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Is Fast Food Really Cheaper Than Healthy Eating?


By Brian Sodoma

Should we expect to dig deeper into our wallets if we want to eat healthy? 

Ultimately, like anything else worth doing, eating well while minimizing your food spending will require a bit of effort, including doing research.iStock

Fast food is often touted as budget-friendly, convenient and filling. These perceptions, based on old science, could make it hard to justify visiting the grocery store for healthy staples. And that’s not mentioning all that time you spend actually preparing the meal from the ingredients you’ve purchased. Time, after all, is money.

A parallel consensus appears to be questioning this thinking, though: Yes, those dollar menus may seem like they’re better for the budget today. But does the payment come later, in the form of chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease, and in the costs related to managing those conditions?

A Health Promotions Perspective medical journal review of articles published between 1990 and 2014 found “further evidence warning us against the irreparable effects of fast food consumption on public health especially the increasing global burden of obesity and cardiovascu­lar diseases.”

And a 2018 CDC report highlighted how chronic diseases cost the health care system $190 billion per year and $126 billion in lost job productivity.

Then too, there are ways to eat right and not break the bank – whether you choose to dine in or dine out.

What Some Think, What Food Experts Know 

Some of that thinking about fast food’s being cheaper is the product of an old 2013 study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), which claimed that eating healthy costs about $1.50 a day more. That amounts to $550 per person per year, or an extra $2,000 annually for a family of four.

But those findings have seen challenges since their publication. A group of U.S. researchers, for example, in 2017, published in the Washington Post a report arguing that fast food isn’t always cheaper after all.

The researchers found that stereotypes about the high costs of healthy food are pervasive. The public tends to have an exaggerated sense of the range of foods in which healthy items are more expensive than less-healthy ones.

A non-expert view of how the world works – or “lay theory” – is what drives the thinking that healthy food is expensive, the researchers contend. “Across five studies,” they wrote, “we showed that even in food categories where there is no relation between price and health, the ‘healthy = expensive’ intuition affects how consumers make decisions about food.”

In other words, when it comes to the stereotype that healthy food takes more out of your wallet than other types of food do, the numbers don’t quite add up.

A 2017 University of Washington report even argues that cooking at home is less expensive and healthier than eating out.  

The Benefits Of Eating In 

Eating in is still the best way to eat healthy and save money. And eating in involves careful meal planning that takes into account nutritional targets and ingredient prices.

 Buying unprocessed foods is one strategy you can take, says Adda Bjarnadottir, a Healthline contributor with a Master’s Degree in Nutrition from University of Iceland.

“Some foods are way cheaper in less processed form. For example, a block of cheese is cheaper than shredded cheese and canned beans are cheaper than refried ones,” she wrote in a Healthline report in June 2017. “Whole grains, like brown rice and oats, are also cheaper per serving than most processed cereals. The less processed foods are also often sold in larger quantities, and yield more servings per package.”

She recommends that when you do find healthy foods you enjoy on sale, stock up. And replace meat proteins with other proteins from time to time.

“Try having one or two days per week where you use other protein sources, such as legumes, hemp seeds, eggs or canned fish,” she added. “These are all very inexpensive, nutritious and easy to prepare. Most of them also have a long shelf life and are therefore less likely to spoil quickly.”

Ultimately, like anything else worth doing, eating well while minimizing your food spending will require a bit of effort, including doing research. But it’s a lot easier to do these days, in an era when fast casual choices abound, fast-food restaurants have shown signs of getting on board the healthy-eating train, and almost all big grocery stores stock organic items. America might not eliminate its diet-related health problems tomorrow, but at least in this respect, we’re on the right path.

Brian Sodoma is a journalist who covers business, health and food. He lives in Arizona.



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