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Why Eating Quick, Cheap Food is Actually More Expensive

Why Eating Quick, Cheap Food is Actually More Expensive

I WAS IN THE GROCERY STORE YESTERDAY. While I was squeezing avocados to pick just the right ones for my family’s dinner salad, I overheard a conversation from a couple who had also picked up a fruit.

“Oh, these avocados look good, let’s get some.”

Then looking up at the price, they said, “Two for five dollars!” Dejected, they put the live avocado back and walked away from the vegetable aisle toward the aisles full of dead, boxed, canned, packaged goods where they can buy thousands of calories of poor-quality, nutrient-poor, factory-made, processed foods filled with sugar, fat, and salt for the same five dollars. This is the scenario millions of Americans struggling to feed their families face every day.

The odd paradox is that food insecurity — not knowing where the next meal is coming from or not having enough money to adequately feed your family — leads to obesity, diabetes, and chronic disease. Examining this paradox may help us advocate for policies that make producing fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole other foods cheaper, while rethinking the almost $300 billion in government subsidies that support the production of cheap, processed food derived from corn and soy.

At the same time, a Food Revolution, along the lines of that advocated by Jamie Oliver, a radical chef, can help Americans take back their table and their health from a food industry that has driven us to eat more than 50 percent of our meals out of the home compared to less than 2 percent 100 years ago. And most of those meals eaten at home are produced in plants, not grown on plants, are from a food chemist’s lab, not a farmer’s field. Cooking and eating whole fresh foods at home, can be cheaper, more fun, and simpler than most people think.

So I would ask you to consider: Have you ever made poor food choices because of cost? What is the REAL cost of this cheap food — the cost in dollars, on our health, on our environment, and even on the fraying fabric of our social and family systems?

This is what you need to remember:

  1. The true cost of unhealthy food isn’t just the price tag — in fact, the real costs are hidden.
  2. Eating healthy doesn’t have to cost more.

Sure, it seems cheaper to eat a burger, fries, and a soda from McDonald’s than to eat a meal of whole foods, but there are healthier options. Let me review why the true costs of eating unhealthy food are hidden, and give you some suggestions that will help you save money and suffering by eating well for less. Poverty or financial limitations do not preclude eating well, creating health, and avoiding disease.

Let’s start by looking at how our economy and public policy are geared toward the production of cheap, unhealthy food.

Government Policy Supports the Production of Unhealthy Food

Unhealthy food is cheaper because our government’s policies support its production. We’re spending nearly $30 billion a year to subsidize corn and soy production. Where do those foods go? Into our food supply as high-fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated soybean oil (trans fats), that are the foundation of almost all fast food and processed foods that are “manufactured” by the food industry.

Since the 1970s — when our agricultural policies where changed to support corn and soy farmers — we’re consuming, on average, an extra 500 calories (mostly in the form of cheap, artificial high-fructose corn syrup) per person.

When you eat unhealthy foods like these, the costs of medical visits, co-pays, prescription medications, and other health services skyrocket.

Corn and soy are also used to feed cattle for the production of meat and dairy. In fact, 70 percent of the wheat, corn, and soy farmed in this country is used to feed animals used for our food. The world’s cattle alone consume a quantity of food equal to the caloric needs of 8.7 billion people — more than the entire human population on Earth!

So, when our government helps pay for these foods — well, of course they’re cheaper! That explains the low price tag. But what about the OTHER costs to you?

The Hidden Costs of Eating Poorly

We all know that bad foods are bad for your health. It turns out they are also bad for the national pocketbook. For example, one expert has estimated that healthcare costs related to obesity are $118 billion per year. That’s nearly 12 percent of total healthcare expenditures — and more than twice that caused by smoking! Seventy-two percent of Americans are overweight and over one third are medically obese. One in three children born today will be diabetic in their lifetime and the life expectancy of our population is declining for the first time in human history.

A report from the Worldwatch Institute called Overfed and Underfed: The Global Epidemic of Malnutrition documented the real costs of obesity related to poor diet — and this does NOT include the other effects of poor diet such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, dementia, autoimmune diseases, and osteoporosis. Here were some of the conclusions of that report:

  • Obese people account for a disproportionate share of health-related absences from work.
  • Obesity accounts for 7 percent of lost productivity due to sick leave and disability.
  • 7 percent of all of North Carolina’s healthcare expenditures are related to obesity.
  • Obese people visit their physicians 40 percent more than normal weight people.
  • Obese people are 2.5 times more likely to require drugs prescribed for cardiovascular and circulation disorders.
  • Liposuction is the Number 1 form of cosmetic surgery in the US, with 400,000 operations a year.
  • Over 100,000 people a year have gastric bypass surgery.

