Those living on a tight budget may find it difficult to make healthy choices when it comes time to buy groceries. Fresh fruits and vegetables can be more expensive out of season. Good quality protein such as chicken breasts may cost too much to be included in the weekly budget. And once these important food groups are consistently left out of daily meals, simple carbohydrates and foods high in refined sugar often take their place.
Several studies have shown that living on junk food can be cheaper than eating lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. And research from Europe has also found that eating a healthy diet costs more.
So what can you do if there simply isn’t more money to spend on food? According to a new study, you can still target a small group of healthy foods and keep costs low. The trick, the researchers say, is to spend more on plant-based foods.
The research team set out to compare the relationship between food spending and consuming a healthy diet. They assessed diet and spending data for almost 80,000 women participating in the Nurses’ Health Study. Then, they rated the women’s eating habits and multivitamin intake according to the Alternative Healthy Eating Index, or AHEI. The AHEI is a tool the researchers developed that awards points for consuming healthier items.
The team that found those with the healthiest diets, whose average AHEI score was 59, spent about $4.60 per day on food, compared to about $3.70 per day for the women with the least healthy diets and who had an average AHEI score of 30. The researchers noted that a 20-point AHEI score increase was linked to a 25% lower risk of heart disease.
Participants who spent more on nuts, soy and beans, and whole grain had a higher AHEI score, the researchers also found. Those who spent more on red meat, processed meat and high-fat dairy ended up with a lower score. To get the best economical investment for the highest gain in AHEI score, you’ll want to follow these study results and spend more on nuts, soy, beans, and whole grains, with less spending on red and processed meats and high-fat dairy. The next best investment, according to the study results, would be fish and poultry, vegetables, and fruit and fruit juice.
The research team concludes that although spending more money is associated with a healthier diet, it is possible to make large improvements in your diet without a hefty grocery bill.