A study conducted in the UK found that a healthy diet costs 3 times that of an unhealthy diet. Although conducted in 2014, it was based on equal calorie comparison, and for many health and wellness professionals this is not considered the best way to assess the cost of food. The theory was that if you purchase say a doughnut for $2 with 1000 calories, you would need to spend $6 on healthy food items to match that 1000 calories….interesting methodology!
Comparing the cost of a healthy vs. unhealthy diet is always subjective; what one considers healthy may not be healthy to another. In order to gain a better understanding, a comparison of cost and calorific value of two different diets were made. Firstly looking at what would be an average (somewhat ‘unhealthy’) diet:
Breakfast: 500ml Ice Break
Morning tea: Coffee and 2 x biscuits
Lunch: Takeaway sandwich & 375ml Coke
Afternoon tea: Muesli bar
Dinner: Chicken breast, vegetables, mashed potato, with pre-packed sauce.
This is fairly unhealthy, and it is important to note that consumption of alcohol and desserts has been excluded. This average diet will cost about $14 a day, with the assumption most people eat out for breakfast or lunch a few times a week (if lunch was brought in from home such as a sandwich it would drop to around $10 a day). This diet will give you approximately 2200 calories, with about 250gms of carbs and 100gms of protein, with an excessive amount of sodium (2500mg) and saturated fat (32 gms). As you can see that this is not a super high calorie diet but the presence of excessive amounts of sodium, sugars and processed fats (which is mainly from pre packed and takeaway food) can have a huge impact on your health.
Now a diet that would be considered ‘healthier’. Please note this diet does not include any pre-packaged or takeaway food.
Breakfast: Oats with 250ml of low fat milk and a teaspoon of honey
Morning tea: Banana and yoghurt
Lunch: Tuna and rice
Afternoon tea: Small handful almonds (10 – 12) and 1 x Apple
Dinner: Steak with vegetables and avocado
Surprisingly this ‘healthy diet’ will actually cost you less, coming in around $12 a day and will give you about 1600 calories, with 170gms of carbs and 105 gms of protein. The micronutrient contents of these two diets has not been compared but it is obvious to see that the ‘healthy’ diet will have much higher micronutrient level than the average diet, and works out more cost effective! Just choosing the right snack food and eliminating any pre packed and takeaway food can reduce the daily calorie consumption without sacrificing on the macro and micro nutrients.
For example, 1kg of almonds comes in around $22, which can seem a bit expensive! What people don’t realise is that it can last about 10 weeks; subsequently the $2 packet of biscuits seems much cheaper but ends up costing the same amount over 10 weeks.
It is important to ask how many calories do you actually need? Comparing food items by equal calories will naturally result in healthy food being more expensive, but it is very important to consider where those calories are coming from.
The macro and micronutrients essential for our body are almost never considered. Most weight loss articles and blogs do not emphasize the importance of nutrient levels. Different calorie sources results in different effects on hunger, hormones, energy expenditure (in metabolizing that calorie) and the brain regions that control food intake. Simple changes in food selection can lead to better (and more cost effective) results than just calorie restriction.