Updated on 08.28.14

Low Calorie Food and Long Term Costs

Trent Hamm

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.”

The Problem With Processed Foods

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.

We’re left with 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.

The Solution

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.

When you choose to eat a cheap, unhealthy food, you’re 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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  1. kat says:

    This has always been the case, when my son was small, I made just over the limit for food stamps, rent and daycare took almost 75 percent of my take home pay. My son always got fresh fruit and vegetables. I often had macaroni or popcorn for dinner, as it was cheap and filling. To this day salad is one of my favorite foods. By the way, my son will be 30 this year.

  2. AJ says:

    Interesting. Of course, after watching Food Inc. last night, the LAST thing I needed was a post like this reinforcing just how screwed up our country is.

  3. Kat says:

    “the findings may help explain why the highest rates of obesity are among people in lower-income groups”

    It is slightly more complicated that this, but, in general, calories consumed minus calories burned equals calories that make you fatter. Lower income people are obese because they eat more calories than they burn, not because they spent $3 on 2000 calories instead of $36 on 2000 calories. I lost weight in college when I lived off the McDonald’s dollar menu, really unhealthy food, but I was only eating a cheeseburger, not a double quarter pounder. Maybe the highest rates of obesity are lower income because they don’t have time to exercise, or because they are stressed by being poor so they overeat those $3 burgers, maybe it is that they aren’t peer pressured into joining an expensive gym, maybe they are part of an ethnicity that can’t find healthy alternatives for the foods they are used to, maybe they are just too lazy to exercise and eat right. Or, maybe all of those are true for SOME people and lumping all lower income people in this simplifies it a bit. Or, MAYBE, articles saying it is too expensive to eat healthy foods promote a culture that doesn’t even try and most people think chocolate ice cream is yummier than broccoli anyway, so why bother trying?

    Fruits and vegetables are not luxury goods, unless you are buying out of season.

  4. bethany says:

    I assume when you say stock up you mean within reason. I can afford fresh foods, but my big challenge is eating all that I buy before it goes bad because I live alone. Lettuces are especially challenging for me this way, they wilt so fast!
    So, you are right to emphasize planning ahead, that really avoids waste.

  5. Peggy says:

    We’ve been focusing on nutrient-dense foods for the last year. While our food bill skyrocketed initially, it’s been dropping ever since. We find that it takes much less food to feed us when we eat real food and not processed stuff. At first I was really worried about spending $15 for a pastured chicken (there are seven of us, including four teenagers) that would barely make one meal. But we find that bird now feeds all of us two meals, plus makes enough stock to supplement cooking for the rest of the week.

  6. Beth says:

    Interesting, though not surprising! One thing I’d like to add is to have a freezer plan for stuff that’s on sale. For instance, many fresh fruits can be frozen (whole, cut up or pureed) and veggies can be blanched and frozen too.

    Learning how to properly wash and store produce can also help extend it’s life, as can learning how long you can store what foods. I buy a lot of carrots and root vegetables because they’re inexpensive and they last a while in the fridge.

    And don’t forget the frozen veggies…

  7. Beth says:

    @ Bethany — I have the same problem with lettuce. I grow lettuce in containers on my balcony during the summer (very easy to grow and keeps well on the plant) and I buy bunches of spinach instead of lettuce the rest of the time. It’s much more versatile because it can go in a soup, salad, stir fry, dip or veggie side dish as well as in salads.

  8. Kat says:

    Also, a lot of lower income people are undereducated (not all, but undereducation often causes lower earning potential), and there isn’t a lot of nutritional information and education available (other than sensationalized things like the quoted article, or news reports that pomegrantes are amazing and can cure anything…but next week it will be that dark chocolate is amazing and can cure anything!!). Most schools don’t have strong nutritional education classes and there aren’t a lot of places to go to to learn how to eat healthy without spending much $$$ on personal nutritionalists, and learning how to cook and eat healthy is often difficult.

  9. Jules says:

    I am really having a hard time believing that it’s more expensive to eat healthy. Now, granted, my diet isn’t perfect (I like ramen, what can I say–but I do put lots of veggies in it), but I guesstimate that, for 3 meals, I spend about €5/day, and that’s if I’m feeling really fancy and get myself some cookies for dessert after dinner. It costs about the same to eat chips and Coke, perhaps slightly less.

  10. Ellen says:

    I think there’s a basic fallacy in comparing costs per calorie, & that saying people get better value by buying higher-calorie foods is the wrong way of looking at things. In a generally overweight nation, shouldn’t we be comparing cost by nutrient value of the food, not by the # of calories purchased? Yes, we do need a certain amount of calories per day, but given the obesity rates, apparently most people are getting plenty of calories. If you eat higher-volume more nutritious foods, you probably are spending about the same amount per meal (as you can’t eat the same volume).

    As to the higher initial cost of eating better, a lot of that is in the initial purchase of seasonings and staples for the pantry, which of course last a lot longer than just the one meal or one week’s worth of groceries.

  11. Nicole says:

    If you live in an area where you can join a CSA (community supported agriculture), that can cut the cost of fresh veggies considerably. Of course you have to actually use all the veggies you get to make the savings actually work.

