Is it more expensive to eat healthily?

Overheard at a party: Poor people are fat because it costs so much to eat healthy (sic).

If we ignore for the sake of discussion the gross generalization, do you believe it is cheaper to eat badly?

I am a 43 year old bachlor (sp) and I confess that I am too lazy to cook for myself on a regular basis, so I am not an expert. But I do know that a can of soup is cheaper than a bag of chips. A bag of potatoes are cheaper than a frozen pizza. A can of tuna is cheaper than - well you get the idea. However, I do not have to cook for a family and so I can’t really say. What do you guys think?

In certain contexts it is more expensive in my experience. At a fast food chain restaurant, a salad is way more expensive than an order of fries.

IMO price has very little to do with it. It’s easier to eat badly, and it’s also much more tempting.

If you’re tired/busy/depressed and don’t want to cook from scratch, unhealthy convenience food tends to cost less than healthy convenience food. Hamburgers usually cost a lot less than fresh sandwiches, veggie burgers, or big salads. Poor people may live in areas where there are more convenience stores (always expensive) than supermarkets, and may have little access to fresh produce.

I think part of it depends on what you mean by “healthy.” If you eat a lot of beans and pasta and such, that’s often cheaper than crap convenience foods. However, those foods tend to be starchy, and there’s a lot of debate about whether or not they’re actually good for you or not. If you’re talking lean meat and out-of-season produce, the convenience foods are often cheaper.

I think scale also has to be included in the topic. It seems (and, no, I have not run the numbers on this) that feeding a medium sized or large family healthy food may be cheaper than feeding a a medium sized or large family convenience foods. But feeding a single person convenience food seems cheaper than feeding that person healthily.

In my experience, in food as in many things in life, you can spend time, or you can spend money.

It’s more expensive to eat healthy if you don’t have any time. If you do have time, it’s much cheaper and healthier to make food than it is to eat pre-packaged junk food. If you have the time and know-how to start with a whole chicken, that’s real cheap. If you have the space for a freezer, that can make things really cheap. It’s true that, say, fresh red bell peppers are expensive, sure. But there’s lots of vegetables that are cheaper, or even easy to grow in your garden if you really have time - anybody who’s ever said “Oh, let’s plant zucchini this year!” knows that, to their chagrin.

If you don’t have any time to cook for yourself, I think it can be expensive to eat well, especially if you don’t know enough about cooking to know what you don’t need to buy pre-prepared, for example. But if you have the time and facilities, it’s a lot cheaper to eat healthy because pre-prepared foods are so much more expensive than, say, a whole chicken, a bunch of raw spinach (not pre-washed), etc.


I found this out by personal experience a few weeks ago where I had just moved and bugeted very badly and only had $10 to feed me for a week. I had almost no staples in the house besides ketchup, and had to go with mostly pre-packaged foods as opposed to my normally very fresh and healthy diet. Simple white carbs are so much cheaper than the alternatives and can easily take the center stage of a diet, but they don’t keep you full and they have almost no nutritional value beyond calories, so you find yourself eating twice as much of them.

It not like truly poor people are going to go out and buy 10 bags of Lays and a case of Coke. When given a choice between canned soup and Ramen, Ramen was 8 for 1. Saltines were .50, as opposed to the wheat bread I normally get. A bag of dried beans and some canned tomatos with some chili seasoning mix was the extent of my fruits and vegetables for that week.

It also takes much more of the bad stuff to fill you up than the good, so instead of salads and casseroles I found myself eating 800 calories of almost pure water, salt and carbs without feeling truly full. I baked a loaf of fresh bread out of the flour and yeast I had bought the week before, and that lasted about 2 days, when it would’ve lasted me at least a week if I had had more to supplement it with.

I estimate that I gained about a pound that week alone. Now, this was an extreme situation and I doubtless could’ve done better than I did with my $10, but I remember my mom struggling to buy milk and protein sources and fruit after she divorced and we had a very small grocery budget. She did an excellent job and learned how to really utilize those dry goods and bulk items, but it was time intensive and complicated. If she had been working full time I don’t know that she could’ve done it.

Just my $.02

I agree with this 100%. And if we circle back to the OP, poor people often have less free time (working two jobs, more likely to have have to take the bus to the grocery store, possibility of looking after house-bound grandma etc).

