Help! I’m Poor But Want to Eat Healthy!

“I can’t eat healthy, it’s too expensive!”

Unhealthy food is indeed often more accessible and cheaper than healthy alternatives.  Unfortunately, it’s these very foods that make us unhealthy and overweight, causing all sorts of INCREDIBLY expensive medical problems down the road.

The line must be drawn here!”

Healthy eating on a budget IS possible, it just takes a game plan and a little creativity.

Today we’re going to talk about specific foods that are a great bang for your buck. Whether you’re simply trying lose weight and get in shape, or build some muscle and put on weight without looking like Jabba the Hut, making the right dietary choices will always be 80-90% of your success.

(A Star Trek AND Star Wars reference within three sentences of each other? That’s how we roll around here.)

Let’s go!

Break conventional thinking

mcdonalds

It’s not exactly a secret that our culture is obsessed with size: Bigger is better.

Over the last few decades we’ve been eating and drinking more and more, and we developed the idea that a “good deal” means a lot of food. In other words, we tend to associate a deal by looking at the price per calorie.

I got SOO many fries, what a great deal!”

Sure, you could buy pasta and ramen and live on mere dollars a day, but we want a game plan that doesn’t skip out on practically every macro and micronutrient – a strategy that builds Rebel Superheroes.

The aim will be to reshape the way you evaluate ‘good deals.’ Instead of price per calorie, we’ll be looking at the price per nutrient. We want the most nutrients for the least amount of money. The choices below will:

  • Target nutrient dense foods, but understand that we’re looking for the most economical choices. If food A costs $10 and has 50 of nutrient x, we’ll pick  food B instead, which only provides 45 of x but costs just $2.
  • Limit our draw to ‘good caloric deals,’ avoiding nutrient deficient options such as white bread or ramen.
  • Identify foods with high caloric AND nutritional value, for those currently trying to gain weight through strength training.

Let’s do this!

Vegetables

Veggies

While vegetables can often be expensive, when we looked at some of the best choices, veggies  are actually pretty awesome. One study showed:

“…that although fruits and vegetables are an expensive source of dietary energy (calories), they provide key nutrients at a reasonable cost.”

For starters, don’t be afraid to buy frozen vegetables in the freezer section of your local grocery store (or even canned vegetables).  Sure, I love fresh veggies, but since frozen veggies are picked and then frozen at peak ripeness (and thus most nutritionally dense), they are often a better value while being edible for months longer.

Kale and leafy greens (such as mustard or collard): If there is one super cheap superfood, kale and leafy greens are it! Practically nature’s multivitamin, kale is packed full of protein, vitamin K, C, and A, dietary fiber, calcium, potassium, iron, magnesium, and more (a whole lot more). The catch is that kale and leafy greens can be bitter raw, so they need to be cooked. But don’t worry, there are tons of quick and easy ways to make kale delicious. You do NOT want to miss out on one of the most economical superfoods. To get you started, check out Kale Chips or this try this kale and bacon recipe.

Cabbage: A sister food to kale and leafy greens, from antioxidant to fiber to vitamin C, cabbage is both affordable and nutritionally dense. Cabbage is extremely versatile (soup, salad, stir fry,  or sandwiches), and looks like it may have some superfood cancer fighting qualities as well.

Broccoli: I knew I was a Rebel in training when as a kid, I didn’t understand why everyone else hated Broccoli. Whether fresh or frozen, broccoli provides an excellent price per nutrient value.

Spinach: Rich in both minerals and vitamins, fiber and protein, spinach should be your go-to choice for salads over cheaper but nutritionally deficient greens like iceberg lettuce. The difference between spinach and lettuce is so large, this comparison is a great example to demonstrate why we should be making choices based on price per nutrient, rather than price per calorie.

Carrots: Carrots are one of my favorite nutritionally dense snacks. Crazy amounts of vitamin A, good carbs, and a little bit of everything else; carrots are a solid choice to supplement a salad or soup.

Be sure to check out your local farmers’ market, as you may find some great deals on fruits and veggies depending on the season and where you live.

