When measured on a cost per serving, cost per weight, or cost per nutrition basis, fruits and vegetables beat out meat and junk food:
Most Americans don't even meet the watered down Federal dietary recommendations. Some have suggested this is because healthy foods are more expensive, but is that true? It depends on how you measure the price.
For over a century the value of food has been measured cost per calorie. If you were a brickmaker in Massachusetts in 1894, you may have needed more than 8000 calories a day. The emphasis was therefore on cheap calories. So while beans and sugar both cost the same back then--5 cents a pound--table sugar beat out beans for fuel value.
Of course food offers much more than just calories, but they can be excused for their ignorance, since vitamins and minerals hadn't even been discovered yet. Even to this day, though, when the cost of foods are related to their nutritive value, the value they're talking about is cheap calories. When you rank foods like that, then indeed junk food and meat is cheaper per calorie than fruits and vegetables, but that doesn't take serving size into account. If you measure foods in cost per serving or cost per pound fruits and vegetables are actually cheaper (see the graphs in my 3-min video Eating Healthy on a Budget). For all metrics except the price of food calories, the USDA researchers found that healthy foods cost less than less healthy foods.
Most importantly, though, which is going to have the most nutrition? In the graphs in Eating Healthy on a Budget I show the average nutrient density of fruits, vegetables, refined grains, meats, milk, and empty calorie foods. Turns out that while junk food may be 4 times cheaper than vegetables, there's 20 times less nutrition. For meat, we'd be spending 3 times more to get 16 times less.
Conclusion: "Educational messages focusing on a complete diet should consider the role of food costs and provide specific recommendations for increasing nutrient-dense foods by replacing some of the meat with lower-cost nutrient-dense foods...Modifying traditional mixed dishes to incorporate more beans/legumes and less meat may be a cost-effective way to improve diet quality." That's good advice for everyone, not just low-income populations.
In my video, Eating Healthy on a Budget, I also show what 100 calories of cheese, candy, chicken, chips, bread, oil, fruits or vegetables looks like. Which hundred calories do you think would fill you up more? I explore the calorie density of other foods in my video Diet vs. Exercise for Weight Loss.
I have some other videos along the same vein:
- Eating Healthy on the Cheap
- Biggest Nutrition Bang for Your Buck
- Cheapest Source of Vitamin B12
- The Effect of Canned Tuna on Future Wages
- Are Goji Berries Good for You?
- Superfood Bargains
Hasn't the nutrition of our crops declined over the decades though? Or is that just supplement manufacturer propaganda? Find out in my video Crop Nutrient Decline. And if you want to strive to maximize the nutrient density of your diet, check out Calculate Your Healthy Eating Score.
-Michael Greger, M.D.