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There’s currently a discussion on CBC.ca: Cost a factor in Canadians’ diets. Apparently 54% of low- and middle-income people think that cost is a “significant obstacle” to eating healthy food.

“Cost is a significant barrier to healthier lifestyles for those making less than $75,000 a year,” said Jack Bensimon, president of Bensimon Byrne, the Toronto-based advertising agency that commissioned the study for its quarterly Consumerology Report, in a release.Other reasons for a less-than-ideal diet included insufficient willpower, the availability of healthy foods, lack of time, and inconvenience.

According to this article, Healthy eating costs more than junk food, study says, the cost of calorie-poor, nutrient rich food is rising against the cost of less-healthy, high-calorie food.

They found the price of the lowest-calorie fruits and vegetables was more than $18.16 per 1,000 calories, while the high calorie foods cost $1.76 per 1,000 calories.

The foods they studied were green vegetables, tomatoes and berries. As if anyone’s going to get their entire caloric intake from those three foods…

I don’t disagree with the results of the study, but the assumptions it is based upon are misleading. The study says that calorie for calorie, nutrient-rich food is more expensive than nutrient-poor food, and getting moreso. Well, duh. That has been true for a long time (since the advent of processed flour, I’m guessing).

In other words, the study looked at the contrast in cost between foods that are high in calories (junk food, processed food) and those that are low in calories (vegetables and some fruits), and found that the densest foods calorically had the fewest nutrients, and vice-versa. Consequently, the cheapest way to get your daily calorie requirements is to consume the most nutrient-poor foods, and getting your daily caloric requirements from nutrient-rich foods is more expensive, because many of them have so few calories.

But so what, really? First, the majority of us in the Western world (even low-income people) get too many calories, so sacrificing a few calories for nutrition isn’t a concern for most. Second, the study focuses on vegetables, calorie-for-calorie the most nutrient-rich foods available. So… if I want to eat 1800 calories worth of veggies a day it’s going to cost me a lot more money than 1800 calories worth of donuts and potato chips. Hmmm… again, well duh. Most of us neither need nor choose to get all our calories from veggies, and the addition of some healthy calorie-rich foods to plump up our diet will help to balance our budgets and our calorie intake.

In other words, if you choose inexpensive veggies and fruit and augment them with healthy, economical and nutrient-dense proteins, carbohydrates and fats, you will be able to meet your calorie requirements without breaking the bank.

The article did make one good point, which I agree with wholeheartedly; that the government (US government in this case because it was a US study, but it could apply to us here in Canada too) must alter the way it subsidises agriculture, which is currently skewed in favour of factory farms and cash crops.

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There’s long been a myth that eating more healthfully has to be more expensive, but that doesn’t have to be true. If you’re eating hand-picked, organic, heirloom variety amaranth with cruelty-free sheep’s feta and artesian capers every meal, then yeah, it’s going to be pretty expensive. But if you keep the specialty foods to a minimum, eating healthily should actually be cheaper than eating processed, packaged empty calories. In fact, many studies show that the more processed and packaged a food is, the more expensive it is. And throughout the world, the most resourceful cooks choose unprocessed foods to save money.

Here are 5 tips for improving your diet without adding to your food bill:

Choose less-expensive produce. Not if it’s not nice or if you really don’t want to eat it, but most of us have a wide enough variety to choose from that we can pick a few fruits and veggies that we feel like eating from among the less-expensive produce. For instance: at my green-grocer’s today, grapes were $4.99/lb and bananas were $.29/lb. Asparagus was $3.99/lb and both yams and beets were $.49/lb. ALL are nutrient-rich!

Don’t buy anything that you don’t feel like eating. It seems like a no-brainer, but food isn’t the place for best intentions. Buy healthy food that you have a good chance of eating, give the stuff that you’d have to force down like medicine a pass.

Comparison shop between stores. Produce and other healthy items vary remarkably in price, and you can’t always assume where it’s going to be cheaper. Avocadoes at my local store are $.89 each, at a large grocery store $1.29 each and at Costco, almost $2 each. I’m not suggesting going to 6 different stores for your groceries, but seek out the best-priced produce in your neighbourhood. Furthermore, such staples as spices and whole grains can be much more reasonably priced at certain types of stores, such as those serving particular cultural groups, than at your local supermarket or health-food store. For instance, I go to a South Asian store to buy beans, nuts, spices and brown basmati rice in bulk, at a substantial savings over any other store. And those chipotle peppers that are sold in packets of three for a fortune? Cheap as air in bulk at Mexican delis.

Limit expensive proteins. Meat, eggs, meat analogues and processed dairy are all very expensive, and we can get more than adequate protein with less-expensive alternatives. Beans, whole grains and simple soy products (like tofu and soymilk as opposed to TVP or veggie hot dogs) are high in protein, provide calories, and are packed with nutrients. And they’re much cheaper! Even canned beans are cheaper than many other proteins, but if you soak your own dried beans, you’re saving even more.

Choose less-processed foods. Rather than stocking up on organic salad dressing, gourmet vegetarian frozen dinners and ancient grain cereals, emphasise simpler, unprocessed alternatives. Three or four staple grains, several varieties of beans, some nuts and dried fruit, lots of inexpensive produce, and some more expensive protein and specialty foods for fun and variety will more than do you, and probably reduce your grocery bills.

 

Resources:

Cheap and healthy recipes – a bunch of mainstream homey recipes on faqs.org

Great Depression Cooking with Clara – ultra-inexpensive recipes by a woman who cooked her way through the Great Depression – on YouTube

8 Budget-healthy superfoods – ultra-nutritious foods to add to your grocery cart, plus recipes

Cheap Healthy Good – a blog devoted entirely to cheap, healthy, good food

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