenda behind the creation of this project. Many people find veganism (or even just vegetarianism) an attack on their ego. For these people, it is best to just smile and wish them well. Thanks for sharing Daniel!

  • Frank

    I am a plant-strong vegan. However, I find that weight GAIN is next to impossible! Everything vegan/vegetarian-related seems to be geared toward LOSING weight (including this wonderful site). I (and those around me) find that I am MUCH too skinny and I don’t like it at all. I’ve been trying hopelessly to find a way to gain weight without success. I’ve tried adding more calories, eating more food and excercising less to no avail. There’s just not enough time in a busy day to make, cook and prepare a vegan diet anymore AND find that I’m a bony toothpick! :) I’m fighting an uphill battle every day. It’s frustrating and I apologize for my rant.

    The image in Dr. Greger’s video above shows a comparison of different foods and their volumes/sizes with the same amounts of calories. But it’s a bit misleading as most of the larger volume of veggies/fruits in the image contains WATER and FIBER, which is what makes them so large…equals NO contribution to weight gain…and that’s my issue.

    • Keiki

      Please share what your typical-day meals look like, and your exercise schedule.

      • Keiki

        also your body weight and height

      • Frank

        Hi Keiki,

        I’m 5’10″ and about 145lbs; late 30′s. I no longer do any excercising. I’ve calculated that I eat a daily whole-plant-based diet that contains about 2,500-3,000 calories. Whole grained cereals, berries, soy milk, nuts, fruits, natural peanut butter sandwiches on Ezekiel breads, lots of teas, crackers, steamed veggies, pastas and beans comprise most of my diet every day. Thanks, Frank

        • Keiki

          Hey Frank!
          I suggest that you log what you eat using a site like cronometer dot com.
          It’s very easy to estimate you’re eating 3000cals, while in fact you might be eating much less!

          If I wanted to gain weight I’d move slowly towards the 5000 cals threshold, because eating more than 3000 cals is actually a hella lot of work :) Then log your weight monthly while eating 4000 cals a day, 4500 cals a day, 5000 cals – always use something like cronometer to have a good estimate of your cals. If possible eat more cals of the good stuff – fruits and veggies! :D

          Don’t give up and good luck! :)

          • Frank

            Hi Keiki, thanks for the reply! Great info and I should definitely try out the calorie logging website. One issue with trying to gain weight from fruits and veggies is that you get satiated VERY quickly from them AND they have such little calories that you’ll need to eat a LOT of them (they contain so much water and fiber). So, it’s a catch-22 situation: need to eat a lot, but you’ll feel too full very fast. Also, eating more nuts and seeds (calorie-dense foods), as Dr. Greger has mentioned in a recent video on nuts vs weight-gain, does little to nothing for weight-gain! So…I’m stuck :(

          • Hayley

            Up the good fats! I found I have a very similar problem as I tend to border on the underweight side of things. But when I ‘up’ the fats suchs as nuts, seeds, avocados I find I gain weight. Try putting some pine nuts through your pastas, put a scoop of almond butter in your smoothies (or try an avocado smoothie), spinkle seeds on everything.. Or just snack on almonds throughout the day.. You could also try some muscle-building exercises.
            Good luck!

    • Toxins

      There’s nothing wrong with being on the slim side of things. I myself am a competitive climber and have a body fat percentage of 5%. This does not necessarily mean that I am underweight. If you are getting the essential fat, basically enough omegga 3, (1.1 grams for woman and 1.6 grams for men) then you will be fine. You wont expect yourself to whither away, as long as your eating enough calories for energy, this will never be an issue.

  • JimP

    On the nutrient density and price per serving table, grain comes out cheap but looks pretty poor for nutrients. Does this mean, besides fiber, my oatmeal is the least nutrient filled food I’m eating?

  • eric

    can I please have a link to the nutrient price per serving chart?

  • Stephanie

    I wonder though how the pricing changes when its organic vs. conventional processed junk food. We buy only organic whole foods (occasional organic chicken and wild fish) and our grocery costs are crazy! I blame alot on the fact that not many stores closeby carry a wide selection with a good price, and even local markets and CSAs are still quite costly.

  • Simone Targo

    think about this, my friends and co-workers are always saying they can’t afford organic and ask how i can afford it (since i make just above poverty level income) they buy lunch and coffee just about every day, if you figure they’re spending $15 a day just on lunch and coffee alone, that’s approximately $450 a month on that alone!!! i spend between $400-450 on ALL of my food, breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, dessert drinks, because i make it all myself and brown bag every day. And i never have to go to the doctor, they get sick quite often and have to go to the doctor, that’s way more money than i’m spending…and i do eat organic and free range, fish and meat. I do NOT eat any kind of soy since it’s bad for your thyroid and messes up your hormones.

    • Janet

      Simone, how do you pay the rest of your bills if you spend $450/month on food? You make just above poverty level income? I’m trying to make it on $1K/month and needs some tips? You must not have a transportation budget.

    • Toni Kulma

      Have you seen Dr. Greger’s videos here on the healthfulness of non gmo soy. The research shows it is really good for you…. Does not mess up your hormones and is not bad for your thyroid. It helps prevent cancer and prevents the return of cancer (breast) if eaten regularly.

      • Israel Navas Duran

        Did Dr Greger say that GMO soy was particularly different in that respect?

  • Barbara Pfieffer

    The link for the USDA report doesn’t work. I’d really like to read it. Can you fix that? Thanks

  • karine

    what do you eat on a daily basic?

  • Gerard

    Great nutrition for your buck, but at the end of the day you still need to match your caloric needs if you do not want to lose weight.

    • Toxins

      If your eating whole plant foods, especially starchy whole plant foods like whole grains, beans, potatoes, oats, brown rice, etc., there is no need to count calories as long as you eat when your hungry till your full. The foods listed in this video can be easily incorporated with starchy meals.

      • Gerard

        My point was that you do need to match your caloric needs if you do not want to lose weight whether you count calories or not. Healthy foods might be cheaper per “portion” but you need more portions to get enough calories.