    Good post.

  12. Robin Crickman says:

    One thing the research did not address was the
    time cost of preparing (most) nutrient dense low
    calorie food. Many people with limited income also
    have limited time to prepare food so they want
    something to eat now, not in an hour and a half
    after they have spent a good part of that time in
    the preparation of the food.

  13. Moby Homemaker says:

    There’s that hideous word…INFLATION. Food costs will skyrocket, unfortunately.
    I fear that this will further push many further into cheap, crap food (viz. $1 fast food menus–I know, being unemployed, I have used them TOO OFTEN).

  14. Carey says:

    The reason high calorie foods don’t increase in price along with inflation is because their prices are kept artificially low by corn subsidies. Most of these high calorie, low nutrient foods have corn somewhere in their manufacturing process, if not right there in the ingredients.

    Sorry Trent :) I know you’re from Iowa and that’s a big part of the economy there.

  15. Moneymonk says:

    I agree with Kat

    Lower income has no knowledge of this. And Cooking healthy can get so expensive

  16. Des says:

    Like Kat, I disagree with the conclusion that this is why poor people are more overweight. $3 on 2000 calories isn’t going to make you fatter than $36 dollars on those same 2000 calories. Kat mentioned alternative explanations for the phenomenon, I’d like to add one more: switch the correlation/causation. Perhaps it is harder for obese people to advance in their careers due to discrimination over their size.

  17. Johanna says:

    I’d love to see the whole concept of weight/obesity left out of discussions like this. Fruits and vegetables are good for you, regardless of what you weigh. Why can’t we just leave it at that?

    And if we’re talking about truly low-income people, especially low-income people in urban areas, that opens up a whole new set of challenges. Here are just a few of the things that I take for granted, that enable me to eat a healthy diet with a lot of fresh vegetables, that a poor person in Washington DC might not have:

    – a stove that works
    – a refrigerator that works
    – a place to store dry food that’s safe from bugs and mice
    – a landlord who will fix the stove or the refrigerator if it breaks, or call in an exterminator to get rid of bugs and mice if they appear
    – a reasonably complete set of reasonably good-quality kitchen equipment
    – space in my apartment to store my kitchen equipment, and my food, where I can be fairly confident that it will not get stolen
    – an apartment half a block from a Metro station, from which I can easily get to several farmers’ markets and grocery stores (I don’t have a car, but that’s my choice, and it’s made easier by the fact that I can afford the rent in a good location)

  18. TLS says:

    Cooking healthy food can certanly be a lot more expensive than eating the high-calorie unhealthy stuff. But you can also make healthy food on a budget. The problem that a lot of people do not know – or are not interested – in learning how to do this. And time is also a factor – when you get home after a long day of work, the last thing you feel like doing is standing in the kitchen for an hour. I certainly don’t.

    There’s a learning curve involved in making less expensive healthy food. It took me a while to figure out that planning ahead (and doing a few things ahead of time) is key.

    A good example involves using dried beans. Beans are cheap, healthy and fill you up. They are also extremely versatile. I soak and cook dried beans ahead of time, and put them in a plastic bag in the freezer. Then they are ready to add to meals. I throw them in a frying pan with a little meat and some vegetables and serve with brown rice (a rice cooker can also be a lifesaver – set it up in the morning and you have rice ready when you come home). As I said, this all takes planning ahead – I have to think about what I’m going to eat for dinner several days in advance. This saves me time and money.

  19. Joanna says:

    Personally I don’t find eating healthy to be more expensive. My belief, right or wrong, is that articles like these begin with the conclusion and do what it takes to reach the conclusion they so desire. Were I to set out to prove that healthy is cheaper than unhealthy I think I could do it. The hubs and I live on $200/mo, with about 15 meals in a month eaten out (lunches @ work, dinner dates, etc.), so that’s about $1.33 a meal or $4 a day. I stick to the produce section, butcher section and bulk grains, beans, etc. and am generally able to keep within this budget or within $20 of it. The main processed foods we buy are the occasional Lean Cuisines when they go on sale for < $2.

  20. TLS says:

    In regard to what I posted above, Joanna makes a really good point – that many low-income people do not have access to what would allow them to prepare healthy meals on a budget. If you can’t reliably access the food, store it, or cook it, then low-cost healthy cooking is pretty much out of your reach.

  21. partgypsy says:

    My husband and I were talking about the same thing. His parent’s church has a weekday meal, and sometimes meals on Sunday. But for instance the Sunday meal was hotdogs with chips, no vegetable or fruit in sight. Whatever happened to my body is my temple? The same need to feed lots of people for low price tag/quick preparation time seems to be driving what’s in our children’s school cafeteria (high fat, low nutrition foods).

    As far as buying inexpensive fresh produce in bulk, that’s a no, unless you have a way to process it before it goes bad.

    The US has such a wealth in things, but it seems both Americans gone through the depression and newly arrived citizens are losing after a generation the ability to truly cook, prepare and store real food.

