Low calorie food costs more, so how do you save and stay healthy?

Over the past few weeks, I’ve read dozens of articles that repeat the same refrain: healthy, low calorie meals cost more than high calorie meals. Fresh, healthy foods with a low caloric density are more strongly affected by inflation and carry a higher cost per ounce than processed foods with a high caloric density. A quote:

[L]ow-calorie foods tend to be rich in nutrients like vitamins and minerals. Conversely, high-calorie foods are rich in calories, but tend to be low in nutrients. The study found that lower-calorie foods cost more per calorie, while more calorie-dense foods showed a lower cost per calorie. Bargain shoppers get a better deal purchasing high-calorie foods rather than low-calorie foods. This study then explored the effect of inflation on the lower- versus higher-calorie foods.

The researchers found the price of calorie-dense food was less likely to rise as a result of inflation. During the 2-year study, the price of high-calorie food decreased by 1.8 percent, whereas the price of low-calorie foods increased by 19.5 percent. Considering most bargain shoppers are trying to stretch their incomes as far as possible, the findings may help explain why the highest rates of obesity are among people in lower-income groups.

Based on a standard 2000-calorie diet, the researchers found a diet consisting primarily of calorie-dense foods costs $3.52 a day, but a diet consisting primarily of low-calorie food costs $36.32 a day. The average American eats a variety of foods throughout the day, spending $7 a day.

“If you have $3 to feed yourself, your choices gravitate toward foods which give you the most calories per dollar,” Drewnowski said. “Not only are the empty calories cheaper, but the healthy foods are becoming more and more expensive. Fresh vegetables and fruits are rapidly becoming luxury goods.”

In the short run, if you’re looking solely at putting enough food on the table to feed your family, the processed foods with a high caloric density are a better bargain. You will get full from a meal of processed foods for much lower cost than you will from a meal of fresh foods.

In the long run, however, the reverse is true. High caloric density foods (which have a low nutritional density) drastically increase an average person’s risk of many ailments, from heart disease to diabetes. These illnesses result in not only high medical costs, but also a drop in productivity and earning potential. That’s a serious cost.

What we’re left with is a choice to make every time we visit the grocery store. Do we spend less at the grocery store today while increasing our odds slightly of a very expensive future? Or do we spend more today and keep our future odds of good health in better shape?

I don’t think there necessarily is an automatic choice here. Many people are in poor financial shape and can’t afford the fresh fruits and vegetables. I certainly ate my share of ramen noodles when I was in college, for example, and the only way we kept fresh fruits and vegetables on the table when I was growing up was our own garden.

Instead, I offer a very simple solution to this problem.

When you go grocery shopping, start with the fruits and vegetables. Look for the items that are on sale or have a natural low cost. Grocery flyers can help in this regard. You might find that spinach is on sale for $0.49 a bundle or that bananas are on sale for $0.19 a pound. Whatever it is, stock up. Buy plenty of whatever has a good price on it.

From there, plan some meals around those items. If you’re using the store flyer, you can use recipe websites and other resources to find simple meals that incorporate those vegetables and fruits that are on sale. If spinach is on sale, for example, you might try something as simple as wilted spinach and garlic or something like chicken florentine. Or, better yet, start a few meals this week off with a simple spinach salad with just a little dressing on top. Boom – cheap food that’s actually pretty healthy, too.

You don’t have to plan every meal around what’s on sale. Just try to incorporate what’s on sale into a couple meals in the coming week. By doing that, you’re making your diet healthier without escalating the cost or moving to a “boring healthy” diet and you still have freedom to eat pretty much whatever you want most of the time, whether it’s healthy foods or otherwise.

Just remember this: every time you choose to eat a cheap, unhealthy food, you’re essentially passing on some cost to your future self. This makes the total cost of the food more balanced than you might find on the sticker. Your best bet is to put in some extra footwork and find cheap foods that are also healthy (meaning cheap now and cheap later) and one great way to start is to use the grocery store flyer, start your shopping with the fruits and vegetables, and plan meals that incorporate those that are on sale.

Good luck!

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