Unfortunately, far too many people have experienced a drop in their income thanks to this annoyingly turbulent economic time. And the general consensus is that eating healthy is expensive.

Well, it doesn’t have to be expensive.

Of course, if you live in Whole Foods and eat everything organic, it’s going to be expensive!

But it does take some “know-how” and the ability to be creative to eat well and spend less.

Let’s take this apart and look at:

  • Some reasons why low-income demographics have a higher rate of obesity
  • Hidden costs and health outcomes due to obesity
  • The typical cost of an unhealthy diet for 1 day
  • The typical cost of a super healthy, all-organic diet for 1 day
  • The typical cost for an inexpensive alternative healthy diet for 1 day
  • Some solutions from the government and the individual. It really does come down to the individual

Glynn’s Guide
Takeaways That Won’t Fail You

  • Sadly, lower-income demographics have a higher rate of obesity.
  • The financial impact on all of us from obesity-related medical expenses is higher than most of us realize.
  • Eating well saves money on medical expenses.
  • Having a plan is one key to improved dietary habits and cost-saving solutions.
  • Low-cost sugary products are a real danger to society.
  • The upfront cost of preparing healthy meals is less expensive than eating convenience meals on the run.
  • Regardless of incentives, priority is the most important factor affecting one’s eating habits.

Is there a correlation between poverty and obesity?

Yes. My experience and my review of peer-reviewed literature have shown a real correlation between poverty and obesity. Correlation may not be causation, so call it a symptom if that’s more suitable for you. Regardless, here are a few contributing reasons.

  • Lack of access to quality supermarkets
  • Low residential property values correlate closely with obesity rates (another symptom)
  • Healthy foods are less affordable
  • Unfortunately, more affordable foods are higher in sugar, grains, and fats
  • Healthier food requires more time and preparation
  • Excessive marketing of sugary foods to children
  • Misinformation about what’s healthy
  • Lack of any nutritional education in low-income demographics

Lee states,

“Our findings suggest that there are enduring associations between early-life poverty and adolescent obesity. This stage in the life course may serve as a critical period for both poverty and obesity prevention.”

Once children become overweight, metabolically speaking, their struggle with weight loss tends to become lifelong.

Can it be overcome?

Yes, but it’s more difficult due to a homeostatic set point for which their bodies adapt.

Put yourself in that position as a parent. If you’re a family that’s struggling to just pay the rent, inexpensive foods for your family become the priority. Not so much the nutritional value of the food.

And since the general consensus is that “healthy foods are expensive,” very few look beyond that hurdle.

It’s too bad. Because eating poor quality convenient foods are actually more expensive overall.

Why?

Read on to find out.

Are there “unintentional” expenses associated with obesity?

This is a big issue and one that needs real attention. It’s no secret that poor eating habits lead to health problems. And it’s also no secret that these health problems cost our medical infrastructure an enormous amount of money.

A portion of those expenses trickles down to those who pay out of pocket for health care whether they take care of themselves or not. It’s an unfortunate cycle.

Nonetheless, the root of so many of these problems is dietary habit related. And regardless of the problems these poor eating habits cause, I sincerely believe people are so set in their ways, they’re unwilling to change. I’ve watched this occur over the last 30 years. Please don’t label me a pessimist. I’m simply presenting my observations.

Does that mean those on government task forces with the agenda to improve dietary intake in geographically poor areas are pointless? No, I believe the influence is having an impact on the youth. In other words, it will take a few generations to see real change.

What about lower-middle-class families who can only afford high deductible health care but eat poorly?

Medical bills can have a real impact on these lower-middle-class families with high deductible health insurance. Many of the medical bills are obesity-related (diabetes, CVD, etc.) and can quickly push a lower-middle-class family into poverty. This is a common story that needs no references.

Yusefzadeh states;

From a total of 20 studies, 9 papers found to be relevant for review. According to these papers, obesity accounts for 31.8% of direct costs (health‑care costs related to obesity) and 68.1% of indirect costs (costs related to reducing productivity and production value). Therefore, obese people spend 32% more for medical costs compared to people with normal weight.

Those are big numbers with a real impact!

Even diseases not caused by obesity are worsened if one is overweight. We’re seeing this most recently with Covid-19.

Examples of healthy eating costs and unhealthy eating costs

So even if you spend a little more on eating healthy, does the additional expense get canceled out by lower medical bills, etc? You bet it does.

Fit individuals who eat well typically:

  • Have fewer prescriptions
  • Have fewer visits to the doctor
  • Are more productive
  • Have an improved outlook on life

Seriously, the savings in medical expenses far outweigh the difference in cost for healthy food vs unhealthy food.

