Does it Really Cost More to Eat Healthy?

I want to talk to you about two subjects virtually everyone is interested in: food and money.

Specifically, I want to address the frequently heard complaint that it costs much more to eat healthy.

Don’t worry—I’m not going to give you a lecture about how much broccoli you could eat for the price of a Big Mac, or how, if you were really inventive, you could make a four course nutrient dense meal for the price of two large bags of Dorito’s and a 2 liter coke.

That stuff may be true, but it doesn’t speak to your experience, which is that calories are generally cheap, and good food (like grass-fed meat) isn’t. And that it takes a lot of work (and time!) to make healthy food that’s economically viable, while dropping by the take-out window at Taco Bell takes neither.

So let me start by saying two words about that: It’s true.

And let me follow it with two more: So what?

Now before you think I’m being calloused and unsympathetic, hear me out. When President Herbert Hoover spoke inspiringly of putting “a chicken in every pot”, chicken was an expensive commodity—in 1930, you’d pay a whopping $6.48 a pound for chicken (in today’s currency). Last year, in contrast, the price was $1.57.

So this is a good thing, right?

Well, yes and no.

See, one of the casualties of modern life is we’ve lost the ability to think ahead. We’re so focused on the now, on immediate ratification, that few of us stop to think of long range costs. This is why we have a credit card crisis in America. This is why “buy now pay later” is virtually the national anthem. And it affects every area of our lives. People lease cars based on how much their monthly payment is, not how much the real cost of the lease is over 3 years. We pay the minimum requirements on our credit card. We eat what tastes delicious now and figure we’ll start our diet “tomorrow”. Everything in modern life is skewed to sacrifice long range consequences on the altar of immediate reward. If it feels good now, do it—and worry about the consequences later.

And you can see just how well that’s been working out.

So sure, we can now get chicken for a buck and a half a pound. But the real costs of that “bargain” are hidden. Chickens are bred to grow breasts so large that they literally topple over and can barely breathe or stand. They are shot full of hormones, steroids and antibiotics (a contributing factor in the looming crisis around antibiotic-resistant bacteria). Many health professionals feel the “meat-cancer” connection that seems to show up in some association studies has little to do with meat and everything to do with the chemicals and hormones that the meat is filled with.

Sure, you can buy that kind of meat a lot cheaper than you can buy pasture-raised. But you’re kicking the can down the road. You may not be paying more cash at the register right now—but payment will come due just as sure as death and taxes, and it won’t be cheap.

That many diseases and conditions are lifestyle related is no longer in doubt. Lifestyle choices—and dietary choices especially—have a huge influence on cancer, cognitive impairment, diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. Calories are cheap in the standard American Diet, but the costs of that diet are anything but. You just don’t have to pay for them right now.

But pay for them you will. Make absolutely no mistake about that.

So does it cost more money to eat healthy? Sure it does—at least at first. But it costs even more not to eat well. You might not notice it right now, today, at the cash register. But a decade or two from now, the bill will come due.

And it won’t be fun.

Look, one of the most difficult lessons any of us as parents have to teach our children is to look at the long range picture. A 20 year old doesn’t care about what happens when he’s forty (let alone sixty)—he cares about Friday night. (That’s why it’s so hard to get kids to save money.)

But are we adults really any different?

Look, I have an advantage over a lot of you in that I’m in my 60’s and I know how this game turns out. I’m passionate about making people understand how much it matters to eat well when they’re younger because I know what it feels like “on the other side”. I’m 67, look 47, feel 37, and act 27. I have boundless energy. I get up without an alarm clock at 6 AM. I play tennis every day. I have a healthy libido and a wonderful relationship. I have a great career, amazing health, an optimistic outlook and I look forward to every day.

And I know—I know—that’s because I’ve been eating well (albeit a bit more “expensively”) since I was 38. And, like a person who’s been putting a few bucks away every month since he’s twenty and now, at 70, is enjoying millionaire status, I’m enjoying the results of 30 years of spending a little more and eating a little better.

And I can tell you that it’s worth it. Big time.

So does meat from grass-fed cows, eggs from free-range chicken, organic coffee and milk and strawberries and all the rest of it cost more? Sure it does. In the short run.

But if you can lift your head over the horizon to see the long view, that extra cash you’re laying out now will pay off in benefits you can’t even imagine.

Do the math. And then tell me whether or not it’s worth it.

I think it’s a no-contest. How about you?

