How to Eat Healthier On a Limited Food Budget

by Elliot Reimers, M.S.(C), CISSN, CNC | Reviewed by Advisory Board

how to eat healthy

Does Healthy Eating Have to Be Expensive?

Eating "healthy" has become a rather costly investment in recent decades. It’s unfortunate that foods that are low in micronutrients and high in calories, like conventional fast-food options, are also the most inexpensive. It's no wonder there is a socioeconomic divide in the United States driving the obesity epidemic and other rising health-related maladies, such as type-2 diabetes and heart disease [1].

Fresh vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and lean protein sources are generally more expensive than highly processed and canned foods. But just because traditionally "unhealthy" foods are cheaper doesn't mean there aren't ways to stretch your food budget. 

If you're curious why there are quotations around the words "healthy" and "unhealthy" when describing foods, it's because all chemicals can be healthy or unhealthy depending on the dose.

Food and beverages, being a source of nutrients (read: life-sustaining chemicals), are no exception to that rule. You can hydrate yourself to death (literally) by drinking superfluous amounts of water, the most benign and vital nutrient of all [2].

So, when we refer to certain foods as being "healthy," we're saying they are relatively dense sources of essential nutrients and low in additives (e.g. added sugar). Fresh fruit, veggies, olive oil, plain Greek yogurt, and eggs are good examples of foods that fit that description.

Establishing healthier eating habits can be quite affordable if you're a bit more selective about your food choices when grocery shopping and eating out.  

Putting a Price on Your Health

Before moving on, there’s something you should consider: If wholesome foods are a bit more expensive than "junk food," is the slight increase in cost really a dealbreaker?

If your answer to that is question is, “Yes, it is a dealbreaker,” then you probably need to reconsider how much you really care about your health and fitness goals. Sure, sugary drinks, empty-calorie fast food, and canned foods may not drag down your bank account, but when those are your main sources of nutrition, they will undoubtedly drag down your health (and likely lead to excess weight gain). After all, you only get one body.

Eating a healthy diet is the foundation of well-being and longevity. It's patently clear that essential nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and certain fatty acids play a role in disease prevention, brain function, regulating blood pressure, and numerous other biological processes [3]. In fact, people who consume at least five servings of fruits and vegetables per day generally live longer and have a lower risk of heart disease and cancer [4].

Don't get caught up in the mindset that you can’t eat healthy because it's "too expensive"; that's a silly excuse. A healthy diet doesn’t have to break the bank.

On that note, read on as we dive into how to eat healthy on a limited food budget.

Simple Tips to Cut Cost on a Healthy Diet

Be mindful that foods and drinks may fluctuate in price on a weekly or semi-weekly basis depending on where you shop for groceries. To save money, always peruse the ads for coupons and sales before you start shopping.

Many supermarkets and grocery chains also have smartphone apps that allow you to "clip" digital coupons. In some cases, you can save upwards of 30-40% on the regular price of certain foods. Every bit will add up if you take an extra 5-10 minutes to check for deals. 

Arguably the best way to cut costs on healthy foods is looking for short sales on perishable goods, especially dairy products and meat. If these foods are nearing expiration, the grocer will often offer a significant discount just to sell it before it goes bad. As long as you know you will eat it before it expires, you'll be fine. Meat can also be frozen well beyond the expiry date.

Staple Foods for Eating Healthy

To keep the following cost-saving tips simple, we will categorize healthy food choices by macronutrient group. This way you can get in the habit of viewing foods as sources of protein, carbohydrates, and/or fats.

Most veggies, for example, are rich in vitamins and fiber, while being low in calories. Lean steak, chicken breast, and egg whites are examples of complete protein sources. The better grasp you have of the nutrients in certain foods, the easier it is to create healthy eating habits. In turn, grocery shopping for nutritious foods while limiting expenses will become intuitive.

Complete Proteins

Animal Meats: Lean animal meats, such as chicken breast, canned tuna, pork loin, and 93/7 ground beef are generally the most costly portion of an omnivore's food bill, but there are still plenty of ways to cut costs here. For the most part, poultry is more affordable than beef (especially very lean beef cuts, which are increasingly spendy) and fresh fish. 

If you like having a good steak in your diet, then it might be prudent to find a local butcher shop that will cut you a deal for buying in bulk (just store whatever you don’t use immediately in the freezer). You may also want to consider buying organ meats, like beef liver, which are a bit higher in fat but still packed with protein and much more affordable. 

Dairy Products: Most low-fat dairy products are exceptional inexpensive sources of complete protein. Cottage cheese, yogurt (regular and Greek versions), and milk are notable examples. Greek yogurt may be a little pricy at times, but when you consider how much protein it has per gram, it's a fairly cost-efficient option. If you really want to save, you can buy higher-fat dairy products that are rich in protein and fat. 

Eggs: If you want to include eggs in your diet, and get the most from them, then your best bet is to eat them whole and buy in bulk (since they keep for a long time). Don’t worry too much about shelling out a bunch of extra money just to buy farm-raised eggs or “organic” eggs; it won’t make or break your healthy-eating efforts and it’s not worth it on a tight budget.

Protein Powders: While most people look at a big tub of protein powder and the associated price tag, they assume it’s not a good value. However, when you break down the cost per gram of protein, you're actually getting quite a deal. In general, whey protein powder is the best way to go, specifically whey protein concentrate (since pure whey isolate is more expensive and not necessary on a budget). Moreover, plant-based protein powders are usually well worth it for vegetarians and vegans. 

Carbohydrates

Legumes: Legumes (especially beans) are probably the most overlooked fibrous carb source, and they’re incredibly cheap. Not only that, most legumes are rife with essential micronutrients, protein, and even healthy fat sources.