I totally agree with what Tapioca and Sofia said. When I was not permitted to drive for a while due to a health problem, getting healthy food was expensive, dangerous, and extraordinarily time consuming. Since I couldn’t drive, I walked to a neighborhood market. Unfortunately, said market was located in a very dangerous part of town, which was one reason that few fruits or vegetables were ever delivered there. Also, not many people ever purchased them, so they were marked up to more than twice the price of the market in the nicer neighborhood, even though most were rotten or bruised. It was dangerous to get there, too way too much time, and was ridiculously expensive, and the store was more of a convenience store, so there weren’t many packs of frozen fruits or veggies, either, and there were no bags of frozen chicken or fish, so that wasn’t an option. Plus, there were no spices to make what healthy food was available taste good. Taking the bus to the nice neighborhood took a lot of time, and it was too hard to carry bags and bags of healthy food on the bus, so I had to take a cab, which was outlandishly expensive, but the food was far cheaper. Cost often depends on where you are and what your markets have access to, and what you yourself can afford (transportation costs, etc).

Although I agree with the time vs. money arguments already made, I think it’s important to note that within both categories, eating out vs. cooking, it’s more expensive to eat healthy. That means that a poor person living the exact same schedule as someone more well off will consistently eat worse. You can cook healthy for cheap, but not nearly as healthy as if you have money. Lean meats, fresh fish, real fruit juice, whole grains, and a variety of good fresh produce are more expensive than their less healthy counterparts. And if you’re poor, you also have a lot more incentive to go with super cheap, incredibly unhealthy prepackaged meals like Top Ramen and prepared frozen foods. When you do eat out, you’re stuck with fast food, which is of course incredibly unhealthy.

Being the breadwinner in my little family and not making much money, I can say without a doubt that it’s harder, more expensive and more time consuming to make a healthy meal for two people than it is for four or five.

We tried to do the South Beach diet (moderately low carb) and found it impossible to buy enough food to keep full without supplementing with carbs like rice and pasta without breaking the bank.

I can roast a chicken, but I have to be there to roast it. I get home around 8:30pm, which often means pasta for dinner, or prepackaged stuff, if I want to eat before 11pm. I recently got a crock pot, but that still requires a lot of planning, and a roast that will feed us and give us leftovers can be quite expensive.

We also tend to buy food one meal at a time and buy lots of frozen and dried stuff. Fresh vegetables go bad too quickly to make them a viable option for our kitchen. If I buy a whole head of spinach and make a spinach salad, I waste half of it by leaving it in the fridge for a few days before I want spinach again, for example.

Yes very much so. Both on quantity of food and nutritional value of food. I remember reading an article saying the poor ate much larger percentages of their foods from grains like spaghetti & bread than the middle class. These provide several thousand calories per dollar spent, while healthy foods like fruits and vegetables provide almost no calories per dollar spent. A person needs to spend alot more money on fruits and vegetables if they are to get their 1800 or 2900 or whatever number of calories they need to avoid starvation by buying fruits and vegetables than if they were buying grains.

A 2 liter of generic soda is 50-60 cents at its cheapest, a half gallon of orange juice is $2 at its cheapest for example.

A bag of potato chips provides much more nutrition than a can of soup, a person can ‘survive’ on 2 bags of potato chips a day they can’t survive on 2 cans of soup a day.

However some nutritious, healthy foods (depending on how youd efine healthy. Some consider it low fat, some low carb, some high fiber, some high nutrients, some low GI, etc) are relatively cheap. Water, potatoes, beans, peanut butter and milk all come to mind.

The time vs. money argument is… on the money, but a lot depends on the meaning of healthy. Not only is it possible to eat healthy in a cheap way, millions of people do so worldwide (most with little choice).

If healthy means “fresh salad”, fruits and vegetables can be expensive out of season. But canned and frozen produce is also healthy, and often cheaper. Potatoes, onions, lentils, pasta, rice, couscous, dried and canned beans are healthy and cheap.

Whole chickens and tuna can be cheap. Extra lean ground beef is not. Healthy meals including chile, soups, homeade breads, etc. take time but can be cheap.

“Low carb” is not the same as healthy. Avoiding carbs means making sacrifices or paying for (generally expensive) substitutes. If you are happy with chile, chicken, processed vegetables it can be done. If you avoid restaurants so much the better. If you want fresh salad and fish, you’ll pay more. Having spent eleven years in uni, I can eat reasonably well and reasonably healthy on the cheap, but don’t expect to be eating processed (and thus quick to make) things.

I agree w/ that statement, but realise that people have different definitions of “healthy foods”. Mine comes from the low-carb side, and truly believe that refined carbs are the bane of humanity. That said, I have come up with a saying, not really from a health standpoint, but a anti-temptation standpoint:

  • “Carbohydrates are Free” *
  • Kanicbird Circa 1998

Which mean when food is offered free it will almost always be carb based, and since carbs are free (according to kanicbirds quote) that food they are offering is worthless and therefore not worth consuming.