  22. Larabara says:

    One other thing that seems to be lacking in low-income neighborhoods is a nearby market that stocks good quality produce. Almost all of the Food 4 Less-type markets in poor neighborhoods seem to have the poorest quality fresh food legally available.

  23. Ken says:

    I think Peggy and Ellen hit the nail on the head. If you are eating calorie dense foods, you will not be as full at 2000 calories (or whatever you ideal number is) as you would be if you were eating 2000 calories of nutrient-rich, low calorie food. You will get more full on a 200 calorie salad than a 200 calorie cookie, for example. Part of the issue, I believe, is that people who eat low-nutrition, calorie dense foods will generally eat more than 2000 calories a day to feel “full”, which increases their food costs and can lead to the health issues.

  24. Juli says:

    I’m with Joanna.

    I read another article in the last week or two that mentioned that while the healthier food was not too different in cost, the parents knew the kids would eat the chips and not the broccoli! Therefore, they felt buying broco was a waste.

    Can we get off the ‘it has to be fresh’ bit as well? Canned and frozen are just as good for you. We have no idea how long ago the fruit and veggies were picked.

  25. Venkat says:

    It is the media that causes this distortion. Let me illustrate what I mean. Food Ads always show slim people eating/enjoying Fast food. This conveys 2 subliminal messages, eating fast food is OK and people seem to be thin are eating it and it costs quite a bit less.

    Having come from a different culture and country, where my forefathers for generations had been vegetarians and we cook most of the food on a daily basis, I could never fathom why Americans tend to consume a lot of fast food(I see this happening now in India & china as part of Globalization– where it is projected to be trendy to eat Fast Food as opposed to cheap/convenient here in America).

    People are Constantly bombarded by shows to be superWorkers/SuperMoms/SuperDads by the Media .i.e., they should look a la mode while trying to make a good buck and taking care of family, all in one fell swoop. In the rush to achieve this constant perfection mentality Projected by Media, people some times lose rationale and succumb to convenience and justify spending on calorie-dense food cuz it is cheap.

    Ethnicity/Education may or may not play a part. Unless people think beyond what they can see infront of their eyes, change is difficult not impossible.

  26. Kara White says:

    I agree with Johanna. The people I have know who have come from the really poor areas of our country have said to me that it isn’t as much a lack of desire to eat well as it is a lack of healthy food to eat. “Food Deserts” do exist in America.

    I’m also going to jump on the “it doesn’t have to be fresh” bandwagon. We eat a lot of frozen and canned fruits and veggies, and we’re good! It’s an inexpensive way of making sure my family gets nutritious food when the fresh stuff is priced out of our range.

  27. MattJ says:

    The methodology here is bizarre. 2000 calories may meet your daily need of calories, but it won’t fill you up if it’s just a big sloppy burger, some fries, and a couple of cokes. (That’s one meal, not three) The problem isn’t “how much do you have to spend to get to 2000 calories”, it’s “how much do I have to spend to stop feeling hungry”

    My lunch today is a can of green beans I bought for about $0.60 and a small salad (spinach leaves, carrots, tomato, brocolli and croutons) that probably cost me less than $0.50. My breakfast was a small homemade breakfast burrito (thanks for the recipe, Trent) that probably cost less than $0.50 and an orange that cost me $0.33. I also had a handful of raisins – maybe 25-50 cents. Dinner will be a can of corn, a small baked potato, a breaded chicken patty (processed food! the horror!) and two slices of toasted homemade bread – probably $2.50 total. (actually, due to my busy schedule tonight, I’m skipping dinner entirely, but if I wasn’t that’s what I would eat) I’ll also snack on a couple of fruits as well. That’s pretty healthy, and quite a bit less than $36, but most importantly it won’t leave me hungry.

    Needless to say, I’m VERY curious as to what the $3.50/day diet actually looks like. (Not curious enough to want to see it before I eat my own lunch, however) How do you eat $3.50 worth of high-calorie-density food and not feel famished? Three bags of marshmallows?

  28. DiscoApu says:

    White Flour, White Rice, Corn, and Sugar. These are the foods that are high calorie, but offer almost zero nutrients, and zero fiber. You would be surprised how many calories are in a portion of spaghetti.

  29. MattJ says:

    From the article:

    “High-calorie foods included items like peanut butter and granola, while the lowest-calorie foods were mostly fresh fruits and vegetables.”

    1) Fruits are not ‘lowest-calorie’ or even ‘low-calorie’ foods. Fruits are packed with sugar.

    2) There is no significant nutritional (certainly no caloric) difference between fresh, frozen, or canned vegetables (maybe fruits, if they’re packed in syrup) Canned and frozen veggies are much cheaper than fresh.

    I’m no expert, but reading this stuff carefully makes it seem unreliable. It seems likely that either the original report was advocacy masquerading as science, or the summary of the report at the link was written by someone who didn’t understand the report.

  30. Anitra says:

    Some people are confused as to what a $3/day meal budget looks like.

    It’s not burgers and fries, people! It’s packaged food that is mostly grains and sugars: Macaroni & Cheese, Ramen, rice (maybe, depending on ethnicity), cereal, peanut butter sandwiches on cheap white bread. The cheapest proteins, other than beans, are peanut butter and processed cheese.

