If you are like many others, you may be bemoaning the fact that as your commitment to healthy eating increases, the size of your wallet decreases. Several studies have shown that it costs less to subsist on processed foods as opposed to whole foods. However, Dr. Adam M. Bernstein and his colleagues at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston recently re-examined this finding. Their goal was to evaluate the cost of a healthy diet among women residing in the United States. Bernstein and colleagues examined the eating habits of 78,191 women who participated in a Nurse’s Health Study. They used food-cost data from the USDA to evaluate the relationship between food cost and score on the Alternative Healthy Eating Index (AHEI). Bernstein and colleagues concluded that plant-based foods (nuts, beans and whole-grains) offer the best return on investment.
The Alternative Healthy Eating Index (AHEI) was developed by researchers at Harvard University. It puts a quantitative number to qualitative eating recommendations. Poultry, whole-grains and fish have higher scores on the AHEI while processed meats and high-fat dairy have lower scores. High scores on the AHEI are associated with a decreased risk of chronic disease.
Bernstein and his researchers found that those with the highest AHEI spent on average ninety cents more per day on food. However, once the researchers divided the study participants into five groups based on amount spent, they discovered a wide range of AHEI scores amongst each spending group. In other words, it is possible to score high on the AHEI while spending less. The researchers state that although a healthier diet was associated with increased spending, dietary improvements can be made without spending more. This is accomplished largely by relying on plant based foods.
While plant based foods are certainly less expensive, are there ways to further cut costs? Loni Garrigus of Indianapolis, Indiana is able to feed her family of six on $475/month, well under the USDA’s August 2010 “thrifty” eating plan for a family of that size. She shares the following tips:
- Buy raw ingredients rather than already prepared and preservative-filled items. Soups and salad dressings can be made very inexpensively and more nutritiously at home.
- Buy whole foods and use every part. Use chicken bones from whole chickens and celery leaves from whole celery to make nutrient dense broths and stocks.
- Skip the junk. Food which provides no nutrient value is a waste of money.
Other tips for saving money on nutritious food include:
- Buy dried beans instead of canned.
- Get bulk discounts on frequently used staples such as quinoa, beans, and oats. Buy food with nutrient density in mind. Don’t look at cost per ounce or pound…instead look at cost per nutrient. Fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and legumes are among the most nutrient-dense foods.
- Produce is cheapest when bought locally and in-season. Shop at your local farmer’s market or even better…grow your own. With home-grown produce you can be assured of it being organic. Herbs are generally very easy to grow at home; you can often grow them in your own kitchen window.
- Join together with others and form a coop. This makes bulk buying easier and more enjoyable.
- Cut down on disposable items such as napkins and paper towels. Use reusable items instead. Eliminate chemical cleaning supplies. Instead use cheap and non-toxic alternatives like vinegar and baking soda. This will free up more money in the budget for high-quality, organic fruits and vegetables.
Remember that nutritional foods are an important investment into your family’s health. Spending more on good food will save you in the long-run on health costs.