Proteins

Protein Meats

While Steve is a huge fan of the Paleo Diet, today we’re going to explore all cheap protein sources, Paleo or non Paleo. If you’re on a strict Paleo Diet, be sure to check out the Nerd Fitness app, Paleo Central, to determine what’s Paleo and what’s not:

Meats (chicken/turkey/beef): When we looked at prices across the U.S., chicken and turkey consistently offered better values. However, don’t count beef out; there is almost ALWAYS a specific cut of beef on sale, and by targeting cheaper (and fattier) cuts, you can usually leave the meat section with a killer deal. We aren’t targeting these cuts simply because they’re cheaper. As one of Steve’s favorite videos explains (Why You Got Fat), we understand that dietary fat is not the enemy, but an important part of a balanced diet.

Eggs: There’s a reason eggs are usually a staple among those seriously strength training: eggs are a simple yet nutritionally dense source of protein. Toss hard boiled eggs in a salad, scramble eggs in a stir fry, or prepare a regular breakfast staple, eggs are usually too cheap to pass up.

Canned Tuna:  One can of Albacore Tuna contains approximately 120 calories, 28g of protein, and can cost $1 or less. This makes canned tuna a superb value and an awesomely lean protein source. Check out other canned fish, such as salmon, for some variety. And be sure to rotate canned tuna in and out of your diet to reduce risks associated with mercury. 

Legumes: Beans, chickpeas, lentils, oh my! Legumes (especially when purchased in bags), are one of the best price per nutrient values out there. Legumes such as beans work great in a salads, soups, or even dips. Providing copious amounts of both protein and carbs, legumes offer a great value and easily satisfy macronutrient requirements. Be wary though, nutritional value will vary depending on your specific legume of choice!

Protein Powder: If the above above recommendations don’t work for you and you’re still a little short on protein, try a huge tub of protein powder online. Make yourself a quick protein shake breakfast or post workout meal.

Other cheap protein options that may be a great deal include quinoa, greek yogurt, cottage cheese, and one of the many types of nut butter.

Fruits

Watermelon

Fruits provide one of the biggest challenges, especially in the United States, because they are so expensive relative to other food groups. Fruits can also be tricky. Grapes, which seem to be a moderate value, end up being one of the worst price per nutrient options out there. This may lead to the completely understandable reaction that I had, “SCREW IT! I love grapes, and I’m buying them!”

But don’t worry, there are still some excellent cost efficient options for fruits:

Watermelon: I know, I know. My first thought too was, “isn’t it mostly water?” Well yes. But as it turns out, since watermelon is so darn cheap, it is an incredible value per nutrient. Packed with lycopene (antioxidant), vitamins A and C, potassium, magnesium, and phosphorus, watermelon is a wonderful and easy to eat nutritional deal.

Bananas: If you’re following the Paleo Diet and avoiding most grains, bananas are a great source of carbs. Bananas are super cheap and provide you with tons of potassium. They can be added to oatmeal, eaten as a snack, or my favorite, as a desert (frozen bananas).

Plums: Packed full great micronutrients like vitamin A, K, and C, plums are an excellent source of fiber and carbs.

Pears: Although pears possess a good amount of natural sugars, they are another great source of fiber and vitamin C…and usually even cheaper than plums.

Other fruits that may be great nutritional deals in your area: cantaloupe, apricots, kiwis, and nectarines.

Don’t forget about dried fruit – although high in sugar, bulk dried fruit can be an nutrient incredible value.

How to eat big and healthy

Balance Scale

If you are training like crazy or are working hard to get bigger by packing on muscle and size, then chances are you’ll require more and more food (read: fuel) to reach your goals.  If you’re strength training and not getting bigger, then you’re not eating enough – it’s that simple.

We can see from this graph that as calories become more important, fats and oils, beans and legumes, and dairy products become more cost effective than vegetables and fruits (however, don’t neglect vegetables to make sure your…um…”plumbing” can handle the extra calories!).

Calories Per Unit Cost Graph

Oats: Oats are incredibly cheap, provide ridiculous amounts of both carbohydrates and protein, and fulfill other micronutrient and mineral requirements such as thiamin, folate, magnesium, and phosphorus. Oats are simple to make, can be prepared a variety of ways (sweet or savory), and can be bought and stored easily in bulk!

