Despite what some economists say, times still feel pretty tough, and few of us are ready to throw caution to the wind and start emptying our wallets on fancy clothes and gourmet food. A survey published in early 2009 even found that people were cutting their food budgets by spending less on healthy food and more on, of all things, hotdogs! But a new study shows that you don't have to live on white bread and wieners to save money; eating healthy foods can be just as cost-efficient. The research, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that eating healthy foods on a budget is as easy as replacing some red meat with less-expensive whole grains and beans.
The details: The authors used data collected from food frequency questionnaires submitted in 2002 as part of the long-running Nurse's Health Study. In total, they had information from 78,191 adults, a majority of whom were white, in their late 60s, and living with a spouse. A good portion of the adults were also defined as overweight, based on body mass index (BMI). The amount each person spent on food was estimated based on prices in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's food-cost database.
Each participant was ranked according to something called the Alternative Healthy Eating Index (AHEI), which is basically a measure of how well each adhered to a diet of foods that have been associated with a lower risk of chronic diseases: fruits, vegetables, nuts, soy, beans, lean meats and fish, whole grains, alcohol, and healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids. The range of index scores in this study was 30 for people with unhealthy diets to 60 for people with the healthiest diets. People with low AHEI scores—those with less-healthy diets—spent an average of $3.72 per day on food, while people with the healthiest scores spent $4.62 per day, a difference of 24 percent. But the authors found that food spending wasn't always dependent upon how healthy people's diets were. For instance, some people with the healthiest diets managed to spend as little as E3.48 per day, while others with the lowest scores spent as much as $5.75.
They also estimated what people should spend their money on, if they want to get into that group of high-scoring healthy eaters. Spending more money on fruits and vegetables helps, raising the score by about 7 points. But every dollar spent on whole grains boosts the AHEI score by nearly 18 points, and every dollar spent on nuts and beans boosts the score by 19 points. Conversely, every dollar spent on red or processed meat lowers the score by 10 points.
What it means: By simply redirecting your food dollars from meat to beans, you could save some serious cash and improve your diet at the same time. And, the authors write, the increases in AHEI score you could achieve by spending more on whole grains, nuts, and beans could lead to a 25 percent reduced risk in cardiovascular disease. By contrast, taking medications such as statins (those popular cholesterol-lowering drugs) lowers your risk by 20 to 27 percent, at a cost of $830 per year. Save money on food and on health care? What's not to like?
In the long run, it's better to spend your money at the grocery store, rather than at the pharmacy. Here are a few tips for sticking to your budget while shopping for healthy food:
Buy in bulk. The nice thing about whole grains, nuts, beans, and legumes is that they're not only healthy, but they're also usually sold in bulk food bins, which means you get more for your dollar. According to the Bulk Is Green Council, a trade group representing bulk-food manufacturers, bulk foods like rice, grains, nuts, and dried fruits can cost anywhere from 30 to 96 percent less than their packaged counterparts. Just be sure to store bulk foods properly. Some, such as brown rice, can go rancid if left in your pantry. For tips, see our story on bulk food storage.
Buy a breadmaker. You might think fancy kitchen gadgets are beyond your financial reach, but you can find them at discount stores for $20 to $25. It'll save you serious dough in the long run: You can make three loaves of whole grain bread from a two-pound bag of flour for $1.79, compared to buying one loaf for $3.89, and you get it without all the added sugar and preservatives. If you have the time or want a more hands-on experience, you can make bread by hand or give the no-knead method a try.
Learn to love the musical fruit. A study published last year in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that just 8 percent of Americans are getting enough beans in their diets. That's bad news, considering what beans and their cousins, peas and lentils, can do for your health and your wallet. Not only do beans provide us with vital nutrients, such as folate, iron, and protein, but they also cost a fraction of the price of red meat, poultry, or pork. If you're a little intimidated by them, try taking some basic black beans and serving them in tasty veggie burgers. White beans pair nicely with pasta and give your sauces the same substance and body as fat-laden white sauces do; get suggestions from our Rodale Recipe Finder. Just be sure to buy dried beans if you can, to avoid the sodium that comes in canned beans. If you do opt for canned, we suggest Eden Organics brand. That company is the only one out there selling beans in cans not lined with the harmful chemical bisphenol A.