Dried beans and legumes are healthy and cheap.
Dried beans and legumes are healthy and cheap. iStockphoto.com
If you're already a kale and lentils kind of person (we know there are a lot of frugal foodies out there) — you won't be surprised by this finding: According to a new study from some economists at the USDA, eating a healthy diet isn't necessarily more expensive than a diet loaded with sugar and fat. In fact, fruits and vegetables are often cheaper when you calculate the cost in a smarter way.
Cost is often cited as a barrier to eating well. But USDA's Andrea Carlson and her colleagues analyzed the cost of more than 4,000 foods using three different measures: Price per calorie (or food energy), price by weight, and price per average amount consumed.
By using this last measure — which is a good proxy of what actually makes it onto our plate — the news is good.
"We find that fruits and vegetables — especially vegetables — come out much less expensive than the less-healthy food such as potato chips, ready-to-eat cereals [which are] often high in sugar, [and] anything with a lot of fat like cookies and pies." That's because you get more bang — like vitamins and minerals — for the buck.
So how do you do it?
Well, for starters, when you're trying to get the most nutritional and economical benefit in the protein category, think legumes. Lentils and beans are very affordable, and a good alternative to meat.
Also, check sugar labels. For the purposes of this study, lots of foods people may think are healthful actually ended up in the "less-healthful" category because of added sugars. Think yogurts sweetened with jam, sugary cereals and granola bars.
And for veggies: Shop the frozen food aisle. You don't have to consume an entire package in a single use (frozen peas will last weeks). And frozen veggies are just about as nutritious as fresh — with a lot less work on your part.
For the full USDA report, click here.