    Personally, I’m always trying to get more vegetables into our family’s diet, but my toddler can’t eat any vegetables that aren’t cooked (not enough teeth), and it gets really tedious to either make separate meals & snacks or else to be cooking all the time.

  31. Diane says:

    The choice isn’t crap for $3.52/day or good food for $36/day. Careful shopping along with knowing how to cook can get you good, healthy food & lots of vegetables for close to $5/day. That’s what I do. I eat tons of veg, cook and eat very well, eat some meat and fish each week, and my costs for 2009 were $172/month or under $6/day. $36/day? That’s over $1000 a month per person. Ummmm…no. I don’t know anyone who does that.

    Sure, there are people without stoves, and people who don’t know how to cook, etc. But if you know how to cook, and you know how to shop, and you menu plan and know how to re-purpose leftovers – you can easily eat cheaply and well.

  32. Anitra says:

    I meant to add – I can’t figure out why certain processed foods are so much cheaper than their more natural counterparts. For example, peanut butter. We pay $3 or more for a 1 pound jar of all-natural PB. Ingredients? just peanuts and maybe salt. But you can get a jumbo 2-lb jar of processed PB (Jif, Skippy, Peter Pan, etc) full of added oils and sugars for the same price. Even the big name-brands’ “Natural” peanut butter has sugar in it!

  33. MattJ says:

    DiscoApu (awesome name, btw)

    That can of corn I would like to eat with my dinner has

    (daily recommended values)
    44% of my Vitamin C
    11% of my iron
    13% of my fiber
    25% of my Carbs (like most, I eat more carbs than is recommended)
    9 grams of protein.

    Nutritiondata.com puts it in the ‘good’ quadrant in its map of ‘nutrition vs filling’ – that is, it’s more nutritious than average, and more filling than average. Now, there are a lot of corn products that are no good at all, but whole kernel corn is pretty healthy. (canned, frozen, or fresh)

  34. Paul says:

    This is a bunch of bunk! My wife and I are doing a “Daniel fast” for three weeks leading up to Easter, which consists of fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains and nuts. We are shopping like never before in the fresh produce section and guess what? Our grocery bill is actually less than it used to be! So don’t tell me that healthy eating is a luxury. That’s a cop out.

  35. Johanna says:

    Building on Anitra’s comment (#30), I think some people are also confused about what the $36/day diet looks like. It’s not a combination of fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains, maybe cooked in a little olive oil. It’s fruits and vegetables and that’s it. Imagine trying to satisfy your calorie needs by eating nothing but lettuce, carrots, broccoli, and blueberries. See how that could get expensive?

  36. Elizabeth Gage says:

    I suspect that the “high cost of fresh veggies/good eating” mantra is a notion promulgated somehow by Big Food processors. Many previous comments have touched on ways to eat well cheaply. Veggies don’t have to be those picturesque beauties from the farmers market. They can also be canned, frozen or, if bought in bulk, cooked and home frozen. Dried beans and grains (esp. oatmeal) bought in bulk, if you have a secure place to store them, can bring cost per serving way down. Beans combined with a small amount of complete protein (meat, fish, dairy or eggs) become a complete protein.

    The real issue here seems to be infrastructure (stoves, refrigerators, cooking equipment, time) and education (nutrition, planning, cooking) and we the lucky should probably look into solving those rather than falling for the trap of “expensive fresh food.”

  37. MattJ says:

    #30 Anitra:

    Since I’m one of the people you’re educating (re-educating, really… grad school wasn’t so long ago that I should have forgotten the cheap pasta meal) let me say ‘thanks’.

    #35 Johanna:

    Not only do I see how that could get expensive, it seems to me that eating $35 per day worth of fruits & vegetables (even at ‘fresh’ prices) would be impossible for me. The idea almost makes me curious enough to go put $35 worth of fresh fruits and vegetables into a shopping cart together and wonder how I could eat it all. And forget about me eating $35 worth of canned vegetables daily…

  38. I think eating healthy is actually really cheap. When you buy things like rice, dry beans, fresh veggies and fruit you really cut out huge costs. For example I can get three pounds of apples for the price of a bag of Doritos…..gotta be honest, that’s a good trade off.

    I cut down my grocery bill drastically since meat and dairy is pretty expensive and far more expensive by volume than veggies and fruit.

  39. John S says:

    For about 6 years, back in high school and early college, I worked 25-30 hrs/week as a grocery store cashier. After years of seeing the same customers go through my line, I could pretty much see a correlation between people who bought nutritious foods and people who looked healthy.

    Then there were also people who had obviously given up on themselves, who incessantly bought Ho Hos and Ding Dongs and Nutty Bars and gallons of ice cream and stacks of frozen pizzas (many of them with food stamps and small children in tow.) These people rarely bought vegetables or fruits of any kind. As a budding taxpayer, this left a grave and somewhat infuriating impression upon my young mind.

    I have been working full time since graduating from college, and I have never found it “too difficult” to take the time to cook healthy, diverse meals from scratch in my spare time. In my opinion, there is no such thing as being systematically “too busy” for basic bodily necessities. It’s a question of priority.

