Unfortunately, unhealthy and super-processed foods have become a staple in most people’s diets, and has become ingrained in their financial habits. When many people who are used to eating a lot of fast foods, or buying pre-prepared meals try to make healthier foods themselves, they are often taken aback by the seemingly high cost of some healthier food alternatives. Some “health” foods are very expensive, and might be a burden to many dieters, but there are other options for those trying to lose weight on a budget.
The Economics of Eating Well
It’s a running complaint that a bottle of water often costs more than a bottle of soda. This is a common trend among many different kinds of foods for some complex economic reasons, often involving demand, and economies of scale. Soda costs more to produce than water. However, soda is a more popular beverage, so soda companies can afford to sell their product at lower prices and still make a profit. Soda companies also have the added benefit of being able to sell merchandise like clothing and collectables to boost their revenue.
Much of the same is true of flour: white flour is milled, sifted, and bleached while the healthier whole wheat flour is not. White flour is more popular in the average diet because of its lighter texture and color, so it can be sold at a profit for less than wheat flour, even though white flour costs more to produce.
Sometimes the opposite of this occurs for a brief time as a good becomes more popular. This is the case with many “health foods” right now: some health food companies see that more and more people are becoming interested in their product, so they increase the price to make more money. This, in addition to turning the health food industry into a laughing stock, has turned health food into a niche market that only some people can afford rather than an easily affordable market that all have equal access to. Ideally eating healthier will become so common that the prices eventually level out again and less-processed foods will become cheaper to purchase, just as they are cheaper to produce.
Some foods that are healthier are also more expensive to produce, and therefore more expensive to purchase, than their less healthy alternatives. This is mainly true of meat products that are grown without added hormones or antibiotics. Animals raised this way yield less meat per animal, making that meat more expensive. The same is true for non-GMO and organic plants. Using genetic modification and chemical fertilizers and pesticides lead to larger crop yields that can be sold for less at a greater profit than the more human-friendly organic competitors.
The good news is that eating cheaper meat sources, fruits and vegetables, and flours, is still better than eating microwaveable meals and fast foods – even if the foods that fit the budget aren’t organic, non-GMO, etc. It can also be cheaper for those who know the way.
Developing Healthier Pantries and Finances
To return to flour for another example of the economics of eating well, a small bag of flour can cost several times the price of a loaf of bread. Furthermore, the other necessary ingredients – butter, sugar, yeast and other leavening agents – also cost significantly more than a premade loaf of bread. In fact, the ingredients for even the simplest bread recipe could be purchased for the same price as several pre-made loaves. These ingredients will yield far more loaves of bread than their price however.
Bread is only one example of the high up-front cost of preparing to make food for one’s self rather than relying on a market that regularly saturates its foods with excess sugars, preservatives, colors, flavors and unhealthy, modified oils and fats. It is also an example of how this up-front cost is really an investment. For example, once one has the leavening and flour, they are only two ingredients – eggs and vanilla – from making one’s own pancakes (a deceptively healthy way to start the morning, provided one goes easy on the syrup).
To look for more varied examples, consider chili. A can of chili is fairly inexpensive at most supermarkets. Purchasing some ground beef, beans, and vegetables instead will cost somewhat more, but will produce a significantly higher quantity – and quality of chili, not to mention leaving behind extra ingredients that could be used for lasagna, another popular pre-prepared food that is deceptively easy to make at home. The list goes on and on.
The key then, is to look at grocery shopping as ingredients purchasing, rather than meal purchasing. Stocking a pantry with ingredients rather than meals can be a pricey endeavor that many will want to handle gradually, but living from a pantry of ingredients is much cheaper in the long run than living on a pantry of meals.
Skip the Meal Plans
Many diet plans involve paying a significant amount of money for calorie-counted and nutritionist-approved meals to be sent to the home to be prepared by the dieter, or for the dieter to purchase frozen dinners from the store marked with the logo of the company or dietician that profits from the diet plan.
While these meals are doubtlessly healthier than other pre-made options, they are still costlier and more restrictive than making healthy foods for one’s self from scratch. Subscribing to such a diet for a short period of time while studying proper nutrition or talking to a doctor about how to eat healthier is likely a step in the right direction, but it is easier and cheaper to eat healthy on one’s own than it is to rely on a company to tell us what to eat.
This is especially true considering many of these diets replace meals with shakes and smoothies rather than food, which can make them hard to stick to. And, no matter how great the diet plan is, it will only lead to a healthier weight and healthier lifestyle if the dieter can stick to it on the long term.
Those who have the money to pay for expensive diet meal-plans would be better off using that money to buy fresh, wholesome ingredients to make food themselves, while those who are not so financially well off would still be better off buying less fresh and less wholesome ingredients than they are relying on pre-prepared meals and fast food.