Whole Milk: When Steve gained 18 pounds in a month, and then another 12 pounds while traveling, whole milk was a huge part of his diet. Although milk isn’t Paleo, its low cost combined with high amounts of protein, calcium, and vitamin D makes it an attractive option when trying to meet high calorie requirements (if your body can handle the lactose).

Avocados: Avocados are perhaps the densest food listed in this entire article, both calorically and nutritiously. Although they may appear costly, avocados can be an incredible price per nutrient value.  Put them in salads, on sandwiches, or eat them plain with a little bit of salt! When your local grocery store puts avocados on sale, be sure to stock up!

Sweet Potato: A better nutritional value than normal potatoes (plus a lower glycemic load), sweet potatoes are a great source of carbohydrates, dietary fiber, and incredible amounts of vitamin A. Steve is a huge fan of sweet potatoes sliced, covered in olive oil, and thrown in the oven at 375 for 12 minutes each side.  So simple, even a nerd could cook it.

Olive Oil: One of the best ways to add good fat without cholesterol or sodium is olive oil. Add extra olive oil to salads, meats, and legumes.  Need even more calories?  Drink it.  Seriously.  Take a few big swigs before each meal and you can add 700-1000 calories to your intake each day, no problem.

Almonds/Walnuts/Almond butter: Hailed by Mark’s Daily Apple, raw almonds are a versatile option that can serve as a great supplementary source of protein and fat. While almonds can be a great value,  be sure to buy them in bulk to optimize your price per nutrient deal. And if you haven’t tried almond butter and apple slices, one of Steve’s staples, you’re missing out.

Eat Smart

Legos surround cheeseburger

No matter what value foods you plan to buy, be sure approach eating healthy on a budget with a plan of attack. You will find that if you take advantage of healthy foods on sale (especially buy one get one free deals), many foods that aren’t listed here will suddenly become a great value!

Remember: If your goal is weight loss, the majority of your calories should come from fat and protein, NOT carbohydrates/grains!  This is the whole premise of the Paleo Diet that we’re so fond of.

Concerned about pesticides and have a bit more money to spend? Here are nine foods you should try to buy organic, and seven organic options you can pass up.  

As long as you’re no longer thinking “more is better,” but instead searching for value healthy foods, you’ll be on your way to becoming a Rebel Superhero.

What foods did I miss that you find to be an incredible value?

Leave any other healthy budget eating tips or tricks in the comments below!

-Taylor

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photo source: piggy bank, veggies, watermelon, meat, lego cheeseburger, balance scale, mcdonalds

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  • ginger

    Hey y’all!  I have a couple of tips that slightly echo what has been said but are a tiny tweak, as well.  Hope it’s helpful:
    1. I always keep a huge stock pot of vegetable stew in the refrigerator.  Always.  It has become my “fast food.” Any day that I’m too tired or busy to cook, I zap a bow.  Or two.  Or as many as I like.  Each week I make a huge pot, without fail.
    2. Kale is the bomb lightly tossed in olive oil, sea salt, and baked.  DELICIOUS tasty “chips!”

  • http://www.freeworkoutlog.com/ Robert Swilley

    This a very informative article. You can still eat healthy on a budget. It is definitely possible.

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  • Fred

    For years I thought it was too expensive to purchase the volume of veggies needed to replace the amount of bad food I was eating.  But that seems to only be true if your options are large chain supermarkets or small farmer’s markets (which are usually much better quality for the same price).  But if you’re lucky enough to live in the vicinity of a migrant population, chances are they at least have a medium sized market, if not their own supermarket that serves their community.  And believe me, the selection of fresh produce and the crazy low prices will blow your mind. I know this won’t be true for everyone (based on geographic location), but check it out if you can.  Stocking up on 5 bags of fresh fruit and veggies for $26 will make your search well worth it.  Plus the spice aisle alone will probably make you throw your big chain club card in the trash.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/Riner79 Matthew C. Riner

    *dessert

  • Steanne

    although it DEFINITELY doesn’t qualify as healthy eating for broke people, there is low-mercury tuna available. i looked for it years ago for a friend who was pregnant and craving it a lot. carvalho fisheries sells it and there may be others.

    http://www.carvalhofisheries.com/lowmerc.html

  • shoaib MD

    Don’t do it. Please.
    I know this book looks delicious with its light-weight pages sliced thin a
    prosciutto and swiss stacked in a way that would make Dagwood salivate. The
    scent of freshly baked words wafting up with every turn of the page. Mmmm
    page. But don’t do it. Not yet. Don’t eat this book.”
    Jason

  • Chachabanfbanf

    You missed canned chicken. Loaded with protein, low fat and only a moderate amount of sodium. Last I bough, I paid $1.89 for a can of chicken that had almost 30 grams of protein, quite the value if you ask me. I put a small amount miracle whip on it and its awesome for me, but it’s still good just by itself.