According to a recent study in The New England Journal of Medicine (i), we’re spending about $20,000 per person for each extra year of life gained from medical interventions like drugs and surgery … as if that’s something to be proud of!

That doesn’t even take into account the $282 billion in costs resulting from medical interventions that go wrong — hospital infections, medical errors, deaths from drug reactions, bedsores, or unnecessary surgeries.

And what if that $20,000 per year was given to each person during his or her lifetime to support better nutrition, lifestyle, and stress management? My guess is that we would save trillions of dollars in health care expenditures on chronic disease!

As these numbers prove, the costs of eating fast, junk, and processed foods are often deferred until later. And that’s the key point: When you go to McDonald’s for a cheap burger and fries, you might immediately compare that lower price to whole organic foods which are more expensive in the short term. But the total cost isn’t reflected in how much you pay for your meal in the immediate moment, it’s the cumulative cost of what those decisions cost you over a lifetime.

For example, when you eat unhealthy foods like these, the costs of medical visits, co-pays, prescription medications, and other health services skyrocket. There are other non-economic costs of eating poorly as well. You reduce your ability to enjoy life in the moment due to increased fatigue, low-grade health complaints, obesity, depression, and more.

The biggest advantage of eating well now is not just preventing disease and costs later, but simply enjoying each day to its fullest. You can make that happen. Eating well doesn’t have to cost more.

It’s true that there are very few, if any, subsidies for the production of produce or healthier alternative foods. And the same government agency that supports the production of the ingredients for junk food provides less than $300 million for education on healthy nutrition.

But change is in the air. Dean Ornish, MD, has shown that a program to teach people to eat better, exercise, and learn stress reduction can prevent heart disease and reduce the need for heart bypass or other treatments. Insurance companies are starting to take notice as some cover the costs for that program. Paying $5,000 for such a program now, Medicare has finally recognized, is better than paying $50,000 later for a cardiac bypass operation.

A number of us advocated last year that a “health council” be established to coordinate and develop national polices that create and support health for Americans. This was part of the health reform bill and the National Council on Prevention, Health Promotion and Public Health was created by executive order of the President in June. Drs. Dean Ornish, Memhet Oz, Michael Roizen and I, among others, have been nominated to be on a 25-member advisory council that helps guide the council. The council is made up of all the cabinet secretaries in charge of departments that in some way affect our health — agriculture, health, transportation, environment, trade, labor, and more — and will be chaired by the Surgeon General. This provides a way to influence national policies to support and create health — including our food and agriculture polices — for the first time.

The idea that you can save money by eating well is further supported by studies like the one published by the American Dietetic Association (ii) that shows eating well to lose weight is actually cheaper — or at the worst, no more expensive — than eating poorly! The authors of the study concluded that “adopting a lower-energy, nutrient-dense diet did not increase dietary costs over time. Consequently, cost should not be a barrier in the adoption of a healthful diet.”

That’s powerful evidence that eating well is not just good for your body, it’s good for your wallet, too! Here are some ideas to get you started.

Four Tips to Start Eating Healthy for Less Today

  1. Listen to Gandhi. Yes, Gandhi! He said that we should never mistake what is habitual for what is natural. Case in point: Some Chinese are very poor and yet they eat extremely well — small amounts of animal protein, with an abundance of vegetables.
  2. Be willing to learn. We have to learn new ways of shopping and eating, new ways of ordering our priorities around our health and nutrition that supports our well-being, even if it is hard at the beginning.
  3. Do your research. There are ways to find cheaper sources of produce, whole grains, beans, nuts, and lean animal protein. You just need to seek them out. It doesn’t all have to be organic. Simply switching from processed foods to whole foods is a HUGE step in the right direction.
  4. Make an effort. Eating healthy does take more planning. It may require you to find new places to hunt and gather for your family. You might have to reorder your priorities regarding where you spend your money and your time so that you can make healthier eating choices.

Remember, eating healthy foods without spending a lot is possible-and you can do it.

Now I’d like to hear from you…

What do you think about the long-term costs of eating poorly?

Do you agree or disagree that eating poorly in the short-term has dramatic long-term consequences on your health care costs?

What other costs of eating poorly have you seen or experienced?

Are you also worried about the exploding costs of health care, whether insurance, medical, Medicare or other costs?

Please leave your thoughts by adding a comment below—but remember, we can’t offer personal medical advice online, so be sure to limit your comments to those about taking back our health!

To your good health,

Mark Hyman, MD


(i) Cutler D.M., Rosen A.B., and S. Vijan. 2006. The value of medical spending in the United States, 1960-2000. N Engl J Med. 355(9): 920-7.

(ii)Raynor, H.A., Kilanowski, C.K., Esterli, I., et al. 2002. A cost-analysis of adopting a healthful diet in a family-based treatment program. J Am Diet Assoc.102(5): 645-650, 655-656.

