Over the past two years, the cost of vegetables, meat, fruit, and other high-nutrition, low-calorie foods has increased by an average of 19.5 percent. But junk foods? Their prices have actually decreased slightly, by 1.8 percent. Our economic outlook isn’t only making it harder to make ends meet—it’s making it harder to make the two ends of our belts meet. In fact, researchers recently estimated the cost of a diet based on high-calorie foods versus one based on healthy, low-calorie foods. The high-calorie diet you could eat for $3.52 a day. The low-cal diet? A whopping $36.32 per diem.
That sounds pretty bad—unless you factor in the long-term costs of bad eating habits. Overweight people are 25 percent more likely to be hospitalized for heart disease than slim people. Their hospital stays are 16 percent longer. Their risk of high blood pressure is 44 percent higher; the risk of developing kidney cancer is 42 percent higher; the risk of high cholesterol, 33 percent higher. And those numbers only get worse if you’re obese.
In the end, your best bet is to eat the healthiest, most nutrition-packed food your money can buy. Fortunately, Eat This, Not That! Supermarket Survival Guide came up with a list of smart, healthy swaps that you can buy for less than their equally healthy, more expensive equivalents. So instead of saving money buying junk food, you can save money buying healthy food. Now that’s a deal.
Best Breakfast Food
The best breakfasts for all-day productivity are high in protein and low in refined carbohydrates, so even if there were no price difference, eggs would be a much better choice over a bowl of cereal (especially if it's one of the sickly sweet varieties). That said, there is a substantial price difference. Say you can scrounge five bowls from one box-that's 90 cents a meal (without the milk). A dozen eggs, though, makes six meals-each for an average of 31 cents. When you think of it that way-that by eating cereal over eggs, you're spending three times the amount of money on a meal-the choice is that much easier.
Dried Lentils, $1.18/LB
Brown Rice, $1.59/LB
For about the price of a bottle of water you can boil up a massive pot of soup- and salad-ready lentils. A pound-size bag has 11 grams of fiber and 10 grams of protein in each of its 13 servings. It's also one of the world's richest sources of folate, a B vitamin that helps form oxygen-carrying red blood cells and promotes communication between nerves cells. You'll gain all that good stuff, while saving an average of 41 cents per pound if you choose lentils over brown rice.
Canola Oil, $0.31/LB
Extra Virgin Olive Oil, $2.42/LB
Best Cooking Oil
Save the pricey olive oil for dressing salads or drizzling lightly over grilled vegetables. Canola's neutral flavor is great for cooking, and it happens to have an even better ratio of monounsaturated to saturated fat than the vaunted extra virgin. Olive can cost as much as a dollar per ounce, while high-end canola costs about 25 cents. Or, if you buy average of each, you'll save over $2 a pound on canola.
Red Delicious Apples, $1.26/LB
Best Brown-Bagged Fruit
If you bring your lunch to work every day, it's smart to toss a fruit in the lunch sack. But which one's most worthy of your hard-earned money? An apple will give you 14 percent of your day's Vitamin C and 4 grams of fiber, but a banana, at half the price per pound, offers more Vitamin C and just 1 less gram of fiber.
Frozen Blueberries, $1.75/LB
Fresh Blueberries, $1.90/LB
The price of fresh fruits out of season is significantly higher than when they're in season, due to transportation costs. And if you want to get your money's worth, you'll need to eat them within three days of buying, so they don't spoil. 1 cup of frozen blueberries gives you just as much fiber as the raw variety, and a handful fewer calories. While fresh blueberries offer 18 percent more Vitamin C, that difference isn't worth the extra cost.
Best Side Vegetable
When it comes to health benefits alone, broccoli beats cauliflower-half a cup of cooked broccoli delivers 24 percent of your Vitamin A, 84% of your Vitamin C, and 3 grams of fiber. But at a significantly reduced price, half a cup of cooked cauliflower is also good for you-it has a gram of fiber and 46 percent of your recommended daily intake of Vitamin C. If you're really looking to cut corners, cauliflower is a much cheaper option that still packs a nutritional punch.
Romaine Lettuce, $1.91/LB
Best Salad Base
The leafy greens in your salad can really vary in their nutritional content-iceberg lettuce, for example, is significantly less nutritious than romaine, which is yet again less nutritious than cabbage. In fact, 1 cup of cabbage gives you more than half of your daily vitamin K requirement-and it's $1.29 less per pound than Romaine.
Best Vegetable Snack
If you're looking for a super healthy, low-calorie snack, you'll get more of a nutritional punch from carrots than celery, at practically the same cost per pound. 1 serving of carrots has two times as much fiber as celery-and 43 times as much Vitamin A.
Pork Loin Chops, $3.28/LB
It's a little strange to us that ham is one of the least nutritious types of pork you can eat, but it's a little more expensive than loin chops-the second most nutritious. While you're only saving 14 cents per pound by opting for loin chops over ham, you'll benefit hugely from the extra nutrients, and more healthful protein-to-fat ratio.
Chicken Leg, $1.48/LB
Chicken Breast, $2.37/LB
Eat This, Not That! Supermarket Survival Guide developed a matrix where we compare all major cuts of beef, pork, poultry and alternative meats through a rigorous equation to assess their core nutritional value. The criteria? High protein-to-fat ratio; density of 10 essential nutrients commonly found in proteins; and low saturated fat concentrations and cholesterol levels. Light chicken meat won out handily over all other cuts, with chicken breast being the best you could buy. But for an almost equally healthy chicken alternative, a dark chicken leg will save you 89 cents a pound—and it scored higher in nutritional value than all cuts of beef except for kidney and liver.
One more thought: You can also opt for frozen chicken breast, which contains almost identical nutrients at half the price as the fresh breast. In our taste tests, we found it impossible to tell the difference between fresh and frozen.
Farmed Catfish, $2.52/LB
Pacific Halibut, $4/LB
You know you should be eating more fish, but do you know which kind is healthiest? We've analyzed a dozen of the most popular fish choices and ranked them from first to worst. Our favorite sea creatures are rich in omega-3s; relatively low in mercury, PCBs, and dioxins; have decently high protein content; and are ecologically sustainable. With these qualifications in mind, both the Pacific Halibut and Farmed Catfish rank well. But opt for the Catfish, and you'll save an average of $1.50 a pound.