  • Persian1123

    This was a really great article. Can’t wait to search high and low for the best deals on these ingredients! Thank you

  • Persian1123

    320.

    “America” hasn’t done anything like that. It’s the ignorant majority that cares less about the different types of produce. If the majority of Americans showed demand for these variations of produce you will see this shift in trend. It’s all about consumer demand.

  • ThomasYates

    Love Love Love Kale chips :)

  • fitinthemiddle

    I don’t believe that eating healthy can always be expensive, there are so many cheap vegetables and fruits in the grocery. Even fish and chicken. You just have to learn how to prepare it yourself.

  • Carrotlove

    without getting into an extensive argument over this, because i’m not interested, you might want to retake/research a few marketing classes. Companies spends lots of money to make sure consumer demand shifts right where they want it. They’re successful. There is a reason places like Starbucks exploded into America so fast. They knew how to manipulate the psyche of people by strategic placement of ads and stores. I feel the blame is all around everyone. Big companies, sheep masses, silent bystanders, and the government are to blame, hence America. Blaming one group in the problem is like a very naive way of looking at it.

  • Coney

    I love salmon fresh or frozen so what is a cheaper equivalent in food nutrient for it?

  • coytle

    Seaweed is yummy and full of iodine and other minerals and lots of good stuff. I just can never seem to get rid of even minimal hunger with it though.

  • coytle

    Yup, california has strict label laws for the olive oil so I buy my olive oil so long as it is California grown and bottled. Be weary of any olive oil that lists multiple olive locations.

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  • http://www.teammead.co.uk/savemoney Peter

    Great article thanks.

  • abbi

    you are stupid.. I am now 10x less intelligent from having read this ridiculous comment.

  • Wesley

    Really enjoyed reading all the great tips you have to offer. Well done Taylor!!
    We just launched a website that helps Australian families save money on there weekly shopping.
    Go and check it out: http://budgeteat.com
    It is only for Australians at this moment, as it works on there local supermarkets, but i am sure there will be a few good tips that anyone can use when they sign up.

    Keep up these post, the really inspire people.

  • Not a Paleo fan

    While I think that the majority of this article was fantastic, I am concerned about the comment that if you are trying to lose weight, then you should get a majority of your calories from places other than carbs. I am a nutrition major and I know from my college studies that you should get about 60% of your calories every day from carbohydrates. Granted, most people (particularly Americans) are getting too many carbs per day anyways, but without enough carbohydrates, your brain cannot function. Do not discount carbs!

  • S

    Paw-paws are so good! It’s like a cross between a banana and a mango in taste. Not the prettiest fruit, but a very tasty one!

  • Crowther Amanda-Beth

    Those are a real thing? I just always thought it was just part of a silly song.

  • Crowther Amanda-Beth

    Most of this is good personally i can’t do olives or their oil im allergic and ok with that. Its not my only allergy but mullberries go thru phases of popularity so not something to extremely to worry about just pay attetion to news and read labels twice if they are. I really need to get better at making grocery list.

  • Nic

    Best diet food…egg whites. Substitute dinner for an egg white omelet and you’ll shed the weight. Buy whole eggs by the crate. About $4 for 24. Pair it with a nice salad. At that price, you can splurge on the expensive organic lettuce, use a little lemon as dressing. it will come out to $10 for a whole week’s worth of dinners.

  • Tomtamtim

    This site is a gold mine

  • Nikkzi

    Gotta admit avocados are my #1 fav snack as of this year!

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  • Brigette Eckert

    LOVE this article. Thank you so much- exactly what I was looking for. I apperciate you including whole milk for us non paleo clean eaters :)

  • Cedes

    That’s such a great idea! I’m so glad I continued reading the comments just for this one! Thanks!