After doing some deep dives on the basics of nutrition, exercise, sleep, stress, and metabolic health, we’re excited to now be able to start exploring some of the nuances of these topics and others in upcoming editions of Pursuing Health Pearls.
In this edition, we’re going to explore whether eating healthy really is more expensive, and share some resources for eating real food on a budget.
If you haven’t yet seen Episode 150 where we share our general approach to nutrition, we’d highly recommend going to check that one out because it will provide more context for why eating real food is so important for our health.
Back in Episode 150 we talked about the importance of consuming real, whole food for our health, yet our current food environment often makes it very difficult to do so, especially for those with limited financial resources.
We live in a world where ultra-processed foods are readily available and hard to escape. They are served in schools and hospitals, we have fast food restaurants on every corner, and the government subsidizes crops including corn, soy, wheat, and rice which make up the majority of ultra-processed foods allows them to be cheaper for the consumer.
38 million people in the US are on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, also known as food stamps), which allows for the purchase of soda but not rotisserie chicken because it’s a prepared food. This is another example of the fact that it’s not easy to get access to real, whole food in our country.
Is Eating Healthy Really More Expensive?
We’ve all heard the argument that eating healthy is more expensive, and in general, research does back this up.
A study published in Frontiers of Nutrition in 2019 compared 3 different healthy eating patterns against the existing eating patterns of minority groups based on NHANES 2013-2014 data.
All diets were based on 2000kcal/day with national food prices adjusted for inflation. The foods in the “healthy eating patterns” groups included foods in their nutrient rich forms, were low in sodium, and had no added sugar. The researchers found that existing eating patterns of minority groups cost around $5-$6 per day. In comparison, the healthy eating patterns cost $8.27/day for the US-Style, $5.90/day for the vegetarian pattern, and $8.73/day for Mediterranean eating pattern. Basically, the cost of the vegetarian eating pattern was about the same as the existing eating patterns of minority groups, but the cost was $2-$3 more per day for the eating patterns that included meat and seafood, which does add up over time.
It is important, however, to look at nutrition not only through the lens of cost and calories. While the healthy eating patterns in this study cost more than existing patterns for the same amount of calories, these healthy eating patterns were higher in protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals, and lower in solid fats, sugars, and sodium, and were overall healthier.
This highlights the fact that we have to look not just at the cost of food, but the total cost associated with eating a certain way over time. Eating ultra-processed foods which don’t contain much in the way of nutrients and are more likely to contribute to chronic disease later on may save $2-3/day now, but eating this way may be very costly down the road in the way of increased medical costs, medications, suffering, and poorer quality of life.
Again, this is backed by research! A 2015 Review of fast food patterns and cardiometabolic disorders found that eating away from home and consuming fast food were associated with having a poorer quality diet (with higher calorie and fat intake and lower micronutrient density), being overweight particularly with abdominal fat gain, poorer metabolic health, increased inflammation, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and cardiovascular disease.
However, just knowing the importance of eating real foods is not enough, because there are so many social factors that influence our ability to implement healthy eating patterns. What is local available in our communities is a huge factor. Studies show that places with greater availability of fast food are associated with a higher mortality and hospital admission rates for heart disease, as well as a higher risk of obesity.1,2
We recognize that we do come from a privileged place, and that we ourselves do not have first-hand experience of having to navigate eating on an extremely limited budget. As discussed above, we also recognize that there are a lot of systemic factors that need to be addressed in order to truly remedy this problem.
However, we also don’t think we should wait around for those systemic issues to be fixed because people are suffering as a result of these problems right now. So, in order to explore this issue further, we decided to undertake an experiment to determine the cost of fast food vs. whole food purchased at a grocery store. We also collected numerous resources that may be helpful when navigating eating real food on a limited budget.
A Comparison of Fast Food vs. Grocery Store, Real Food Meal Plans
In this experiment we decided to compare one week of meals from fast food restaurants vs. shopping at a grocery store and preparing the meals at home. We realize that there are plenty of problems with this comparison, because we are not exactly comparing apples to apples here. The fast food meals are already prepared and convenience is part of what you are paying for. Fast food meals generally cost less than eating a healthy meal out at a restaurant. We do have to take into consideration the additional cost in the form of time, energy, knowledge, and access to a kitchen that are required in order to shop, prepare, and cook the food at home, but we would argue that this up-front investment is worthwhile to avoid disease, suffering, and medical costs in the long run.
