Please help settle a debate. Is it more expensive to eat a healthy diet or not?
A lot of research has been done on just that question, and unfortunately, most of it indicates that, yes, generally it is more expensive to eat healthfully than not.
However, a new analysis offers hope, plus some specific suggestions on healthful foods that offer the most bang for your buck.
In a Harvard School of Public Health study published online in September in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers examined data from more than 78,000 participants in the ongoing Nurses' Health Study. They looked at the participants' food choices to see how well they matched an "Alternative Healthy Eating Index" (AHEI) that is similar to but more stringent than the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Healthy Eating Index, which measures how closely a person follows the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Eating more closely to the AHEI guidelines has been associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, including stroke, as well as diabetes.
The researchers found that generally, the participants with higher AHEI scores did tend to spend more money on food than those with lower scores -- about 24 percent more. But -- and this is a big but -- when they split up the participants according to how much they spent on food, they found a wide range within those groups in just how healthful their diets were. Whether they spent the most on food or the least, within each group there were healthy eaters and not-so-healthy eaters.
What made the most difference? Spending less on red and processed meats and high-fat dairy, and spending more on nuts, soy and beans, and whole grains, had the biggest impact on participants' healthy eating scores. The next best investments were spending more on fish and poultry, vegetables, and fruit and fruit juice.
So, the next time you're at the grocery store, keep these tips in mind:
- Choose smaller portions of (or bypass completely every other week) smoked sausage, processed lunch meats, and beef, as well as cheese, sour cream, ice cream and whole milk.
- Take a look at the nuts -- do you prefer almonds, walnuts, mixed nuts? You don't need much -- a little goes a long way, nutrition-wise.
- Try tofu or soy-based meat alternatives in your recipes to incorporate more soy in your diet.
- Stock up on beans (canned or dry) and incorporate them into casseroles, soups, and stove-top or slow-cooker recipes.
- Opt for whole-grain breads and pasta. Though they're more expensive than those made from refined grains, try trimming costs by reducing portion sizes -- and buy pasta in bulk when it's on sale.
Chow Line is a service of Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH, 43210-1044, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor: This column was reviewed by Julie Kennel, registered dietitian and program specialist for Ohio State University Extension in the Department of Human Nutrition in the College of Education and Human Ecology.