    Back when I started learning to cook, it was just for myself. I saw it as a basic, necessary life-skill. Now that I’m in my 30s and starting a family, the ability to cook is going to pay off in spades. Feeding yourself well is easily one of the most fundamentally necessary skills you can have.

    Kids trend toward practicing what they see their parents do. The Chef Boyardee and Ice Cream generation didn’t spontaneously generate in a vacuum.

    I had to sit through Home Ec in public school just like I had to sit through algebra. The seeds are planted there. The same people who are too lazy to cook, or for whom cooking is “too hard”, are probably the same ones who think that algebra is too hard. I have a hard time finding sympathy for that attitude.

  40. Des says:

    Cost aside, getting all your calories from fresh fruits and vegetables is unrealistic with regard to TIME. A low-fat, raw vegan diet (which is what that would amount to) takes massive amounts of time to prepare & eat. Imaging trying to consume 500 calories of salad. That’s about 30 dinner salads, no dressing. Yes, that may be “nutrient-dense”, but doesn’t that seem a bit excessive? All food consumed doesn’t have to fall in the low-calorie, high-nutrient category, just some of it. It’s a bit specious to say that a healthy diet costs $36 a day.

  41. jim says:

    Fresh fruits and vegetables are more expensive per calorie than wonder bread, hot dogs, coke and top ramen. So yeah I agree with the basic idea here.

    The conclusion : “Fresh vegetables and fruits are rapidly becoming luxury goods.” is total exaggeration. 50¢ for an apple is not a luxury. 22¢ /lb for bananas is not a luxury. I don’t know how they come to the conclusion that people would be paying $36/day for healthy foods. What are these $36/day foods? I mean I’d have a hard time spending that for a day’s food if I go to Whole foods, buy all organic and TRY to waste money.

  42. Johanna says:

    @Des, MattJ: I have known (if you “know” the people you talk to online) a few people who have claimed to eat that way (almost entirely fruits and vegetables, and mostly raw, to boot). And I’ve seen scientific studies that have looked at the effects of that kind of diet. So it seems like it really is physically possible to eat that much fruit and veg (although I wouldn’t want to do it).

    And I don’t think anybody’s saying that a healthy diet costs $36 a day. The press release (the article Trent links to) just talks about “a diet consisting primarily of low-calorie food” – they’re not saying that that’s the only healthy way to eat.

  43. Gretchen says:

    As Usual, what Johanna said. Plus the time compontent Des pointed out.

    (Bananas haven’t been 22 cents a pound here in years, btw.)

  44. Nicole says:

    I ate nothing but fruit for a bit over a month while I was pregnant… nothing else would stay down. So it is totally possible. And expensive, at least on the East Coast where there’s not a whole lot of local fresh fruit in the winter. And I was constantly eating raw fruits or slurping smoothies.

    I’ve seen 22 cent bananas (yay, TJ’s), but not 22 cent a pound bananas… must be geographic differences.

    Anyone else been watching Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution? Powerful stuff. Man, school lunches haven’t changed a bit since I was in school Yuck.

  45. kat says:

    I was the first poster, and I want to add a few things-I lived in a “food desert” and had very little access to good fresh produce, I budgeted out very carefully, and if my son saw a piece of whole meat on his plate more than twice a month is was for a special occasion. I worked 8 hours a day with no car, and a total commute of almost 4 hours by bus. When I was able to finally get a used crock pot, things did get better. But my budget for good wholesome food went to my child, not me, and a high carb low protein diet leaves it mark. I am still fighting my weight from that time. I know there are a lot of single parents like me who make the same choices. My child grew up healthy, and still eats that way. Price per each for a piece of fruit is not a realistic way to look at food shopping or costs when you have a growing child who seems to consume 20 times his body weight per day.

  46. Amanda says:

    I think for most people, fresh fruit and vegetables are an addition to, not a complete replacement for, the rest of the diet. Because an apple or a salad or a side dish of a fresh vegetable doesn’t have very many calories, it mostly just adds nutrients. So, it is easier and certainly cheaper for a family to just serve cereal for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, and pasta or chicken or whatever for dinner. Adding in a couple pieces of fruit and a few servings of vegetables every day onto that IS expensive, even if you aren’t used to it. And even canned fruit and vegetables are usually at least $1/can where I live. For our family of four, the produce easily is half of the entire grocery bill. When the budget is tight, it is much harder to justify the expense. And everyone’s “cheap” prices seems a little dated to me. We pay at least 69cents for a pound of bananas with all other fruit over $1 a pound, even on a great sale. And cmon – the loss leaders at my grocery store are almost never produce and if it is, it is usually just a small discount on what is in season anyways. And we joined a CSA for several years as well as shopped at a farmers market, and the prices were at least as expensive as Kroger. The quality is better (though in general, I found that it went bad quicker) and the taste is better, but the price was not cheaper.

  47. Nick says:

    Eating well has costs other than money that keep some folks out. It requires knowledge and effort for learning how to cook and keeping track of recipes. It required the time to cook. It requires a place to store fresh foods that aren’t shelf-stable. And it requires access to fresh foods, which includes nearby markets with available hours and stock, or a car or public transportation access.

