This article was first published in the May 2019 edition of NHD magazine.
Opinions can be divided about whether it is achievable to eat a healthy balanced diet when money is a concern.
On the one hand, certain nutritious foods can be expensive to buy on a regular basis. But on the other hand, many health professionals feel that following healthy guidelines can result in cost savings when compared with reliance on convenience food.
This article examines how realistic it is to eat healthily on a budget.
Social Determinants of Health
The World Health Organisation defines the social determinants of health as “the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age [which are] shaped by the distribution of money, power and resources at global, national and local levels [and are] mostly responsible for health inequities”.1
For example, studies have found that socioeconomic factors, such as having a low paid job and living in a socially deprived area, are associated with below average health.2
These social determinants of health can directly hinder nutritional intake in a number of ways. For example:
- Not enough money to buy sufficient food.
- A lack of cooking skills and cooking equipment.
- Limited time to prepare and plan meals.
- Limited access to food shops (which may include limited transport options), this is sometimes called a ‘food desert’.
This can lead to food poverty, which is the inability to access a nutritionally adequate diet in socially acceptable ways.3
If somebody is suffering from food poverty, then following healthy eating guidelines is unlikely to be a possibility. In this case, the priority will be sourcing sufficient food.
Unfortunately in these situations, the individual tends to have little control about what food they have access to. It is now estimated that more than 500,000 people in the UK rely on food parcels, which is an increase on previous years.4
Foodbank locations in the UK can be found on The Trussell Trust website.
Therefore, the first factor to consider is the degree to financial concern in question. Is the individual hoping to save some money on the weekly shop, or are they suffering from food poverty?
Home-cooking vs. Convenience Food
Some studies have found that cooking at home is associated with improved health and cost-savings as compared with eating out and using convenience food.5-7 But of course, this will depend on the types of ingredients used, and food which is eaten, regardless of whether they are made from scratch or pre-prepared.
Processed foods have been getting a particularly bad reputation recently, with the focus on reducing reliance on ‘ultra processed foods’. Convenience food is often higher in fat, salt and sugar.
However, there are also plenty of healthy and affordable processed food.
These include: frozen fruit and vegetables, tinned fish and pulses, hummus etc. Furthermore, a study from 2012 found that the 100 meals produced from five popular recipes books were higher in calories, fat, saturated fat and sugar, but lower in fibre, as compared with 100 supermarket ready meals.8
Processed food and convenience meals can also be a vital source of nourishment for those who struggle with cooking.
A useful money-saving strategy is buying food in bulk, cooking in batches and freezing this for future use. However, this isn’t always realistic. For example, those who are living paycheck to paycheck often can’t afford to buy in bulk. Similarly, some people don’t have the necessary cooking skills, access to cooking facilities, or storage space available. It is also unlikely to work for some people who have hectic schedules, chronic medical conditions or disabilities.
So it really depends on the type of processed foods which are used, and the individual’s circumstances. But processed foods as a whole shouldn’t be shunned.
Reducing Food Waste
When planning ahead is a realistic option, this can be a great way of saving money related to food. Importantly, this can help to reduce food waste – which is really important for the environment, as well as our wallets.
In the UK the average household is estimated to lose £470 per year due to avoidable food waste (or £700 for those with children).9
Planning meals and preparing shopping lists can also reduce the need to buy food ‘on the go’, which is often works out more expensive than preparing meals or snacks at home.
Food waste can be further reduced by freezing or refrigerating leftovers so these can be consumed for a later another meal (within food safety guidelines: https://www.food.gov.uk/safety-hygiene/chilling).
Having some awareness about portion sizes can also help to reduce food waste. This can mean that less money is spent on food which may not be eaten or may be thrown away.
Eating More Plants
Consuming a well-balanced, mainly plant-based diet is associated with positive outcomes in terms of heart health and cancer risk.10 But plant-based diets can also have cost-saving benefits.
One study from America compared the cost of following an economical version of the US healthy eating guidelines (MyPlate) with a plant-based diet. The results showed that the MyPlate diet cost $53.11 (roughly £41) per week, whereas the plant-based diet cost $38.75 (roughly £30).
This worked out as a cost-saving of $746.46 (roughly £575) per year as a result of following a plant-based diet.11
However, adopting a fully plant-based diets in a balanced way may not be realistic or appealing for everybody. But, including a few meat-free meals, or meat-free days, per week may be a more realistic option for many people.
The Impact of Fad Diets
Avoiding unnecessary restrictions and faddy diets may also help to save money.
For example, a recent study found that gluten-free products were 159% more expensive as compared with gluten-containing products.12
From a nutritional perspective, this study also found that gluten-free products tended to be higher in fat, sugar and salt; but fibre and protein than gluten-containing options. So unless there is a medical reason to avoid gluten, it makes sense from a health and financial point of view to avoid a gluten-free diet.
Similarly, a cost analysis of low-carb diets found that “the cheapest possible low-carbohydrate diet costs about triple the cost of the cheapest diet with no constraint on carbohydrate”.13
Studies have also found that low-carb diets may worsen health outcomes, as compared to diets which contain a moderate amount of carbohydrate.14
Therefore avoiding strict or faddy diets is likely to save money and be better for our health.
Money-saving Food Shopping Tips
There are a number of habits which can help to reduce the cost of the weekly shopping bill (as outlined below).
