By Mark Faries, PhD

Howdy, I am Dr. Mark Faries and we are here separating lifestyle medicine fact from fiction.

I’ll bet you or plenty of people you know think that eating healthfully is expensive, but is this fact or fiction?

If I had a nickel every time someone said eating healthfully was too expensive, I would have enough money to actually eat healthfully. So to test this theory, I did my own little experiment with one meal. Based on my own shopping receipts, which is mainly whole vegetables, whole fruits and legumes, I made the following meal comparison table for a lunch for one day.

Now, let’s compare this healthful lunch to an average lunchtime meal from a leading fast food chain.

As you can clearly see, a normal healthful meal is cheaper than the potential fast-food meal. Also, the healthful meal is far more nutritious and has way fewer calories—1,000 calories less.

Now, if you are only concerned about energy—maximizing calories—and not the healthfulness or quality of the food, then yes, the fast-food meal is cheaper. The fast-food meal logs in at 248 calories for every $1 spent, while the healthful meal was only about 175 calories per $1 spent.

The majority of us want to eat healthfully, but we don’t want to break the bank doing it. Even though this is a simple example of one meal, it clearly shows that eating healthfully does not have to be so expensive.

Even the most expensive healthful diets are, on average, still only about $1.50 more expensive than unhealthful diets. When considering the billions of dollars the U.S. spends on preventable diseases brought on by our poor diets and physical inactivity, the extra $1.50 investment should be worth it. Time magazine just published an article summarizing this study from Harvard.

Now, I will admit that you can rack up the bill with fresh, high-quality and unprocessed foods, just as you can with unhealthful food. Unfortunately, the food industries are going to try their best to take advantage of us through our desires to eat for better health.

A lot of us want to eat better. The food industry knows this and can mark up prices. In addition, we use little information to make our choices when buying our food. We may go to the health food store and assume it’s all good for us. We buy what we want, but may be overpaying for food that is no different than buying it cheaper somewhere else.

Eating organic is fine and I support the common intent for those seeking these foods. However, because a product can put the organic label on their package, it doesn’t guarantee that it’s more healthful to eat or more nutritious than a non-organic product, especially in light of the higher price. If you are not on a 100 percent organic diet, then I would suggest reading this article by the Mayo Clinic.

Marketing groups are very smart and effective in getting us to buy the products they want us to buy. Many food decisions we make while shopping are based on minimal information. Have you ever bought a bottle of wine, because it looked fancier and thus, it must be better? Have you ever bought a food that looked healthful? We’re all guilty as charged.

Products use healthy, natural colors, such as green, yellow and brown. We see images of whole foods, and sometimes happy, healthy looking people on the boxes. We also see words like, nature, grain, natural, valley, health, whole, nutritious and so forth.

Let’s take cereal bars as an example. Other than one product claiming to be organic, it’s comparable to much cheaper versions of cereal bars. Neither products have any high fructose corn syrup or hydrogenated oils. They have about the same amount of calories, carbohydrates, protein, fat and fiber.

The big kicker here is that the non-organic version is only $2.78 per box and has eight cereal bars per box. The organic cereal bars sell for $4.50 but only contain six bars per package. What will influence your decision on which one to buy?

If you’re a smart shopper and passionate about your food preparation, healthful eating does not have to be more expensive than eating unhealthfully.

Our beliefs and perceptions dictate our behaviors. If you believe eating healthfully is too expensive, then you may not attempt to eat healthfully. However, if you believe that eating healthfully is not as expensive as you once thought—which you now should—then you may be much more inclined to give healthful eating a shot.

So based on this evidence, the question about eating healthfully being cheaper than you might think is a fact.

Eating Healthy is Cheaper Than You Think. Time Magazine. Sifferlin, Alexandra (2013). http://healthland.time.com/2013/12/05/eating-healthy-is-cheaper-than-you-think/?xid=newsletter-healthland

Organic Foods: Are they safer? More nutritious? Mayo Clinic Staff (2014). http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-living/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/organic-food/art-20043880

Diet, nutrition and the prevention of chronic diseases.World Health Organization. WHO Technical Report Series, No. 916 (TRS 916).

Mark D. Faries, PhD

Mark has a PhD in Behavioral Health and an MS in Exercise Physiology. He is an Associate Professor and State Extension Health Specialist with Texas A&M AgriLife Extension and has developed lifestyle medicine curriculum and advocacy. He has served on the Board of Directors of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, is founder of Lone Star Lifestyle Medicine for Texas and is founder of FitnessPudding.com.

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