    Also, Trent, I would love to hear your opinions about farm subsidies, even though it’s not really a PF topic. It’s not discussed often enough, but I’m sure the Michael Pollan/Food Inc/King Corn fans would enjoy hearing about that.

  48. Noadi says:

    John S: Not sure when you went to school but I can tell you that Home Ec is a thing of the past. Most schools cut it years ago for budget reasons, just like many schools are now eliminating gym class.

  49. MattJ says:


    I understand what you’re getting at, but there’s a disconnect in their research.

    If you try to buy low-calorie food in sufficient quantity to equal 2000 calories, you can succeed, but you will either:

    have too much food to eat in one day


    have food that costs MUCH LESS than $35

    I challenge anyone to create a basket of foodstuffs from any reasonable supermarket that a person can consume daily that costs $35 and is made from ‘low-calorie’ choices as defined by the researches – fresh veggies and (oddly) fruits.

    I believe that people without access to a reasonable supermarket can be forced into it, but the vast majority of people who have access to a typical grocer will have to buy incredibly exotic foods in order to do it.

    Look at it this way, to get to 2000 calories with Thompson seedless grapes, you’re going to need to consume roughly 5-6 lbs of grapes. For apples it’s over 6 lbs. Maybe you can eat that much apples and grapes, but good luck spending $35 on that food. So, to get to $35, let’s say you’re going to get 1000 calories from 3 lbs of apples or apple-equivalent fruit. Now you’ve got 1000 calories left to eat today: what are you going to spend your other $30 on?

  50. KimC says:

    I think you have to ask who defined the healthy/unhealthy diets when they were calculating the cost?
    Many healthy foods are very inexpensive, while many unhealthy foods can be costly. It’s cheaper and healthier to eat homemade beans & rice with a green salad than freezer pizza and Doritos brand nacho chips, but somehow I suspect that’s not where the $3/day vs. $36/day costs came in.
    We eat far healthier than most families that spend 3 or 4 times as much as we do, and we don’t have to buy organic produce and salmon to do it.

  51. jim says:

    The 22¢ figure for bananas was just a number from memory. I thought it was per pound but I might be remembering wrong, and its quite possible that figure is from “a while ago” and it might have been cheap season. Today online I see bananas for 30¢ each or about 60¢/pound. Still the point remains, its not going to send anyone to the poor house. 20 medium size bananas is 2000 calories and would cost $6. Is a 20 banana / day diet healthy? ;)

  52. Johanna says:

    @MattJ: Look, it’s not my research. But you’re welcome to read the research paper yourself (it’s called “The Rising Cost of Low-Energy-Density Foods,” and you can access it through Google Scholar) and see for yourself what they’re saying.

    First, they didn’t “define” “low-calorie choices” to equal “vegetables and fruits” – they looked at the foods that really are lowest in calories per unit weight (specifically, the foods that fell in the lowest 20% when ranked by calories per unit weight). The paper gives a list of 20 such foods (iceberg lettuce, mustard greens, zucchini, romaine lettuce, cherry tomatoes, tomato salsa, cauliflower, sauerkraut, green bell peppers, cabbage, spinach, red bell peppers, broccoli, green beans, watermelon, wax beans, jalapeno peppers, strawberries, green onions, and cantaloupe – no apples or grapes), but the total set must have about 75 foods, since they looked at 372 foods total.

    Second, the number $36.32/day appears nowhere in the paper. The paper states the average cost of the low-calorie foods as $18.16 per 1000 calories. For the *press release* – which was written by a different person and is intended for a different audience – somebody figured it was a good idea to translate that into a 2000-calorie daily diet, so they doubled $18.16 to get $36.72. But *nobody* is saying that you can, should, or must eat a diet of only those low-calorie foods.

  53. Johanna says:

    Er…doubled $18.16 to get $36.32, of course, not $36.72.

  54. MattJ says:

    Thanks Johanna:

    It looks like I’m back to what I said in comment 29:

    “I’m no expert, but reading this stuff carefully makes it seem unreliable. It seems likely that either the original report was advocacy masquerading as science, or the summary of the report at the link was written by someone who didn’t understand the report.”

    I’ll go with the second option, it seems.

    Note also that the article Trent linked to did “define” exactly as I described:

    “High-calorie foods included items like peanut butter and granola, while the lowest-calorie foods were mostly fresh fruits and vegetables.

    Defined this way, low-calorie foods tend to be rich in nutrients like vitamins and minerals.”

  55. jim says:

    Noadi: “I can tell you that Home Ec is a thing of the past.”

    Our local high schools don’t have Home Ec. They DO have classes called “Culinary arts: cooking”, “Family and Consumer Science”, or “Food and Fitness”.

  56. Johanna says:

    @MattJ: I’ll go with option 3: The authors of the press release did not fully anticipate all the ways in which their words could be misinterpreted.

    First, “the lowest-calorie foods were mostly fresh fruits and vegetables” does not actually mean “the lowest-calorie foods included every fruit and every vegetable.”