Mark Hyman MD is the Medical Director at Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Functional Medicine, the Founder of The UltraWellness Center, and a ten-time #1 New York Times Bestselling author.

Comments (23)

    • 2 for $5 might sound expensive but think outside the box. What about traveling to the local mexican grocery store. Usually cheaper there. I am in the process of using recipes from The Blood Sugar Solution cookbook along with a few other whole food books I have bought. I just spent $350 this week at various grocery and health food stores. Granted most of that is stock for the future. Now, it is up to me to continue to move forward and not waste that investment by letting it sit in the cabinets.

    • Heck yeah it is… I just bought them for $0.49 each at our local Aldi store.

  • I have long held that most of the “nutrition experts” are really simply promoting their own “magical cure-alls” to line their own coffers. It’s getting to the point, if you believe them, that everything is bad for you. To believe them, all you need to do is to buy their products instead – you don’t need to eat food, just eat/take their products and you’ll keep your “girlish figure” and live to be 200 years old. Yes, I have become very cynical in my old age.

  • Thank you SO much for articles like this! My husband was grossly obese just two months ago and was constantly sick with migraines and joint pain. I asked him over and over to please stop going to the store while I was at work to purchase junk…white bread, refined whatever he get his hands on. He replied that he was starving all the time. I said it was because he didn’t get enough real nutrition and his body was crying out for it. He went on the way he was, and one day I heard myself nagging him and decided to stop. I’m not his mom. I told him one last thing, that I would simply make sure his life insurance was up to date. Soon after, he watched a documentary about juicing. He went to the attic and dragged down an old juicer, watched a few more documentaries on healthy eating and went to the store and bought, omg, vegetables and some fruit!!! He juiced-only for 60 days. The first week the migraines were gone. The second week his ankles became inflamed and very painful. We studied up on it and decided that toxins were being released and he should keep up with what he was doing. He did, and by week three that pain was gone and he realized he wasn’t starving anymore, and he had so much energy!! In the last couple of weeks he has started adding whole foods back in his diet. We changed where we shop so we have more choices for the right kinds of food. Yes, we actually joined a health food store! Lots of organic choices throughout, as well as items such as fluoride-free tooth paste. Now HE gripes at ME for adding too much salt to my food. I can’t believe this new guy!! He has suddenly become the nation’s newest health guru and we’re both reading everything we can get our hands on to learn as much as we can, and help our friends. God bless you, Dr Hyman, for making the effort to write articles like this and get needed info out there! One person at a time, you are helping change the health of America!

  • I buy whole veggies at the beginning of the month when I get paid. but when the third week rolls around I am out of options and have to buy less expensive or go hungry. this not an exaggeration! I love avocados but only buy them (for a buck) at the cheapest stores. and only at the beginning of the month. When I was a kid, the only thing to eat was school lunches. then cereal and milk when I got home. no breakfast. When you are truly hungry anything will taste good. It can’t be thanksgiving everyday.

  • I absolutely believe that cheap, packaged food is a “buy now, pay later” approach to health. Just like using a credit card, or taking out a loan. It’s something you can get away with in the short-term, but eventually you will have to pay. Our family spends a great deal of our income every month on nutritious food for our family. More than what we pay for rent and utilities combined. Making a choice that we feel good about; investing in our own health, isn’t without conflict. Sometimes the expense feels extreme, or overly extravagant when faced with other things we would like to buy. However, we would rather invest in prevention now than a cure later. My personal health has always been an issue with packaged, processed foods. I have all manner of side-effects when I eat them. Everything from headaches and anxiety, to digestive issues and allergic reactions. It takes a lot of effort to actively avoid all these additives and engineered food-like substances. And as a parent, it really does feel like an uphill battle every time we go to the grocery store. Like “the system” is actively working against us. Cooking meals at home is really the key to this issue. I appreciate your work on this topic. And thank you for your continuing efforts to create a dialogue and about this issue. It’s a very important one.

  • I feel that our food supply is the greatest threat to our national security. I was born in 1945, fed from a bottle, and grew up with my mother cooking canned foods. She made salads with iceberg lettuce, radishes, carrots and a commercial dressing, and cooked our meats herself. I think she grew up (born in 1909) on a different diet, but adopted the more modern foods as they were introduced. I was a very picky eater as a child, and certainly loved sweets, which she limited. The only food I remember that we grew were the tomatoes my father planted, but I didn’t like those then.

