Eating Healthy on a Budget

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

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Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

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 in cost per calorie. If you were a bricklayer in Massachusetts in 1894, you may have needed more than 8,000 calories a day. So, the emphasis was on cheap calories. So, while beans and sugar both cost the same back then—about 5 cents a pound—sugar beat out beans for fuel value; more calories per unit cost.

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 nutritional value, the value they’re talking about is cheap calories. And, you know, 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, then fruits and vegetables are actually cheaper. For all metrics except for the price of food calories, the USDA researchers found that “healthy foods cost less than less healthy foods.”

Here’s a hundred calories of cheese, a hundred calories of candy, a hundred calories of chicken, chips, bread, oil, fruits, 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 four times cheaper than vegetables, you get twenty times less nutrition. For meat, we’d be spending three times more, to get sixteen 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 everybody.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Images thanks to Daniel Oines via flickr; Fir0002Onef9day, Evan-Amos, Hrushi3030Pingpongwill via Wikimedia Commons; Renee Comet via National Cancer Institute; and Maxím Fetissenko.

Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

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 in cost per calorie. If you were a bricklayer in Massachusetts in 1894, you may have needed more than 8,000 calories a day. So, the emphasis was on cheap calories. So, while beans and sugar both cost the same back then—about 5 cents a pound—sugar beat out beans for fuel value; more calories per unit cost.

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 nutritional value, the value they’re talking about is cheap calories. And, you know, 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, then fruits and vegetables are actually cheaper. For all metrics except for the price of food calories, the USDA researchers found that “healthy foods cost less than less healthy foods.”

Here’s a hundred calories of cheese, a hundred calories of candy, a hundred calories of chicken, chips, bread, oil, fruits, 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 four times cheaper than vegetables, you get twenty times less nutrition. For meat, we’d be spending three times more, to get sixteen 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 everybody.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Images thanks to Daniel Oines via flickr; Fir0002Onef9day, Evan-Amos, Hrushi3030Pingpongwill via Wikimedia Commons; Renee Comet via National Cancer Institute; and Maxím Fetissenko.

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 Crop Nutrient Decline. And, if you want to strive to maximize the nutrient density of your diet, check out Calculate Your Healthy Eating Score.

For further context, 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.

44 responses to “Eating Healthy on a Budget

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  1. 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.




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    1. 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.




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  2. 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.




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  3. 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?




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  4. 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 !! :-)




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    1. 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!




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      1. Yeah I am with you, I stopped arguing with people who are so married to the Paleo lifestyle OR who defend fast food places. It doesn’t help, until they encounter a MAJOR health scare like a heart attack or cancer, it won’t make a difference OR have some type of awakening such as what happened to me in July.




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  5. 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.




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      1. 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




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        1. 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! :)




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          1. 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 :(




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            1. 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!




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    1. 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.




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  6. 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?




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    1. Fiber is also important and oats sure beat a lot of standard breakfast fare hands down, but it’s not as loaded with nutrients like fruit and veggies no. You could improve your oats with fruit or put oats in a smoothie if you want. I also use it as a vehicle for my daily scoop of omega’s (chia, hemp, flax). It is also important to vary your fare, so oats are a healthy addition to your otherwise veggie/fruit diet.




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  7. 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.




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  8. 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.




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    1. 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.




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    2. 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.




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    1. Veggies, Fruit, Whole-grains, Nuts, Seeds, Tea, Coffee, Spices, and Water-with sometimes supplements of B12 and D3 and iodine.




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    1. 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.




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      1. 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.




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        1. Why count anything? Just eat WFPB and be healthy and happy whilst spending less at the market. WAY less if you can manage to grow some of your own. Also, the # of folks in westernized societies who “do not want to lose weight” is extraordinary low. We’re trying to steer some SAD eaters to a new understanding of health via nutrition.




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          1. My point is you cannot look solely at nutrition without looking at energy. You are not actually spending less because nobody eats until 100% of daily nutrition is met. People eat until they have had enough energy or volume or nutritional value. Eating WFPB will make sure you land on your ideal weight. But if you want to compare costs with other foods you should look at more properties of the food beside just the nutritional values. I mean in other video’s WFPB is touted as better because it has more nutritional value per calorie, but when it’s convenient we do not look at the calories because that would skew the picture. I do not think that is fair.




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            1. Yeah, I’m not going to quibble over the finest points. I’ll accept your analysis but I don’t think that is going to help folks turn away from SAD. That is my big concern, trying to get friends and family to treat their bodies to a more supportive/less destructive way of eating and possibly enjoy the benefits of a healthy weight and avoiding the Western diseases. Call me simple 8-p. Cheers




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    2. If you need more calories just eat more calorie dense plant foods such as potatoes, rice, pasta, beans, corn or grains. These foods have fiber, are still loaded with nutrients and will give you plenty of energy. What is the alternative? Eat animal foods for more calories? Those foods have no fiber and nowhere near the nutrients of plant-based foods. More potatoes and rice is much cheaper than more chicken or beef.




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    1. You likely already do know a lot about being a vegetarian. More than half of the calories from even heavy meat eaters comes from plants. So you already know a lot about how to eat plants. Not that there isn’t more to learn. However perhaps the largest hurdle for most people is the things that they need to unlearn. Probably the biggest thing to unlearn is that you need to eat specific foods, like meat, that is in a different protein containing class of foods in order to get enough protein, and the second biggest is that you have to consume dairy in order to get enough calcium. Both are simply untrue.