    Second, I find it totally believable that their “low-calorie” category really did include mostly fresh fruits and vegetables, as opposed to frozen or canned, because of the fruits and vegetables that it includes. When’s the last time you saw canned or frozen lettuce? Or watermelon? Frozen broccoli and spinach might be included, but your can of corn would probably be in the next tier up.

    Third, I really think they were just trying to be helpful in translating the quantities into a 2000-calorie diet, figuring that that’s the amount of calories that most people would be most familiar with. Maybe they should have anticipated that some people would read “a diet consisting primarily of low-calorie food costs $36.32 a day” to mean “you must spend $36/day to eat a healthy diet,” but when you look at what they actually wrote, rather than what you originally thought they meant, I don’t think they actually said anything wrong.

  57. Sarah says:

    A good way to get protein on a budget is to consider organ meats such as liver, kidney and heart.

  58. MattJ says:

    Thank you for your patience, Johanna. Your first point is excellent and I stand corrected.

    The rest of your points are well-argued, but it looks like about half of what they call ‘low calorie’ food can be frozen and/or canned. Certainly the peppers, tomatoes, and beans they list can be canned and/or frozen. Further, calories by weight? Really? By that measure, sun dried tomatoes (72 calories/oz) are higher-calorie food than canned tomatoes (9 calories/oz), because they lack water. Nutritionally they’re practically identical, but not by weight… by the amount of fresh tomato you started with. The canned tomato will be more filling than the dried tomato, but not more filling than the dried tomato plus a glass of water.

    Your last paragraph shows that we’re still talking past each other. I don’t think (and never did) that they meant “you must spend $36/day to eat a healthy diet”. I’m still arguing that “a diet consisting primarily of low-calorie food costs $36.32 a day” is simply not true, and cannot be extrapolated from the cost of low-calorie food. (Whether by ‘primarily’ they mean more than half of the weight of the food one eats, which is likely, but not really consistent with the rest of what they write, or whether they mean more than half of the calories comes from low calorie food)

    Rather, a diet consisting primarily of low-calorie food will also still consist to some degree of high-calorie food. So, if the diet is 50.1% out of the basket of goods that they call low-calorie, then the other 49.9% will be from medium or high-calorie foods, and likely cost very little per calorie, giving you a cost per day MUCH lower than $36. The more of the diet that one postulates will come from the low-calorie group, (that is, the closer a theoretical daily meal cost gets to $36) the more ridiculous the amount of food one has to consume.

  59. Elizabeth Gage says:

    Thinking about it some more, the real issue is to enable people to get the best nutrition for the least money, allowing for constraints of time, accessibility of food, and know-how.

    Seems like we should all just ask our grandmothers or aunties… Many of the cultures that make up the US come from food traditions that make much out of little: beans and rice, red beans and rice, black eyed peas with ham hock and greens, stir fries over rice, pasta with a mostly-tomato sauce.

    So if we could revive that knowledge, we would all eat better AND cheaper!

  60. Lisa says:

    I don’t believe it takes much effort to eat healthy and keep the cost down. I feed our family of 5 with 4 pets on no more than 75.00 per week and we eat pretty healthy. Lots of fruits and veggies and I cook from scratch most nights. If you are willing to stock up on sales, use coupons and watch sales cycles then it is quite easy to do.

  61. Lisa says:

    Want to add as an example this week Aldi’s has baby carrots for .69c a bag, 10lb bags of potatoes for 1.49, and several other great produce items at rock bottom prices. If you buy enough to last a few weeks you have just saved quite a bit.

  62. littlepitcher says:

    Low-income people get fat because junk food is their only affordable reward/splurge. After an extensive period of deprivation, the drive to “have it all” at a specific bad income level is going to be fulfilled on the pastry aisle, in the deli, or at the burger joints. The obesity problem will get worse as the population recovers from the recession, and as older Americans are prescribed more statins, which create stomach burn and rawness, and encourage snacking.

    My current planning will be to try to avoid grocery stores at all costs, except for shopping for my employers. A soy milk maker is next on my list, to be able to purchase low-cost soybeans, make my own milk and tofu, and eventually maybe even add those to a garden plan if I ever have land again.

  63. Nicole says:

    … if you can get to an Aldi …

  64. Diane says:

    @Des: I’m an omnivore (love my pork belly curry, after all!), but I eat many vegan meals – AND I work up to 80 hours a week. I cook South Indian cuisine a lot though because I like it. Most of it is vegetarian or vegan. It’s tasty, and doesn’t take forever if you know how to cook.

    The idea that cooking healthy, meatless meals is some kind of crazy, time-consuming burden is as much a canard as the idea that healthy food costs a lot.

  65. elderly librarian says:

    I agree with “little pitcher” that all these medications prescribed for middle aged and elderly do have an effect on the stomach and encourage “bland” calorie dense foods and snacks. Never really thought about that. Also agree home made soy milk is best and the dollar menu is a “splurge” for lower income and even me sometimes! Not eating out in restaurants very much anymore because the food is too salty, etc. I always ask for the burgers and/or fries (heaven forbid!) to have “no salt”. Sometimes that actually happens.