    Now I am endeavoring to change my lifelong eating habits: no gluten, corn, soy, dairy, sugar, peanuts. I am seeking out eggs from local producers. I was diagnosed with MS about ten years ago, but have been lucky that it has not progressed, even after I went off the daily injectible I was using. I am endeavoring to follow Dr. Terry Wahls’ recommendations: 9 cups of veggies a day (3 of bitter greens such as kale and chard, 3 of cruciferous such as cabbage and mushrooms, 3 of “color’–other low-starch veggies plus berries). Rarely do I eat that much of them. She had progressive MS and was declining rapidly but reversed that so she is now out of the tilt wheelchair she was using largely through the changes in her diet. I have also been trying to incorporate a daily green smoothie into my diet: kale + cucumber + parsley or some such combo blended in a Vitamix, Ninja, or Bullet bender so it’s liquid). I am also trying to incorporate the suggestions in Nourishing Traditions and Eat Fat, Lose Fat, both by Sally Fallon and Mary Enig and based on the work of Weston Price, a dentist in the 1930s who travelled the world looking for an explanation in the deterioration he saw in his patients’ dental health and felt he found it when he looked at the health he found in populations that had not yet adopted a more modern diet. I am not there yet; still have 70 extra pounds and some symptoms of MS but I am much less achy than I had been while eating grains, particularly corn–I suspect it’s the GMO corn that is the culprit. I figure that I’ve been eating unreal foods for 65 years, so it might take a while to recover from the effects so I plan to stick with the plan.

  • What I would like to know is how to organize to pressure government to stand up for our health, or at least for freedom in our food supply. I’d like my tax dollars to not go to big agriculture but instead to smaller local producers. I’d like raw milk to be widely available from certified herds. I’d like the foods in schools to be locally grown and organic. I think we could cut health care costs a lot if we were able to eat healthier.

  • Reading your article about eating better is cheaper on the long run is totaly making sence to me. Because I am unemployed (but obise and diabetic) I also used to buy cheap food, but learning about your program I swiched to whole food/vegetables. Yes it cost a little more to eat well, but because I have no health insurance I can not afford to run to the doctor every time I don’t feel well. Since I started your program I feel better and I realy think that paying a little more for better food payes off at the end.

  • Buying processed cheap food is not cheap, in that we will eat more, because it is not satisfying our hunger. When eating whole fruits and veggies, fish, chicken, bean,etc.,ust eating healthy is cheaper, due to the fact the body is more satisfied and does not want to continue eating.

  • People are lazy. That is one reason why they buy prepackaged foods.
    People are tired. They may have difficult jobs and little free time, another reason to buy prepackaged foods.
    People are uneducated. They don’t teach nutrition benefits in school unless you’re going to be a nutritionist/doctor/nurse/healthcare provider.

    • to be honest you have a very good point…

      schools do need to start teaching things other than English, maths and science all the time and maybe start teaching people how to eat more healthy foods and probably how to operate a washing machine 😀

  • All those excess calories will be stored as fat – causing rapid weight gain.

    You will not succeed if you choose a diet and then give up on it after a
    few weeks or a month if it is not showing drastic changes in your weight and
    body image. The person will have to eat fruits and vegetables and food full of fiber while turning
    away from meat and carbohydrates.

    • Hi Tami,

      Depending on what browser you use, you might have to install an RSS application that will allow the browser to display the RSS feed.

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  • I’ve had to re-think my buying and eating decisions to prevent getting fatter and unhealthier.
    I found myself piling on the pounds after I started a job that requires me to sit for the full 10 hours a day.

    Previously I had a job where I stood and walked for 8 hours and only had to commute on a bike for up to 1 hour.
    My salary was less but I naturally burned more calories.

    At least 5 mile radius near my house is filled with fast food outlets and shops that mainly sells processed food.

    The only shop that has fresh fruit and veg at the front, literally on the paved footpath is a one-off family owned mini supermarket run by an Asian family. It is well attended. Well done to them, their fresh produce remains the most affordable around.

    Food retail giants like TESCO, Sainsbury and Lidl and Co-op provide “free” parking and some of them allow you to shop-online with cheap delivery or collect in store. Those supermarkets keep their fresh fruit and veg at the BACK of the store.

    Also supermarkets pre-pack their fruit and veg so it is easy to purchase rotten produce without realising.
    I recently had to return a pack of plums and strawberries because they were rotten. It was extra aggro and the manager didn’t give a damn about my lost time having to go back, stand in a massive que of fat, pissed off shoppers who had their trolleys stacked high with pure junk.

    Lucky I have a small garden and with more effort I could grow quite a bit for myself and family, it is about making the time and patronising shops that provide fresh produce at the front of their stores.

  • good article

    I try to eat organic and buy my food at a coop and at whole foods. But whole foods has both conventional and organic so I reluctantly am forced to eat conventional esp fruits and veggies not meat and milk. I don’t like to eat conventional due to the pesticides, etc but I guess it’s better than packaged, processed food. Whole foods says the sprays used on their products are minimal and biodegradable so supposedly don’t affect our health

    rudy ferrar