Author: Jonny Bowden

Jonny Bowden, PhD, CNS, (aka "The Rogue Nutritionist") is a nationally known expert on weight loss, nutrition and health. He is a board-certified nutritionist with a master’s degree in psychology and the author of fourteen books on health, healing, food and longevity including two best-sellers, “The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth” and “Living Low Carb”.

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12 Comments

  1. Ever since i started eating right three months ago, its been Great! Losing weight,inches i will make it was 250lb now at 240lb.My goal is 160lb by Dec of this year ; )

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  2. You are right on the mark as usual. I’m in my late 50’s and have been taking your advice (and others) for years and I too look younger than my years and definitely feel much younger. It is worth the cost and as you get accustomed to eating well you find ways to minimize the costs. It’s also worth a mention that eating well was a process that took years to develop (at least for me). I slowly adjusted and adapted my diet to be eating a fully real food diet. Thanks Jonny for all you do

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  3. BRAVO Jonny !! It takes SO much time and money to forage out the organic produce and grass fed meat and prepare it, but like you say, it pays off in dividends !!! The energy and vitality eating mindfully creates is PRICELESS !!!!!!!!!!!!!

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  4. Jonny, have you read the excellent article in the Atlantic by James Hamblin (Science Compared Every Diet, and the Winner is Real Food)? It’s about a study of all the major diets by Dr. David Katz, head of Yale University’s Prevention Research Center, who is apparently very well respected and unbiased. Guess what? The diet he recommends is almost exactly what you’ve been recommending for years. It’s nice to have some confirmation from a scientist with no agenda. I highly recommend this article to everyone.

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  5. Another great article! As with some previous comments I have been paying more and loving the healthy results! The proper combination of veggies, fruits, and quality proteins can really change your life; it’s almost like a natural energy drink/boost!

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  6. There are “poor” people, like myself who literally do not have the money to consistently pay for “clean/organic/no hormones/no antibiotic” food.. I try my hardest and do the best I can to read labels and meet in the middle with the food I buy. I am blessed that sometimes I am able to find deals at local shops on meat and milk. But there are people much less fortunate than myself whose main goal is to simply feed their children. They can only get food at the food bank. Articles like this make me feel like because I can’t always pay for this food, that my quality of life won’t be the same as those who can. It’s basically telling people that because you literally have no extra 20 bucks to add to your grocery bill, it will eventually catch up with your health. I think we still need to inform everyone the difference of these foods, but also keep in mind there are people who might not be able to make that change. Maybe we could focus our attention on tips and ways to find deals on these foods .

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    • I always tell people to do the best they can. If buying pure organic isn’t possible, look at the Dirty Dozen and buy those organic. If grass-fed beef and wild salmons are out of your price range, have more legumes and other plant-based foods and less meat. Nutrition shouldn’t be elitist and everyone, regardless of income, should be able to sustain a healthy diet.

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    • Leslie, you are eating expensive luxury foods. Ditch the meat and the milk; buy whole grain pasta; brown rice; beans; lentils; etc. Even if they’re not organic, they’ll be as close to it as you can get, and will still offer immense health benefits, while REDUCING your grocery bill. I’ve been poor most of my life too. My grandparents raised 7 kids during the Great Depression…and they all lived into their 80’s & 90’s just eating simple peasant meals- just because it was “real food”. The sick thing is: Most “poor people” you see- the ones on the dole/food stamps, are usually obese! They eat too much, and everything they eat is junk- and that junk and convenience food is much more expensive than simple real food.

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  7. It can actually be cheaper (even now) to eat healthy, than to eat junk. Things like whole wheat pasta (a meal of pasta and home-made sauce = <$1); brown rice & beans; greens and beans; lentils; split peas; etc. all cheap as dirt- Avoid the fancy stuff- Don't replace regular meat with organic grass-fed…just give it up. I'm 52; been eating good since I was 23. Haven't been to a doctor since 1978. It works! (And yet people tell me I'm "irresponsible" because I've never had health insurance! This is how sick the typical American mind is, today.)

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  8. I always put this in mind that it is more expensive when you are admitted in the hospital compared to buying healthy foods. Mostly, people are stingy when it comes to their health. They prefer cheap, canned, and unhealthy fast foods and then later on their health suffers. They got to spend a lot through hospitalization and medicines in the long run. I hope that this article will help the public to be aware that they need to choose and buy healthy foods though it cost a bit but will save them from lots of money to be spend in the medicines and treatment.

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