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Busting the Myth: Eating Healthy is Cheaper and Doesn't Take Longer
Recently we offered another round of continuing medical education programs for physicians at the Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine. The cost of eating healthy came up, as it does at almost every event I do these days. There is a tremendous misperception about what making fresh food costs and the time that it takes vs. processed, boxed foods. Most people believe that it is more expensive to make fresh, healthier food and that it takes more time.

More evidence that healthier isn't more expensive
People still believe that eating healthier costs more than eating the processed foods available in the supermarket or even buying fast food. The problem, however, is how "cost" and "healthier" is defined: is it cost per calorie? Cost per some unit of energy density? What about macro- and micro-nutrients such as carbohydrates, protein, vitamins, and minerals? Depending on the definitions, research is mixed as to whether it's more expensive to eat healthy. I have found that per serving, making your own home made version of processed foods like Hamburger HelperĀ© is both cheaper and you get more to eat by volume, and the same is true of McDonald's.

Comparing the cost of meatless and non-meatless diets
There's been plenty of discussion about the supposed higher cost of eating healthy. The truth is that on the large scale, not only is it cheaper in the long run to eat healthier (because you'll spend so much less on health care), but on the small scale it's cheaper on a cost-per-serving basis.


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Cooking at home is cheaper and better for you

two adults and two children eating a meal together

My mission at Dr. Gourmet (and at The Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine) is to get people back into the kitchen, eating real food that's great for you. Today's research seems to validate that goal - with the bonus that eating at home is shown to be cheaper, as well.

The Seattle Obesity Study surveyed 437 adult men and women who did the bulk of the food shopping in their household (Am J Prev Med 2017;52(5):616-624). Not only were they asked to estimate how often, on average, they and members of their family ate outside the home, they were also asked how much they spent on food (including both at home and away from home). Further, they responded to a dietary questionnaire regarding their diet as a whole that the authors could then score against the USDA's Healthy Eating Index (HEI 2010), which measures how well one's diet adheres to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Scored from 0 to 100, a higher score means a greater adherence.

In analyzing the data, the authors took into account not only age, gender, race/ethnicity, marital status, and number of people in the household, but also income, education, and employment status (employed versus unemployed).

Somewhat unsurprisingly, those who were unmarried, lived alone, or did not have children ate out most often. About half of all respondents reported eating at home "frequently" (6 or more times per week), with one third cooking 4-5 times per week. (It's encouraging to see that only 15% of the sample said they cooked 3 or fewer times per week - that's a lot of eating out.) Those who were married, had more people in the household (adult or child), had at least one child in the household, or were unemployed were more likely to eat at home more often.

Also unsurprisingly, at least for me: eating at home more often meant a better HEI 2010 score, with those who ate at home frequently having an average score 7 points higher than those who ate at home rarely. The authors looked at the various components of the HEI score and found that those who ate at home consumed fewer total calories, fewer empty calories, and less sodium than those who ate out, with the amount of total protein in the diet being the only component that was about the same between eating at home or away from home.

Finally, those who cooked at home spent most of their total food expenditures on foods they would eat at home: only 23% of their total food budget was spent on food eaten away from home. By contrast, those who ate out the most didn't spend their money in the same proportion of home versus away: 53% of their food money was spent at home, while 47% was spent away from home. Overall, those who ate at home the most spent 17% less on their food bills each month than those who ate out the most.

What this means for you

The message is clear: it's cheaper and better for you to cook your own food. Here's a video from The Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine on shopping for a family of four for a week - for a total under $150.00.

First posted: May 3, 2017