The dangers of low-cost sugar

Sugar is addictive, period. Don’t believe me? Cut it out of your diet entirely for a few days and let me know how your cravings go.

You can read more about the dangers of sugar in my article Why Is Sugar Bad For You? This Will Change How You Eat.

Sadly, sugary foods make up a large proportion of the diet for individuals below the poverty level. As I write this, it occurred to me that this unfortunate amount of sugary foods is not limited to families of low income.

Regardless, how satiating are meals that are low in nutritional value and high in sugar?

Generally, they do not satiate so well. In fact, high carbohydrate, low nutritional foods are a big contributor to feeling hungry after eating.

One can also fill up on low nutrition foods and still be malnourished. You’ve no doubt heard the term “empty calories.”

Large food companies and their marketing

I am saddened when I watch an overweight child in the grocery store begging for sugary food they saw advertised. I’m disgusted by the audacity of these companies to prey on children and the ease at which we become addicted to sugar. How dare they profit off of contributing to a major health issue!

I have kids who eat well and I see how easy it is for these companies to even influence my “well informed” kids.

Some solutions you can do now.

Foresight is important to buy the appropriate quantity in bulk to save money. But this takes a plan and a plan takes time and effort. But the “juice is worth the squeeze” when planning for meals. Both in cost savings and in the health benefits.

And seriously, it’s really not that difficult to prepare a meal plan for the week in advance. It’s also not difficult to prepare meals in advance for travel or convenience.

So, some simple solutions:

  • Plan meals for the week
  • Buy in bulk without overbuying
  • Eliminate the heavily processed convenience foods
  • Shop from a list prepared in advance (eliminates spontaneous junk purchases)
  • Use the coupon systems set by your grocery store. So they’re tracking you… anonymity is dead anyway!

Example menu and cost for a 1 day for 3 scenarios.

Let’s look at an example of the cost of 1 day’s worth of food for 1 person. It’s easy enough to do the math for a family of 2, 3, 4, etc. adjusting the quantity for smaller people. This is likely less food than the average person eats. But it’s a healthy amount. It’s also a very simple menu.

I’m also looking at this from the perspective of someone who only eats 3 meals within an 8-hour window. Trust me, we could all benefit!

The menu and cost for high-end quality organic food are as follows:

Meal 1: Total cost ~ $2.25

  • 3 whole organic eggs cooked over easy
  • 1 cup unsweetened organic oat-based cereal
  • ½ cup unsweetened almond milk
  • ¼ cup whole natural almonds
  • 2 cups home-brewed coffee (pour over)

Meal 2: Total cost ~$3.60

  • 4 oz ground turkey
  • ½ cup cooked jasmine rice
  • ¼ cup salsa over turkey
  • 1 large bowl of organic mixed spring greens
  • 4 Tbsp Brianna’s vinaigrette dressing

Meal 3: Total cost ~ $4.00

  • 6 oz chicken breast
  • Bbq sauce
  • 2 cups from frozen mixed broccoli, carrots, and cauliflower
  • 1 Tbsp whole butter

So, the grand total for the day’s menu is $9.85 for the “expensive” organic-based foods.

Next, here’s the cost for a really poor quality diet using all convenience foods “on the run.”

Meal 1: Total cost ~ $6.30

  • McDonald’s egg Mcmuffin Meal with coffee

Meal 2: Total cost ~ $2

  • Snickers bar
  • Soda

Meal 3: Total cost ~ $ 3.50

  • 3 slices of pizza
  • Soda

Total cost for the day $11.80. Gee… that looks more expensive than the other options!

For the third option, I selected healthy choices but tried to keep it very inexpensive.

Meal 1:Total cost ~ $1.60

  • 3 standard grocery store eggs
    1 cup regular cheerios
    ½ cup store brand unsweetened almond milk
    2 cups coffee from homebrew

Meal 2: Total cost ~ $2.60

  • 4 oz 4% cottage cheese
  • Bowl spring mix salad greens
  • ½ cup chickpeas
  • 2 Tbsp balsamic vinaigrette
  • 1 fresh apple

Meal 2: Total cost ~ $2.50

  • 2 oz ground turkey
  • ¼ cup black beans
  • 2 Tbsp vinaigrette
  • A mix of frozen broccoli, carrots, and cauliflower

Total cost for the day $6.70

I realize that it’s likely less expensive when purchasing bulk amounts. But what really drives it home is the cost of eating convenience foods on the run or if one doesn’t make time to prepare.