We also recognize that it is probably not realistic for someone to eat every single meal over the course of a week at a fast food restaurant. It’s probably more likely for someone to eat a few fast food meals intermixed with prepared or ultra-processed foods from a grocery store. We did think it would be informative to look at an entire week rather than just one meal though, so you can think about this as more of theoretical exercise.
So, here’s how we structured the comparison:
- We created one week meal plans including breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks
- We aimed for approximately ~ 2000kcal/day on both plans
- We attempted to include realistic meals of what one might order or want to eat
- For the fast food meal plan, we looked at the 5 largest fast food chains from across US which include McDonalds, Burger King, Taco Bell, Wendy’s, and Pizza Hut
- For the grocery store, real food meal plan we looked at sourcing ingredients from Kroger and Aldi. Both of these stores are available across most of the US with Kroger being the 2nd largest retailer after Walmart in 42 states with ~3500 locations, and Aldi on track to become the 3rd largest grocery store with over 2000 stores across 37 states. We have also been impressed with Aldi’s more recent efforts to make healthier food (including organic options) more affordable and accessible.
- Some examples of meals on the grocery store, real food meal plan include:
- Three ingredient pancakes with peanut butter and berries
- Overnight oats
- Mediterranean pasta salad
- Chicken salad
- Zucchini noodles with marinara
- Snacks of nuts and fruit
You can download a comparison of both meal plans, as well as our Budget-Friendly Real Food Meal Plan which includes shopping lists and recipes for free here.
To summarize some takeaways from this experiment, we’ll first compare just one day of meals from each plan. Below we look at the meals for Tuesday, but you can access the entire week here.
Fast Food Meal Plan:
Breakfast: Egg McMuffin (McDonalds) with hashbrowns, and a large coffee= $4.94
Lunch: 3 soft tacos (Taco Bell), chips and nacho cheese sauce, and a large drink = $6.36
Dinner: Avocado chicken salad (full order with dressing from Wendy's) and a large drink = $8.28
Total Calories: 1720
Total Cost: $21.08
Cost per Calorie: 1.2 cents
Grocery Store, Real Food Meal Plan:
Breakfast: Hard-boiled eggs with fruit and 1/2 avocado = $1.54
Lunch: Chicken salad with cucumbers and a peach = $3.55
Dinner: Zucchini noodles with marinara meat sauce = $1.65
Snacks: 2 handfuls of nuts ($0.92) and a piece of fresh fruit ($1.17) = $2.09
Total Calories: 1961
Total Cost: $8.83
Cost per Calorie: 0.45 cents
As we look at this comparison, a few observations stand out. First, it costs over twice as much for the fast food pattern, even with about 200 fewer calories. The cost per calorie was about ⅓ on the grocery store, real food pattern than with the fast food pattern. The cost of the grocery store, real food pattern is also consistent with the US-Healthy and Mediterranean health eating patterns from the research study we discussed above at $8.83/day. Additionally, the fast food meal plan includes far fewer micronutrients. Finally, drinks provided large sources of empty calories, added sugar, and excess cost in the fast food meal plan: a large soda added an additional 290 calories and 77g of added sugar, and costs $1.49. Similarly, a small caramel mocha adds an additional 310 calories, 40g of added sugar, and costs $2.39.
When we compared the entire week of meals, we found that the total cost of the fast food plan was $126.90, or $18.13/day average. The total cost of the grocery store, real food plan was $64.95, or $9.28/day average, about half as much as the fast food plan. Total calories per day averaged close to 2000 for both meal plans.
Again, we recognize that this isn't exactly an apples-to-apples comparison. We could have compared an ultra-processed grocery store meal plan to one composed of real food, or fast food to eating out at a healthy restaurant, but we hope this will still provide some insight and make all of us think twice before choosing to eat out at a fast food restaurant.
This exercise also highlights the importance of planning ahead to do grocery shopping and meal preparation. Having everything needed on hand to make a healthy meal decreases the chances of being influenced to stop by a fast food restaurant at the moment.