They also keep you feeling fuller for longer, which is always a good thing when trying to cut fat. You can buy canned legumes or buy them raw and prepare them in bulk; either way, they are a great, inexpensive fiber-rich food. 

Vegetables & Fruits: Hands-down the most cost-effective way to shop for fruits and veggies is to buy frozen varieties. Don’t worry, frozen fruit and vegetables are still chock full of micronutrients and fiber, and they stay good for longer too. 

Keep an eye out for fresh produce sales as well; carrots, cabbage, cruciferous veggies, and leafy greens are typically less than $1.50 per pound. Fresh potatoes and root vegetables are also budget-friendly sources of complex carbs.

Whole Grains: If you want to maximize your spending, buy your whole-grain foods (e.g. oats, corn, rice, pasta, etc.) in bulk. Most grocery stores have a section where you can bag your own grains that are charged by weight, which is often a better value than pre-packaged options.

Bread products and cold cereals may also be decent, cost-effective foods when you’re looking for complex carb sources. However, be wary of the ingredients in some of these foods as they can tally up your added sugar intake in a hurry.

Essential Fats 

Cooking Oils: Most cooking oils are plant-derived (corn, palm, soybean, etc.) and dirt cheap, but it’s not ideal to use these as your primary fat sources. Instead, olive, coconut, and avocado oils are healthier options that are reasonable in terms of cost. Alternatively, switch to an olive or coconut oil cooking oil spray as these provide plenty of lubrication for pan-frying with fewer calories.

Fish/Seafood: Salmon and oily fish are a great source of omega-3 essential fatty acids, but the fresh and frozen options are expensive. It may be worthwhile to use a krill oil or fish oil supplement instead.

Nuts (and Nut Butters): Most nuts and nut butters are inexpensive sources of healthy fats. Peanut butter is by far the most affordable, but if you can score a bottle of almond or cashew butter for a decent price, go for it. You can also buy bulk nuts from most grocers for a bargain.

Avocados: Similar to olive oil, avocados are rich in monounsaturated fats that support heart health [5]. You can usually buy a medium-size avocado for $0.75 or less; not bad for a few meals-worth of heart-healthy fatty acids.

Fatty Protein Sources: As mentioned earlier, fattier cuts of animal meat (e.g. chicken thighs and pork roast), whole eggs, and whole-milk dairy products can be good sources of fat as well as protein. This is actually a great way to save money when grocery shopping on a budget since you can "kill two birds with one stone," so to speak. Don't get too carried away with whole-milk dairy and fatty meat, though. High saturated fat intake from these foods may increase the risk of heart problems over time [6].

Avoid These Pitfalls When You Want to Eat Healthy on a Tight Budget

One of the biggest mistakes people make when trying to eat healthy and lose weight on a budget is buying brand-name products and “organic” foods. The food industry uses terminology like “natural” and “organic” to justify a higher price point, but the difference of nutrient, calorie, and environmental contaminant content of organic vs. conventional foods, especially fruits and vegetables, is negligible [7]. The steep increase in price for organic produce is simply not worth it if you're trying to keep food expenses down.  

Also, avoid name-brand products whenever feasible; instead, look for generic or “off-brand” versions of those same products. Doing so can help you cut costs significantly without making much difference in terms of nutrition. Most grocery stores have their own house brand of almost every food or drink that is considerably less expensive than the name-brand counterparts.

Lastly, try and limit dining out at restaurants. This should be a no-brainer, but eating out can rack up a hefty food bill quickly if you’re not careful. And it goes without saying that cheap fast foods are not the greatest option on a healthy diet.

A typical meal when you dine out can cost as much as an entire day’s worth of food if you were to prepare your own meals. That being said, if you absolutely have to eat out, opt for affordable restaurants as opposed to five-star steakhouses. 

Of course, moderation is key. It's okay to eat some junk or go out for dinner from time to time, but a healthy diet should contain mostly wholesome foods that you cook at home.

How to Eat Healthier: Wrap-Up

Now that you have a better sense of how to eat healthier, it's essential to figure out your macronutrient needs for your specific goals. Our handy Calorie and Macronutrient Calculator can set you off on the right track.

Keep in mind that a variety of factors will determine your specific nutrient needs; there is no one-size-fits-all nutrition plan that's suitable for everyone. If you need help setting up a fat-loss diet and learning how to manipulate the foods you eat to lose weight, check out this Weight-Loss Guide.

Hopefully, after reading this article you are more confident about meeting your health and bodyweight goals on a tight budget. When you're frugal about how you spend your money on groceries, eating healthy is very doable. Remember, portion size (read: dose) is critical. There are no "unhealthy" foods as long as you control how many calories you eat and meet all your nutrient needs.

By using the tips in this guide, and keeping an eye out for deals as they come by your local grocer, you can get shredded without breaking the bank. If you’re on a tight budget, be smart about your food choices. Constantly eating out is not the most frugal way to go. You get much more for your dollar by cooking your own meals.  




Elliot Reimers, M.S.(C), CISSN, CNC
Elliot Reimers, M.S.(C), CISSN, CNC

Author

Elliot holds a B.S. in Biological Sciences from the University of Minnesota, as well as being a Certified Sports Nutritionist (CISSN) and Certified Nutrition Coach (CNC). He is currently pursuing a Master's of Science in Molecular Pharmacology and Toxicology at Michigan State University. Elliot began freelance writing circa 2012 and has since written 100s of articles and several eBooks pertaining to nutritional science, dietary supplements, exercise physiology, and health/wellness. Being a “science whiz,” he has a passion for helping people understand how nutrients (and other chemicals) and exercise work on a cellular and molecular level so they can make smarter choices about what they put in, and do with, their bodies. When Elliot is not busy writing or studying, you can find him pumping iron, hiking the mountains of beautiful Colorado, or perusing nutraceutical research.



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