But it is important to bear in mind that these may not be feasible for everybody. For example, some of these tips involve: extra time and planning, access to a variety of shops, storage facilities, access to a freezer, and literacy skills.
Budget-friendly Shopping Tips:
- Swap expensive brand names and ‘organic’ items for supermarket own-brand versions.
- Check the discount section of supermarkets in the evening. But try not to buy something purely because it is on offer – it isn’t a bargain if you don’t actually need or want it!
- You can beat confusing offers and pricing by comparing how much a food costs per kilogram instead of the overall price.
- If you can afford to buy in bulk it can work out cheaper in the long run – for example, a 1kg bag of rice is often cheaper per kg, as compared with a 500g bag (but not always, so check the tag!).
- Frozen versions of berries, vegetables and fish tend to be cheaper.
- ‘Vegetable oil’ in the UK and Ireland is usually 100% rapeseed oil, which is a healthy and affordable oil to cook with.
- Supermarket own-brand oats are a really healthy and affordable staple food.
- Cheaper cuts of meat include: mince, brisket, chicken thigh, pork belly and neck of lamb.15
- Tinned lentils, beans and chickpeas can be a handy way to add protein and fibre to a meal, and this can also save money if it is used to replace meat once or twice per week.
- Use versatile and affordable options to add flavour, without adding too much salt. For example: low salt stock cubes (you can use ½ at a time to reduce the salt and cost further), dilute low salt soy sauce with water (which also makes it go further), use supermarket brand pepper, herbs and spices.
- Stick to your shopping list and don’t go shopping on an empty-stomach. Following these classic bits of advice reduces the risk of buying unnecessary food which may go to waste. Studies have found that we are more likely to buy more food and non-food items when we are hungry.16
- It can work out cheaper to buy from a fruit and vegetable shop and butcher, rather than getting everything in the supermarket.
- It’s worth checking discount stores, as they can have great deals on things like nuts, seeds, and tinned pulses.
- Great value can be found at wholesale stores, if you have access one.
- If you are really organised, you can use online price comparison websites (such as: http://www.mysupermarket.co.uk/)
There are a number of strategies that can promote a healthy balanced diet while also saving some money. This includes: as shopping wisely, reducing food waste, avoiding fad diets and eating a more plant-based diet.
However, the reality of being able to use these strategies is strongly dependant on individual circumstances.
In particular, the increasingly common issue of food poverty can shift food-related priorities from following a healthy balanced diet, to sourcing enough food to get by.
- WHO Website (2018) “Social determinants of health” [accessed November 2018 via: https://www.who.int/social_determinants/sdh_definition/en/]
- Lago et al. (2018) “Socioeconomic status, health inequalities and non-communicable diseases: a systematic review” [accessed November 2018 via: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5794817/
- Dowler & O’Connor (2012) “Rights-based approaches to addressing food poverty and food insecurity in Ireland and UK” [accessed November 2018 via: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0277953611005545
- Oxfam website (2018) “Food poverty in the UK” [accessed November 2018 via: https://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/our-work/inequality/food-poverty
- Tiwari et al. (2017) “Cooking at Home: A Strategy to Comply With U.S. Dietary Guidelines at No Extra Cost” [accessed November 2018 via: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28256283]
- Zong et al. (2016) “Consumption of Meals Prepared at Home and Risk of Type 2 Diabetes: An Analysis of Two Prospective Cohort Studies” [accessed November 2018 via: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27379673]
- Fiolet et al. (2018) “Consumption of ultra-processed foods and cancer risk: results from NutriNet-Santé prospective cohort” [accessed November 2018 via: https://www.bmj.com/content/360/bmj.k322]
- Howard et al. (2012) “Nutritional content of supermarket ready meals and recipes by television chefs in the United Kingdom: cross sectional study” [accessed November 2018 via: https://www.bmj.com/content/345/bmj.e7607]
- House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (2017) “Food waste in England Eighth Report of Session 2016–17” [accessed November 2018 via: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201617/cmselect/cmenvfru/429/429.pdf]
- Dinu et al. (2017) “Vegetarian, vegan diets and multiple health outcomes: a systematic review with meta-analysis of observational studies” [Available via: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/293329136]).10
- Flynn & Schiff (2015) “Economical Healthy Diets (2012): Including Lean Animal Protein Costs More Than Using Extra Virgin Olive Oil” [accessed November 2018 via: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/19320248.2015.1045675?journalCode=when20&]
- Fry et al. (2018) “An investigation into the nutritional composition and cost of gluten-free versus regular food products in the UK.” [accessed November 2018 via: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28851025]
- Raffensperger (2008) “The least-cost low-carbohydrate diet is expensive” [accessed November 2018 via: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0271531707002515]
- Seidelmann et al. (2018) “Dietary carbohydrate intake and mortality: a prospective cohort study and meta-analysis” [accessed November 2018 via: https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanpub/article/PIIS2468-2667(18)30135-X/fulltext]
- SafeFood website “Eating on a budget: cheaper cuts of meat” [accessed November 2018 via: https://www.safefood.eu/Healthy-Eating/Food,-Diet-and-Health/Eating-In/Eating-on-a-budget-cheaper-cuts-of-meat.aspx]
- Xu et al. (2015) “Hunger promotes acquisition of nonfood objects” [accessed November 2018 via: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4352797/]