Milk is $3 a gallon. You can buy four liters of soda for $1. Milk also goes bad if you don’t drink it; soda takes a lot longer, if you can deal with drinking it flat. When I was broke I lived on koolaid and store-brand orange soda.

Also, what everybody else said about carbs. Koolaid, orange soda, ramen, and spaghetti were my staples. The only meat I got was in the ramen flavoring.

You also have to keep in mind the other things you meed to keep around to cook. To make a hamburger, for example, you need to have buns which are relatively expensive and come in packs of 8. You also need condiments.

If you start out with no food in the house, buying everything you need to make a meal is expensive. Just going to McDonalds is mich cheaper.

All depends, many people on weight loss diets chop the amount of calories drastically, and also depend on what you want to add to your 2 cans of soup a day…
Campbells split pea with ham and bacon :
Nutrition Facts*
Amount Per Serving (serving size) = 1/2 cup
Calories 180
Total Fat 3.5g
Total Carb. 27g
Dietary Fiber 5g
Sugars 4g
Protein 10g

there being 2 servings per can of soup - makes it 720 calories per day, 7 grams of fat, 54 grams of carbs, 10 grams of fiber, 8 grams of sugars and 20 grams of protein.

I have seen people on an 800 cal a day diet for severe weight loss, and if you added cheap bread [packet of yeast is abotu $1US, and if you make a lavin, or sourdough starter and keep it alive, you have eternal yeast to make bread with. Flour, water and salt are all you need. Salt is very cheap per pound, water is available in your kitchen sink and flour can be very cheap if you go for generic basic white bleached flour. Add a loaf of bread a day, and the 2 cans of soup though boring would actually emulate a menu common to many eras in our history. If you wanted to add carrots, cabbage, onions and alfalfa sprouts to your diet, they are all fairly cheap as well. [alfalfa seed is available in many health food stores and that little package goes a fairly long way and can be sprouted at home dead easy.]

When I was very broke, I would make a pot of cabbage soup and that would be my food for the entire day, all 3 meals - 1 spicy italian sausage out of a package of 6, 1 onion, chopped, 2 stalks celery, chopped, 1 potato chopped, 2 cups chopped cabbage, water, tsp of generic italian herbs and a chicken bouillion cube. I kept a sourdough starter living in my fridge, and baked up a loaf a day, and made a lot of cabbage soup=)

Back in 1986 this cost me about $2 US for the day. I would also make a ramen soup - 1 packet ramen, 1 carrot, 1 celery, 1 chicken wing, seasoning packet. Also dead cheap.

Yes. Weve had to increase our food budget by almost $200 a month to accommodate a switch from some vegetables to many vegetables. At my grocery right now, broccoli is over a dollar a pound, tomatoes are more than $3.50, English (hydroponic) cucumbers are $2.00 each, and peppers are also $2.00 each. A salad for lunch and one for dinner costs $10 for vegetables alone in the winter. Throw in protein and it’s $2-3.00 more. On the other hand, I could get a bag of white hamburger buns for a dollar and a pound of low-grade ground beef for $2.50 and still have a coke, chips, a two-pack of cookies and still spend less than the veggies cost. Unfortunately for me, this would kick me into diabetes and ultimately cost a lot more than its superficial cost.

As noted above, buying in bulk may not be feasible for poor people. I’ve tried to get my students to consider warehouse shopping (6 peppers are $6.00 at CostCo, e.g.) but they can’t afford it. I’m organizing some warehouse trips this winter so that my students can get big packages and split the costs.

As for eating out, I can get a burger, bun, fries, and a pickle for $7 at a reasonably cheap restaurant, but the dinner salads cost $10-12.00. Subway or McD’s is cheaper, but the salads are limp, mostly lettuce, and (if they have meat in them) still very salty. And the dressing has more calories and fat (and sometimes sugar) than the salad.

Well, we used to live off of rice and pasta with a little meat thrown in to take the edge off. 2 week grocery bill? About $50.

Now we started Atkins and eat fresh vegetables with every meal, decent cuts of meat, soy milk, tofu, and cheese and spent about $200 every two weeks. So I’d say it’s much, much cheaper to eat food that’s bad for you. I was doing it for years.

One thing that did help that transition was that we were forced to stop eating out for lunch and dinner. I doubt we spent $150 every two weeks eating out, but every little bit counts.