      Every whole plant food contains protein. In some like beans and leafy greens the percentage calories coming from protein is higher and in some like most fruits it is lower. But all contribute to meeting daily protein needs. In fact do you know what your actual protein needs are? Hint, a lot less than most people think. We fetishise protein in this culture where more protein is always better. The fact is that our protein needs are around 10% of our calories. And guess what, most plants, save for fruits, contain 10% or more of their calories as protein. In fact 50% of the calories in leafy greens, like spinach, come from protein. The result is that if you eat a diet consisting of a variety of whole plant foods and avoid empty calories like refined sugar and especially refined oil it is actually impossible to not get enough protein. With no effort at all, I tend to average around 15%-20% of my calories from protein. The same thing holds true when you look deeper at getting enough of each of the essential amino acids. Every plant food contains all of the essential amino acids. There is no need to worry about combining different foods to try to get them to equal a “complete” protein. A given amount of most plant foods contains a higher percentage of each of the amino acids than that same amount of food represents as a percentage of your daily calories. Some like wheat are a tiny bit little short of one of the essential amino acids. But your body maintains a pool of free amino acids that it can draw on for the amino acids it needs. So if you diet contains any variety at all, you literally can’t drain that reservoir of amino acids dry. Again, just eat whole plants and don’t worry about it.

      As for calcium, cow’s milk calcium is not that well absorbed, about 33%. The form of calcium in plants is absorbed better, about 50%. And calcium is widely found in plants (where do you think cows get it from). And the animal protein in dairy is very acid forming, so a considerable portion of the calcium in dairy that is absorbed is used to buffer the acids produced when that protein is broken down. The result is that in the western diet the need for calcium is greatly elevated, but not because it is used to maintain strong bones, but to deal with the negative impacts of all that protein we think we need to be eating. Without the need to buffer dietary acidosis do to animal protein, it looks like humans do just fine bone wise with half or less of the recommended amount of calcium recommended by the USDA.

      And there are a couple of things that you probably will need to learn.

      95% of American’s don’t meet the measly 25 grams of fiber that represents the bare minimum that everybody should be getting. Archaeologists examining fossil poo (no, I’m not making this up) from paleolithic humans finds that they ate a diet containing 100 grams and more of fiber a day showing that our bodies evolved eating a simply staggering amount of fiber! In fact we ate so much of it that the lining of our large intestine evolved to get most of its energy from the short chain saturated fat butyrate which is produced by gut bacteria when they breakdown the fiber we eat. The nice thing is if you eat whole plant foods (ie whole wheat, brown rice, legumes, etc.) as opposed to animal foods and refined grains/sugars/oils which have little to no fiber, your fiber intake will almost always be 50 to 100 grams of fiber a day.

      DHA/EPA are important omega-3 fats. We likely can get all we need by converting the ALA omega-3 found in plants to these longer chain O-3. However, there is some concern that we won’t, so getting a little in your diet is probably not a bad idea. Fatty, cold water fish are a good source of DHA/EPA, but only because at the bottom of their food chain are algae like the golden algae that produce it. The fish for the most part are just accumulating that algal DHA/EPA. We can cut out the “middle-fish” as it were and just eat some algal DHA/EPA directly. Thankfully there are algae oil capsules we can just swallow so we don’t have to try to figure out a way to directly eat the algae itself.

      And lastly we have to have vitamin B-12, which is produce only by bacteria. Animal foods have traditionally served as a vehicle to transmit this bacteria B-12 to us. Another possible way we used to get B-12 was by drinking contaminated and untreated water, but that is also how we caught many of our worst diseases like cholera. So I think we came out on the plus side of the ledger when we learned to treat the water we drink, especially since, like with DHA/EPA, it is very easy and completely natural to directly to the source and simply raise some B-12 producing bacteria in a tank and extract out the B-12 and so cut out the middle-animal.

      And there, that is basically all that you need to know to eat a healthy whole food plant based diet.




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    2. kas: Ideas for being a vegetarian? Have you come to the right place! Following is Dr. Greger’s high level overview of what he recommends: http://nutritionfacts.org/2011/09/12/dr-gregers-2011-optimum-nutrition-recommendations/
      .
      Jim Felder laid out some nice basics, but if you want a bit more guidance and details on what Dr. Greger recommends, you would do well to look up Dr. Greger’s “Daily Dozen.” Dr. Greger covers the Daily Dozen in detail in his book, How Not To Die. https://www.amazon.com/How-Not-Die-Discover-Scientifically/dp/1250066115/ref=sr_1_1_twi_har_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1482452758&sr=1-1&keywords=how+not+to+die You can also download a free phone app for the Daily Dozen.
      .
      If you can be more specific about what type of information you are looking for, I have more resources I could share. Are you looking for help with finding recipes? Ideas for eating on a budget? Etc. Just let us know.




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  9. Great video! I love the visuals and approach for the analysis. But it does ignore one point: All those eating a healthy whole-foods plant-based will have to live years longer, continuing to spend their hard-earned money on food, while those eating the Standard American Diet will be able to leave more of their money behind for their loved ones. So maybe it is cheaper to eat healthier day to day, over the course of your lifetime this may not be the case. ;)




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