When going out to the grocery store, we are faced with thousands of different food choices. According to the Food Marketing Institute, your average grocery store has up to 47,000 different products! Yikes, that is a lot of food and a lot of choices.

Faced with so many choices, many of us narrow down our options by price. The combination of tight food budgets and the overwhelming amount of choices at the store, can make it seem easier and more economical to buy cheap, energy-dense food (foods high in calories with little nutrient benefits).

Refined foods with added sugars and fats are typically cheaper than the recommended “healthy” foods like whole grains, lean meats, nuts, seeds, and fresh fruits and vegetables. An American Society for Nutritional Sciences study showed that there is an inverse relationship between energy density and the cost of food. Convenient and processed foods that are high in fat, sugar, and calories represent the lowest-cost options for consumers. These high calorie/low nutrient foods, however, offer little fiber or nutrients, which can leave the consumer hungry. What often follows is over-snacking, grazing, and overeating, which can easily contribute to weight gain.

These low-priced processed food options may seem like the cheap option, but the combination of overeating and consuming few nutrients can mean expensive health costs in the future. When you eat a diet full of cheap, high-calorie food it becomes very easy to put away more calories than you are burning. The cost is obesity, and obesity is expensive. Obesity is associated with a slew of health issues, such as diabetes, cancer, stroke, high blood pressure, and many other problems.

It may seem that buying a bag of potato chips for $1 is cheaper than buying a pint of strawberries for $3, but when looking at the long term cost it is clear that the strawberries are worth the extra two dollars.

Eating a diet that is filled with whole grains, lean meats, healthy fats, and fresh fruits and vegetables is an investment into your present and future health. But eating healthy food does not always have to have a high upfront cost. Here are a few tips to help you save on your food budget while staying healthy:

  • Buy less expensive sources of protein, such as tofu, canned tuna, beans, lentils, edamame, peas, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, soba noodles, quinoa, eggs, canned mackerel, cottage cheese, and milk.
  • Buy in bulk. Try to buy your non-perishable staples in bulk, such as olive oil, whole wheat flour, nuts, oats, and rice.
  • Avoid eating at restaurants.
  • Buy what is in season. To find out more about foods that are currently in season check out Sustainable.org’s Seasonal Food guide.
  • Shop during sales and use coupons.
  • Buy frozen produce.
  • Be organized! Know the foods you have and make a list before you shop.
  • Grow your own food, even if you just have room for a windowsill herb garden.
  • Shop the farmers market.

With a little time and practice, eating healthy on a budget can become second nature. You and your health are worth the investment.

Kimberly Evans MS, RD is a clinical nutritionist and Shannon McKenna is a nutrition intern at the UVM Medical Center.

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