Many people think that eating healthy is becoming harder and harder these days unless you’re willing to blow half your paycheck on groceries every week.
A good argument can be made to eat organic, but it can cost an arm and a leg.
Eating too many cheap, processed meats poses serious health risks, but finding high-quality, affordable alternatives can be tough.
According to research conducted by the University of Washington, eating healthy can cost up to 10 times as much as living off junk food. Is it really that bad? Well, more on that in a second.
Thus, it’s not surprising that it’s becoming kind of trendy to “eat junk and get shredded,” thanks to the rise in popularity of dietary protocols like If It Fits Your Macros.
While it’s true that you can build muscle and lose fat eating low-quality food (HOW MUCH you eat is what matters most, not WHAT), these types of diets aren’t sustainable in the long run due to micronutrient deficiencies and other health-related concerns. And let’s not forget how expensive poor health can become, especially when conditions become chronic.
By sticking primarily to healthy foods, you will enjoy improved energy levels, immune health, cognitive performance, and a general sense of well-being. And anecdotally speaking, the guys with the best physiques I can think of get the vast majority of their calories from healthy foods, with only a small portion coming from low-quality indulgences.
So, how do we solve this dilemma, then? Well, fortunately, eating healthy isn’t as expensive as some people claim. If you’re willing to do a little meal planning and add some variety to your diet, you can eat healthy without breaking the bank.
Here are my favorite healthy, inexpensive sources of protein:
- Eggs. They’re one of the best all-around sources of protein, with about 6 grams per egg, and are also a great source of healthy fats. Eggs also have several health benefits such as reducing the risk of thrombosis, and raising blood concentrations of two powerful antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin.
With an average price is about $0.20 per egg, or $2 per dozen, they’re hard to beat in terms of nutrition and price.
- Chicken breast. There’s a reason why fitness-minded people eat so much chicken: it’s cheap, extremely high in protein, and low in fat. A pound of chicken breast has about 100 grams of protein, and will cost you about $3.50.
While it’s true that poultry’s omega-6 and -3 ratios are out of whack (about 10:1, whereas beef is about 2:1), we can easily handle any imbalances by supplementing with fish or krill oil or eating fatty fish like salmon, tuna, trout, herring, sardines, or mackerel (which we should all be doing anyway).
- Packaged/canned salmon and tuna. Both are great sources of protein and omega-3 fatty acids, which can help protect us against a wide variety of disease.
Salmon contains about 22 grams of protein and 12 grams of fat per 4-ounce serving, and costs under $2. Tuna measures in at about 40 grams of protein and 2 grams of fat per 6-ounce can, at an average cost of around $1.50.
My favorite uses are making salmon burgers, and mixing tuna with Greek yogurt or chopped veggies.
- Almonds. These are by far my favorite type of nut. They’re delicious and nutritious, with a handful (about 15) weighing in at 9 grams of healthy fat, 4 grams of protein, and just under 4 grams of carbs. Like eggs, they also come with added health benefits, such as a reduced risk of diabetes, and lower body weight.
Almonds cost about $0.50 per ounce (25-30 nuts), making them easy to fit into any budget. They’re great by themselves, and go well in cold cereals like granola or muesli, and hot cereals like oatmeal. My favorite way to eat them, however, is to buy freshly ground almond butter. It’s delicious by itself, but really shines when you combine it with some fruits like bananas or apples.
- Low-fat cottage cheese. You can buy a ½-cup serving of low-fat cottage cheese for less than a dollar, and you get 14 grams of protein and only 1 gram of fat. I think it tastes great with just a dash of salt and pepper, but also like it with fruit like pineapple or berries.
- Protein powder. If you’re choosy, protein powder can actually be very cost efficient.
For instance, if you head over to www.truenutrition.com and build a 100% whey isolate with natural chocolate flavoring and stevia sweetener, it will cost you about $11 per pound. That’s 405 grams of protein for $11!
- Avocado. This is one of my favorite sources of monounsaturated fat (one avocado contains about 15 grams), which can improve cholesterol levels, reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, and improve brain function. On top of that, avocado is full of cancer-fighting phytochemicals.
You can do more with it than just make guacamole, as well. It goes great with eggs, in soups, and in salsas. Although the prices fluctuate due to seasonal highs and lows in both demand and production, they usually range between $1-2 per fruit, and each fruit can last several food servings.
Despite the current crusade mainstream crusade against carbs, they play a vital role in the diet of people that exercise. (If you want to learn more about why carbohydrates don’t make you fat, check out my post on carbohydrates and weight loss.)
That said, the most popular forms of carbohydrate here in the states are processed junk foods, which may pose serious health risks if consumed too regularly for too long. On the other hand, regular intake of nutritious carbohydrates has been associated with a reduced risk of chronic disease.
Here are my favorite sources of cheap, healthy carbs:
- Oats. One cup of dry steel cut oats packs just over 50 grams of carbs, 10 grams of protein, and 6 grams of fat.
You can buy it in bulk for about $1 per pound, and it’s a great source of medium-GI carbohydrate and dietary fiber. Research has also indicated that oats can reduce levels of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol.
Oatmeal is a staple in many bodybuilders’ diets, but you can even substitute blended oats for flour when baking, or as breadcrumbs or breading for spicing up chicken dishes.
- Black beans. Black beans are awesome source of carbohydrates as well as potassium, calcium, folic acid, and fiber. One cup contains about 40 grams of carbs, 15 grams of protein, and 1 gram of fat, and you can buy them for about $1 per can, or in bulk (dry) for even less.
Boil them up and they make a great side to any protein dish, but they’re also perfect for making soups and dips.
- Brown rice. Like oatmeal, brown rice is a “go-to” food for most of us fitness folk, and for good reason.
You can pick it up dirt cheap—around $2 per pound—and one cup provides close to 45 grams of carbs, 5 grams of protein, and 2 grams of fat, and has nearly four times the fiber as white rice, as well as more vitamins, minerals, and other beneficial micronutrients.
A better nutrition profile and lower score on the glycemic index make brown rice a better choice than white. Research has associated high levels of intake of refined grains such as white rice with an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes, whereas regular consumption of whole grains such as brown rice has been associated with a reduced risk.
- Quinoa. It might be hard to pronounce (keen-wah), but it’s easy to prepare, extremely tasty, cheap (about $4 per box), and full of healthy protein and carbs.
One cup of dry kernels has a 110 grams of carbs, 24 grams of protein, and 10 grams of fat, and it can be prepared in the same ways as brown rice.
- Fruit. You really can’t go wrong with fruit. My favorite choices are grapes, apples, bananas, and oranges, which are full of a variety of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and fibers. And price? All range between $0.60 and $1.50 per pound.
Oh and if you’re worried that fruit and fructose might be bad for your health, check out my post on why fruit and fructose don’t make you fat and unhealthy.
- Sweet potato. Sweet potatoes let you feel like you’re cheating when you’re not. They can be dessert sweet, they’re in the middle of the glycemic index, and they’re full of vitamin A and other micronutrients.
One cup of mashed sweet potato provides you with about 60 grams of carbs, 4 grams of protein, and less than 1 gram of fat. At a paltry cost of about $1 per pound, you can’t afford to leave the sweet potato out of your diet.
So there you have it, it IS possible to eat healthy without maxing out your credit cards.
In fact, you may even save money if you use a few other tricks like buying frozen veggies, buying in bulk, paying attention to sales and what’s in and out of season, and preparing your food in batches so you can use everything you buy.
And let’s not forget that the ultimate value of eating healthy—longevity, vitality, and disease-free living—is hard to put a price tag on.