Study says eating healthier does cost more, by a little ... on the front end

I've always been bewildered by people who complain about the cost of "healthy food," from fresh vegetables and fruit to local and/or organic products.

Budget-friendly healthy foods

Beans: They provide fiber, protein, iron and zinc. Dry beans are cheaper but need to be soaked. Canned beans are more convenient but should be rinsed to reduce the salt content. Canned beans are about 13 cents per quarter-cup serving. Dried beans cost 9 cents per ounce.

Bananas: They provide vitamin B6, fiber, potassium and vitamin C. They make an easy grab-and-go snack or quick topping for yogurt and cereal. Once they are the ripeness you prefer, place them in the fridge. The peels will turn black, but the banana itself will keep. Or, peel and freeze for using in smoothies. Cost is about 36 cents each.

Peanut Butter: One tablespoon of crunchy or smooth peanut butter has around 95 calories, 4 grams of protein and 8 grams of heart-healthy unsaturated fat. Choose natural peanut butter if possible. Cost for 2 tablespoons is about 27 cents.

Whole-Grain Pasta: It provides more fiber, protein and vitamins than regular pasta. Plan ahead as it takes longer to cook. One ounce of dry whole-grain pasta is about 14 cents.

Frozen Peas: Frozen vegetables are an excellent alternative to fresh. Frozen peas are full of protein, fiber and vitamin A. They're easy to toss into soups, salads, rice, pasta dishes and stews. They cost about 23 cents per half-cup.

ALMONDS: They're packed with heart-healthy unsaturated fat and vitamin E. Save money by buying unsalted raw or blanched almonds in bulk. Cost for an ounce of almonds is about 55 cents.

EGGS: Protein is one of the most expensive components to people's diets. Eggs are cost effective at about 11 cents per egg and provide a source of high-quality protein. They're also very versatile. Have a bowl of hard-cooked eggs in your fridge at all times for a quick breakfast or snack, or to add to a lunch or dinner salad.

Yogurt: Plain or nonfat yogurt is an excellent source of calcium and protein. It can make a good substitute for sour cream or mayonnaise when you want to cut fat in recipes. To save money, buy yogurt in large tubs instead of single-serve containers. Buy plain yogurt and add your own flavorings such as hot chocolate powder mix or granola/cereal or canned fruit in its own juice. Cost for 6 ounces is about 60 cents.

Canned Tuna: It's packed with protein, heart-healthy omega-3 fats, selenium and B vitamins. Choose packed in water instead of oil. Chunk light tuna has less mercury than albacore. Have it on hand for quick meals such as tuna salad sandwiches or tuna on green salads. Tuna cost about 27 cents per ounce. (Note: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends that pregnant women, women of childbearing age and children limit their consumption of canned tuna. The FDA advises these groups to eat no more than 6 ounces of white, or albacore tuna, and no more than 12 ounces of chunk light tuna, each week.)

Source: Melissa Joy Dobbins, registered dietitian, and spokesperson, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics; Dec. 5, 2013, BMJ Open.

One former colleague tried to tease me about it until I'd ask him how much the case of Budweiser cost him on every shopping trips.

Granted, I know the working poor and other families living below the poverty line often struggle to buy food, but for people who can afford the food, they should make the investment.

Nothing is more important than what you put in your body.

True costs

A new study released recently by the British Medical Journal confirmed what most of us kind of knew: Healthier food does cost more. But not as much as many would expect.

The BMJ's review incorporated findings from 27 studies in 10 countries during an 11-year period and found that it costs about $550 a year more, or $1.48 a day more, to eat healthier. But there is a caveat of sorts.

First, what was considered healthy versus unhealthy? The review labeled healthier options as fruits, vegetables, fish and nuts and labeled less healthy options as processed foods, meats and refined grains.

Meats and proteins showed the biggest difference in price, with healthier options costing 29 cents more per serving than less healthy options. Think the difference between a boneless, skinless chicken breast versus a fried chicken "nugget."

The review hypothesizes the reason for healthier food costing more is that "many decades of policies focused on producing inexpensive, high-volume commodities have led to a complex network of farming, storage, transportation, processing, manufacturing and marketing capabilities that favor sales of highly processed food products for maximal industry profit."

Still, study author Mayuree Rao, a junior research fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health, said in a statement that, "For many low-income families, this (cost difference) could be a genuine barrier to healthy eating."

For example, a family of four following the USDA's thrifty eating plan has a weekly food budget of about $128. An extra $1.50 a day for each person in the family adds up to $42 for the week, or about 30 percent of that family's total food tab.

There are other factors, too, not considered in the study, such as less privileged people living in "food deserts" who would have to spend even more money on transportation to get to stores offering healthier options.

Eat at home

While this may be sacrilege to say in a town filled with great and, often expensive, restaurants, one key factor in saving money is eating at home.

Registered dietitian Catherine Grych, director of H2U at Trident Health, says she thinks many people have departed from cooking at home and don't realize the savings of it.

"With the appeal of $1 value menus and two-for-a-dollar chips and cookies, the healthy food it takes to cook a whole meal for a family seems expensive," says Grych.

"Eating well takes time and preparation, regardless of your budget. Getting in the habit of making a grocery list, looking at sale papers, and planning ahead can help individuals and families get healthy foods they need for a reduced cost," she adds.

Grych suggests that those on a budget avoid "trendy health foods like chia seeds" that drive up grocery bills.

"Wholesome whole foods like beans, low sodium canned vegetables and nut butters are much more affordable and are often found at discount stores like Family Dollar," she says.

The bigger picture

There's also the whole concept of paying more now to avoid paying a lot more later, says Grych.

"Most importantly, while less healthy foods are inexpensive, they also tend to contribute to chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension. Paying less for food now can mean paying more for medication and health later. Food is the best preventative medicine."

Reach David Quick at 937-5516.

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