Many people will disagree with the title of this post. In fact, there are several knowledgeable sources which say that healthy food isn’t more expensive than unhealthy food at all (see articles from LATimes, HuffingtonPost, and MSNBC).
But, for every article that asserts that eating healthy is a cheaper or equal-cost alternative to unhealthy food, it seems there is an article that asserts exactly the opposite (see articles from StraightHealth and MedicineNet). It seems that no one can really agree on this issue, not even the experts–which makes for a tough decision for those of us who aren’t health gurus, but don’t like the idea of being 800 pounds due to fast-food living.
So, while trying to find out, once and for all, if going completely healthy is even worth it for me, I came to a disappointing conclusion: there is no straight answer from official sources. There is, however, my own personal experience, which is in itself possibly a clearer answer to the problem. I find that healthy food IS expensive when considered against unhealthy food, unfortunately, and in ways that are likely not accounted for by many of the recent studies done on this topic.
Healthy Food: More Expensive in Many Ways
When I say “healthy food is expensive”, I’m not just talking about what it costs at the grocery store. It’s also more expensive in terms of gas, prep time, and convenience. Let me give you a few examples:
Healthy Food Goes Bad Faster = More Money Spent Every Time You Shop
Healthy food, in general, goes bad faster than unhealthy food. Example: fresh veggies, which you apparently have to eat within 2 days of buying or you have moldy veggies. Even the frozen kind seem to go bad faster, or get freezer-burned way too easily. When I tried to go healthy in 2007, I quickly found that I was throwing out more “healthy” food than I was eating–for instance, the carrots in water that I bought on Tuesday morning were expired by Friday, and I hadn’t even opened them yet. It was frustrating!
In this way, healthier food is quite unlike the preservative-laden boxed meals and food packets. Those things seem to last forever, and are often cheaper because they don’t have the “organic” or “natural” food label, which always seems to add about 2 bucks to the purchase price of most fresh food. When it comes to the likelihood of wasting food, it’s no wonder some people choose to load their bodies with preservatives rather than buy “fresh” food that ends up not being eaten at all.
Healthy Food Doesn’t Keep You Full = More Trips to the Store Per Week
As stated, to keep the “freshest” and “best” healthy food on hand, you have to drive to the grocery store several times a week because everything goes bad faster. But you’re also going to use up what you buy much faster because healthy foods, especially fruits and veggies, do not keep you full very long. (Sure, fiber keeps you full, but when it tastes like you’re eating a wad of Silly String, it’s not that appetizing to eat platefuls of it.) I’ve noticed that when trying to eat low-calorie options, I always end up hungry an hour after eating, even if I try to include protein and fiber, and I invariably snack on junk food to cover the difference.
What this means for the average eater: you use more gas and more money to fix more food that doesn’t feed you for very long. Not exactly cost-efficient in this economy, is it?
Healthy Food Needs More Prep Time = More Inconvenient
Usually, healthy food takes longer to cook (like green beans that take 20 minutes simmering on the stove just to be edible). Frozen healthy food must be thawed, which also takes more time than unhealthy food. By contrast, in 20 minutes, I could have a pizza delivered and be eating it already. Which am I logically going to choose, from a convenience and time standpoint?
I admit, we as a society are so conditioned to being able to walk into the kitchen and immediately eat whatever is easiest to fix, and unfortunately for us, the foods that are easiest to fix are the unhealthiest for us. But while some of this is a personal choice not to spend time preparing food, some of us simply do not have the time or the culinary skill necessary to fix more than microwave meals. I’d rather not set the kitchen on fire trying to cook “healthy,” you know?
Healthy Food Has Weaker Flavors = More Unhealthy Flavoring Agents Used
To make healthy food taste good to modern desensitized palates like mine, you have to have more ingredients on hand, such as spices, oils, other food items, etc., than you generally do for unhealthy food. I personally find that fruits and vegetables just do not have the strong sweet or salty flavors that I like, or they have unwanted bitter/grassy flavors, so I end up loading them up with unhealthy additives (ranch dressing, table sugar, and the like) and canceling out their health benefits.
I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person to drown their salads and vegetables in flavoring agents, and it makes the whole exercise of “eating healthy” feel futile. Why bother trying (and failing) to eat a plate of grass (pardon me, salad) with ranch dressing on it, when I could have chosen something that tasted good on its own, even if it was less healthy? In the end, you spend money on “healthy” food and don’t even eat half of it, only to experience an unhealthy food craving later. And, inevitably, you lapse right back into old ways, spending even more money to get the food you REALLY wanted in the first place.
My Conclusion: It IS Expensive
In terms of time spent cooking, convenience/availability, gas for shopping trips, sheer tastiness, and buying “organic/natural” foods, healthier food is much more expensive than unhealthy food. It seems not to fit our modern lifestyles, and in this age of fitting two lifetimes’ worth of activity into half a lifetime, we are more likely to skimp on food to stretch a dollar or two, or save a few minutes. Plus, as many health experts say, we as a culture are now addicted to those strong food flavors that come from processed foods, and we are also addicted to how quickly those very tasty foods can be fixed.
And yet, to hear the same health experts talk, we should all be eating as if we are rich enough to afford the pricier healthy food, as well as having leisure time enough to prepare it (and taste buds that apparently can’t taste anything bitter). Meanwhile, all the food that is cheap, easy to fix, and a delight to the tongue wreaks havoc on all of us that simply can’t afford to eat any other way.
Footnote: How This Food Problem Might Be Sabotaging Health
While the total blame for the “obesity epidemic” has usually been laid across the shoulders of every individual who is obese, I believe some of the blame lies in our culture and the commercialization of food products, especially healthy food products. Being obese is no longer just about individuals making “unhealthy food choices,” not when the “healthy” foods are time-sucking, gas-wasting, tasteless options. Who wants to eat ONE bowl of grassy-tasting greens that cost 12 bucks and is already starting to go brown, when for that same 12 bucks you could feed a family of 4 at McDonalds?
I’m personally obese myself, and have been since I was 11 years old. I would love to change that, but from a diet standpoint, many issues stand in the way of that: I hate the way most healthy food tastes, I hate its impact on my purse and gas tank, and I hate that it takes 2 or 3 times longer to prepare it. Why in the WORLD would I inflict such suffering and privation on myself, when better-tasting, cheaper, and quicker options exist? This is likely the same battle, the same thought process, that goes through the minds of many people today, and it has a definite impact on diet.
Now, when healthy food tastes as good as the unhealthy stuff, is cheaper than unhealthy food, and is quicker to fix…THEN we might see the “obesity epidemic” start to go away. Until then, most of us who are big or who are addicted to unhealthy foods are going to struggle with their diets just as I have, with half the battle decided before food even hits their plates.