What about offering incentives and disincentives for govt assisted food programs?

There is some evidence that offering incentives for healthy food selections have a positive outcome. In addition, disincentives for sugary drinks and heavily processed foods improves the overall outcome of the medical industry. So, I believe this has merit.

Mozaffarain states,

“programs would prevent respectively about 304,000, 798,000, and 940,000 CVD events and −1,000, 171,000, and 147,000 cases of diabetes, with respective healthcare cost-savings of about $7 billion, $39 billion, and $429 billion.”

I’m not aware of the timeframe in calculating the above number, but it gives you an idea of the monetary impact.

The incentives come in the form of subsidizing healthy choices. And disincentives are achieved by taxing poor choices.

Physicians and nutritional knowledge

I feel obligated to touch on this subject. For many low-income families, their only source of health information is their doctor. The only problem is most medical doctors have little to no education in nutrition. This is no different than asking your doctor for tax advice.

I believe all medical schools should incorporate some courses in metabolism and current nutritional trends. Why? Because so many people turn to their doctor for nutritional advice. AND so many of the issues doctors prescribe medications could be eliminated through improved dietary habits.

I went to school for seven years to study food and metabolism and I certainly don’t prescribe medical advice to my clients. Alright… enough of my soapbox.

It all comes down to priority

I don’t care how financially strapped someone is… it still comes down to whether eating healthy is a priority or not. And if it’s not on someone’s radar, they will not put in the effort. Sadly, there’s a huge disconnect between our food choices and our health for a lot of the population.

At what point is someone willing to take the time to prepare their meals?

If there’s no desire to change or improve, the outcome is grim. Maybe this is where we should focus our resources and energy.

What can someone with a low income do to improve their overall nutrition?

In summary, here are a few tips to eat well on a low income (from above):

  • Plan meals for the week
  • Buy in bulk without overbuying
  • Eliminate the heavily processed convenience foods
  • Shop from a list prepared in advance (eliminates spontaneous junk purchases)
  • Use the coupon systems set by your grocery store. So they’re tracking you… anonymity is dead anyway!

Your 13 point plan to eating healthy on a budget

Eat Healthy on a Budget

1. Save dining out for special occasions or a couple of times a month

Yes, you can find plenty of higher class restaurants that produce outstanding quality and healthy food. But you’ll pay for it (a lot). Budget-friendly restaurants typically serve less healthy foods. A double whammy! Unhealthy food and you’re spending more than eating at home.

13 Easy Steps to Eating Healthy on a Budget [Definitive Guide] 1

2.Plan meals for the week

Following a meal plan from either a professional or one that you have cultivated by piecing information together is fine. As long as the sugars are low, fats are healthy and there’s plenty of variety in meats and vegetables (or fibrous starches if you’re vegetarian). Nonetheless, a plan is crucial for not overspending and making sure you are acquiring all of the necessary nutrients without overconsuming junk. But seriously, doesn’t anything in life that’s worthwhile requires some planning!?

Use Leftovers Eating Healthy on a Budget

3. Plan your meals to incorporate leftovers

It makes things simple and allows for bulk purchases. In fact, you could plan your meals around your busy days so that your busier days fall on the leftovers day. Again, it eliminates excuses.

Pack Meals to Save Money on Food

4. If you work away from home, pack your meals the night before

This is not only a huge money saver, but it’s also a great time saver. Having it ready for the morning, eliminates the “I overslept” excuse for not going to work prepared.

Use Food Sales to Save Money

5. But what’s on sale in bulk and use digital coupons

If you have the storage capacity to purchase sale items that you will definitely use within the next few weeks, it can save a lot over the long haul. I’m not a fan of being tracked, but I have to say that using digital coupons and rewards at my local grocery store really has an impact on what I spend. And since I always have a plan and a list (the next point), I’m able to take full advantage of sale items.

Shop from a list on a budget

6. Shop from a list

As mentioned above, it allows you to take full advantage of sales, eliminates spontaneous purchases, and makes your shopping experience smooth sailing.

Eat Before Shopping to Buy Less

7. Eat a meal right before grocery shopping

Okay, so this point is like kicking a dead horse (who does that anyway). Nonetheless, I feel obligated to mention it again.

Treat Meal to Save Money

8. Pick one treat a week to put on your grocery list

Yes, I’ve found it helpful to even plan my break meal for Saturdays. My family and I decide in advance what meal we want for Saturday and put it on the list. And I love to end my Saturday with a pint of Ben and Jerry’s. So, despite not eating dairy or sugar any other time, I just can’t half-ass the dessert on Saturday! Because of all my good habits during the rest of the week, my metabolism can handle and process my break meals with no problem.