  66. Des says:


    I am a vegan myself, so if I implied that eating healthy meatless meals was crazy and time consuming, I apologize. That was not AT ALL my point. I think brevity was my enemy for that comment. The point I was trying to make was that consuming 2000 calories *fresh fruits and vegetables* each and every day is time consuming and unreasonable for most people and is, therefore, not what the authors of the study were suggesting (that was the part of my thought I failed to articulate.)

    Eating vegan is not the same as eating only low-calorie density fresh fruits and vegetables. I think you are confusing “vegan” with “low-fat raw vegan”.

    Eating vegan can be health, quick, and delicious :)

  67. Gretchen says:

    The Aldi only has great prices if you can get to an Aldi.

  68. Georgia says:

    I had an epiphany after 50 years of age. I just could not figure out how my mother, who never finished the 6th grade, could know how to feed us such nutritious meals. Meat or meat substitute (fried green tomatoes, yum!), only one starch besides bread, lots of veggies (fresh or canned, no freezer then for us), fruit for dessert, and once a week she would bake pie or cake for our Sunday night dessert/treat. If there was some left, we could not gorge. It went into the fridge and used for another meal. We also always had lots of freshly canned jellies and jams – pear honey, rhubarb marmalade, blackberry jam, and so on.

    And, then one day, it hit me with a big “DUH”!! We grew 90%+ of our food and the folks would send us out in the summer and go to all our neighbors in a 4 block area who had fruit trees going to waste. We would offer to pick them for half. With all that gardening and fruit picking and canning, etc., we also got tons of exercise. I am overweight but have always been extremely healthy. At almost 73, I have very mild diabetes, cholesterol (from genes), and some hypertension. All this because, when I overate it was not sweets or high cal foods. I overate on everything – fruits, veggies, starches, etc.

    With all the semi-tech we have now, even people in large cities can have gardens of good stuff – remember the hanging baskets that you can hang from the porch with tomatoes or strawberries or other items. Also, maybe we can get the nursuries to do those rolls of seeds with veggie seeds instead of flowers. Wouldn’t that be helpful?

    And yes, we do have bananas (NEMO)that cost 29-33 cents a pound often. I eat one every day I eat dry cereal.

  69. Lisa says:

    Gretchen, you are correct. I wish everyone had access to an Aldi! What I wanted to indirectly imply was that there are great bargains to be had almost anywhere. One just has to keep an eye on their local stores. The really really good deals like the potatoes at $1.49 for 10 pounds may not come along often but I know if stored correctly I can make those last two maybe three months. Now if I could only figure out how to make the .49c bagged salad they have this week last two months.

  70. Sharon says:

    I have lived in NJ in a “Food Desert”. I knew about Aldi’s and knew where one was. It was over an hour on the bus. In the opposite direction of the hour and a half I rode the bus to work. (3 hours total, after spending 9 hours at work. 12 hours a day, just to get home.)
    Even from a more local store, there are problems. Frozen food thaws, fresh fruits bruise from the bumping on the bus, and canned food is HEAVY!
    My budget and my health improved when I got a car.
    But politics and place factor into it. Milk in Jersey was more than $3 a gallon. Usually closer to $4. Soda was high at $1.39 for 2 liters. Here in Oregon, milk is usually just over $2 gallon and soda is usually $1.69 for a 2-liter. I haven’t bought too much soda here. Milk still seems like a wonderful luxury and I am “milking” it for all I can.
    City folks should grow food on their balconies? In most large cities balconies are a luxury as well. And if you have one, it may face north and a building four stories higher than yours.

  71. Jordan says:

    Dear Trent,
    I really appreciate the time you put into thinking up good solutions to the dilemma of eating well for not-too-much money. For those of us who don’t have the time to work this out for ourselves, it’s very valuable information!

  72. erzebet says:

    healthy food is very cheap. check the book “wise traditions” by sally fallon, she taught me so much and i eat so many nutrients now with so little money.

  73. mary says:

    Fresh veggies and fruits are necessary for one’s digestion, fish and nuts good for one’s brain and development. I live in the pnw and fish is plentiful and not too expensive salmon oh, my goodness and lot of cod and halibut..blackberries, marionberries, strawberries grow wild, huckelberries in the high mountain areas and foraging for wild mushrooms net a lovely bounty..one could live off the land out here if one had to..just don’t eat much meat at all, chicken, fish, nuts, berries and clams are great too..poor people don’t have much access to the wild stuff though and the fish is out of sight for most in their neighborhood markets, it rains most of the year so heat, fuel and warm clothes are costly, it just depends upon where you live in this the greatest country..please try to be non-judmental in the greatest depression since the great depression many people lost living wages which will never come back..be kind!!!!!!!!!!!

  74. Ashley says:

    Just one more thought to add to the discussion…How many of us actually need to consume 2000 calories on a daily basis?

    I am currently nursing a 5 month old baby and don’t even need to eat that many calories. 1800 is fine for me, and 1400 when I’m not nursing. (I’m a 5’4, 145 pound female). My husband who is 6’4 only eats about 1800 calories a day as well.

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