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  • Writer's pictureChristopher D. Munchhof

Think it Costs More to Eat Healthy? It’s In Your Head

Updated: Jan 19, 2020

“I want to be healthy, but it’s just so expensive!”

How many times have you heard something like this? Or maybe you’re the one who’s said it. I’m not a health expert or a dietitian, but I do know that the cost of food is not the reason why Americans are so unhealthy.  Over 70% of American men are now overweight. Women aren’t doing much better at 60%. If that wasn’t bad enough, 40% of adults are obese and the life expectancy of Americans is declining!  To look at it another way, if you’re not overweight, you’re kind of a weirdo.

Of course, there are many more health factors to consider besides just weight, but being overweight contributes to a slew of other ailments like heart disease, diabetes, and joint pain just to name a few. Maintaining a healthy weight is the number one controllable factor when it comes to your overall health.

It’s obvious that the development of better eating habits is the best way to control weight gain. One barrier to a healthier diet is cost. Or at least that’s what most people think. A  study in the Journal of Consumer Research tells a fascinating story on this topic.

We Have A Problem With How Much We Think Healthy Food Should Cost

The researches found that we have some weird thoughts about pricing when it comes to foods. In this case, researchers found that the higher a food’s price, the healthier we think it is. Additionally, when healthy food was offered at a low price, the participants in the study refused to believe it was healthy.

The study was conducted by asking participants for their opinions under a number of scenarios. One method presented two slightly different chicken and pasta entrees with nearly identical health attributes. One dish was priced at $15 and the other at $22. They asked participants to select the healthiest dish. Researchers found that the dish they listed with the more expensive price tag was selected as the healthier option more than twice as often as the lower priced choice.

In a second scenario, researchers presented people with different granola products and provided a health ranking for each product. They then asked the participants to estimate the price of each. Unsurprisingly, the products with the highest health ratings were assigned the highest price.

Those two scenarios seem to provide enough evidence to show that we have been sufficiently conditioned to associate high prices with healthy food.  But, a third scenario used in the study highlights an even deeper issue. When a food product highlights a specific health benefit the price of that product affects how important we think that health benefit is. The study specifically tested a trail mix with DHA to promote eye health. Participants were asked how important it was to have DHA as a part of their diet. The more expensive the product was said to be, the more important participants thought consuming DHA was!

The Problem With “Health Foods”

The rise of premium-priced “health foods” has distorted our perception of what eating healthy is. To be honest, we should be on to this by now. Every few years there’s a new hot food fad that we are supposed to follow. Sugar-free, fat-free, low cholesterol, lite, low carb, high protein, etc. Today we are obsessed with all natural and organic.

Is there anything wrong with natural and organic no? No. But if excess weight is, in fact, the number one controllable health issue Americans are facing, whether something is natural or organic is hardly a factor in overall health. Let’s face it, excessive weight gain is not about choosing almond milk over regular milk, it’s about choosing a banana over a candy bar.

When you can step away from the “health food” mindset and focus on foods that are actually healthy, you’ll start to see how cheap a healthy diet can be. What’s happened so much recently is that junk foods have been reformulated just enough so they can be labeled organic, vegan, non- GMO, natural and so on. While those labels are very important to a lot of people, they do not signify a healthy choice.  A higher price tag, of course, but not a healthy choice.

I was recently reviewing the nutrition information for Lenny & Larry’s “Complete Cookie”. Their flagship product is a giant cookie billed as a healthier snack alternative that can help people stay “energized and focused throughout the day”. Its packaging calls it “Baked Nutrition, ” that uses no eggs, no soy, no dairy, no GMO, and is also Vegan with high protein and fiber content. Sounds like a healthy choice.

Below are two nutritional tables. One of these contains the information for a single nutritious “Complete Cookie,” the other provides the data for a McDonald’s Quarter Pounder hamburger. Does one of these look like a significantly healthier choice?

Believe it or not, one of these can be found in the health food section of your grocery store!

These are the kinds of foods people are drawn to when they decide to eat healthier. Higher prices for “health foods” can leave people discouraged from making diet adjustments, but even worse, they can convince people that they are making healthy choices when they’re not.

It’s Simple

Yes, there is some nuance to how different types of calories affect your weight, but at the end of the day, you probably know that eating fewer calories will mean you lose weight. For this reason, it is impossible for you to need to spend more in order to lose weight. I know you’re going to hate this, but if all you did was eat less of the exact same foods you already eat, you will lose weight and you’ll spend less on food! If you go out, share a meal. You’ll cut your calories and expenses in half.

I know, too simple.

Even if you do want to change your diet and incorporate more healthy foods (not “health foods”), it’s unlikely to cost you more.  A 7oz bag of “Simply Organic” Doritos will cost you  $3.79 and has 1,200 calories.  A three-pound bag of apples will cost you about the same and has less than 900 calories, but you won’t scarf down three pounds of apples in a single sitting.  A 32oz bag of frozen french fries containing 1,320 calories will cost you about $3.00. Meanwhile, 32 oz of frozen broccoli with 120 calories is only $2.00.  A box of fresh donuts is about $10 and 3,000 calories. Instead, you could buy a whole watermelon, a pineapple and a pound of strawberries for about the same price and half the calories.

Keep your food buying simple. Don’t assume you need to spend more for healthy labels.  An “All Natural” cookie is just as bad for you as the man-made cookie.  An “Organic” cheeseburger does the same damage to your arteries as a non-organic cheeseburger. Eating something that’s “Made With Real Fruit” is nothing like eating real fruit.  When it comes to your food, the only label that really matters is your food’s nutrition label.

But Not Easy

I’m definitely NOT saying controlling weight is easy. In fact, it’s really hard, but it’s also important. Long-term happiness is closely linked to physical health. Plus better health results in lower medical expenses over time. So while there are plenty of “good” excuses for not having a healthier diet, the price of food shouldn’t be one of them. I’m hoping that I’ve at least left you with one fewer excuse.  I’ll let you keep clinging to “I don’t like vegetables,” “I don’t have the discipline,” or “I don’t have the time.” You’re on your own with those.



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