Eliminate Process Foods to Save Money

9. Eliminate the heavily processed convenience foods

They cost too much and are generally not healthy. Please don’t fall victim to the “All Natural” labels or “Organic” and think that automatically makes something processed healthy. That’s an article for another time. Stick to whole foods.

Use Store Brands Eating on a Budget

10. Use store brands

Too many people are fixated on the idea that a name brand is superior. But the added expense is typically to cover their marketing, not the quality of the product. I had a great opportunity to train the CEO of a large national grocery store chain for many years. The insight into the industry and intricacies of everything from the store brands to product placement was a fascinating educational experience. It only reinforced my purchasing of store-brand foods. I also try to purchase local produce when possible.

Buy Meats on Sale to Save Money

11. When planning meat meals, find out what’s on sale prior to planning your meals, and writing the grocery list

Yes, this takes a little work, but the savings add up quickly since the markdown on sale meats is significant.

Plan Vegetarian Meals on a Budget

12. Plan a few vegetarian meals each week to save on meat.

If your meal plan allows you to incorporate fibrous starches, this is an easy way to save money. I have to state it this way since there are so many different extreme ways of eating these days. A lot of the styles are recycled with new names. Gotta love this industry!

Use Frozen Vegetables Shopping on a Budget

13. There’s nothing wrong with frozen vegetables or fruits

They’re easy, they eliminate excuses and their price point can sometimes be lower than fresh. In fact, one could argue they’re healthier than fresh since they’re picked, blanched, and flash frozen. This eliminates a lot of degradation during shipping. The vitamins and minerals affected by freezing are minimal.

Are you seeing a real trend evolve? All of this takes priority, planning, and effort. I sound like a parrot, but anything worthwhile takes some effort.

Incorporate some or all of the tips above and you’ll save money and be eating healthier.

What’s the takeaway?

Priority, priority, priority is the key.

Regardless of one’s financial health, making healthy food choices has to be a priority. Otherwise, no individual or government entity will make a difference.

If it’s not convenient or affordable, it generally doesn’t last.

Another factor and the “reward and gratification” aspect of sugary food. If someone with a low income has very little pleasure to look forward to, tasty unhealthy foods tend to fill that void. That’s a damn powerful draw!

References

Ersilia Buonomo, Stefania Moramarco, Alessandro Tappa, Sandro Palmieri, Sara Di Michele, Giorgia Biondi, Giulia Agosti, Claudia Alessandroni, Emanuele Caredda & Leonardo Palombi (2020) Access to health care, nutrition and dietary habits among school-age children living in socio-economic inequality contexts: results from the “ForGood: Sport is Well-Being” programme, International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition, 71:3, 352-361.

Hedwig Lee, Megan Andrew, Achamyeleh Gebremariam, Julie C. Lumeng, Joyce M. Lee, “Longitudinal Associations Between Poverty and Obesity From Birth Through Adolescence”, American Journal of Public Health 104, no. 5 (May 1, 2014): pp. e70-e76.

Drewnowski A, Rolls BJ (eds): Obesity Treatment and Prevention: New Directions. Nestlé Nutr Inst Workshop Ser. Nestec Ltd., Vevey/S. Karger AG., Basel, 2012, vol 73, pp 95–112.

Harkin, N., Johnston, E., Mathews, T., Guo, Y., Schwartzbard, A., Berger, J., & Gianos, E. (2019). Physicians’ Dietary Knowledge, Attitudes, and Counseling Practices: The Experience of a Single Health Care Center at Changing the Landscape for Dietary Education. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, 13(3), 292–300.

Lee Y, Mozaffarian D, Sy S, Huang Y, Liu J, Wilde PE, et al. (2019) Cost-effectiveness of financial incentives for improving diet and health through Medicare and Medicaid: A microsimulation study. PLoS Med 16(3).

Mozaffarian D, Liu J, Sy S, Huang Y, Rehm C, Lee Y, et al. (2018) Cost-effectiveness of financial incentives and disincentives for improving food purchases and health through the US Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP): A microsimulation study. PLoS Med 15(10).

Yusefzadeh, H and Rahimi, B and Rashidi, ALI (2019) Economic Burden of Obesity: A Systematic Review. Soc Health Behav, 2. pp. 7-12.

13 Easy Steps to Eating Healthy on a Budget [Definitive Guide]

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