What is the cheapest healthy diet?
With the rising cost of living, what is the healthiest diet to follow when budgets are tight? We asked registered nutritionist Kerry Torrens to investigate
Research suggests that the average UK household spends approximately 16% (2023) of their budget on food and non-alcoholic drinks, with around two-thirds of adults spending less on non-essential items due to the cost of living crisis. Food and non-alcoholic beverage prices in this year alone have risen 13.6%, with public bulletin responses showing that 94% of adults believe one of the reasons for higher costs was increasing food prices. With this in mind, it begs the question: what is the cheapest way to eat healthy?
What is a healthy balanced diet?
Whatever diet you follow – flexitarian, pescatarian, vegetarian or vegan – you’ve likely seen your grocery bill go up over recent months. Eating a healthy, balanced diet plays a critical role in keeping us well and should be accessible to us all.
When we talk about ‘diet’ in this context we’re referring to the way we typically eat. For it to be healthy, your diet should include a balance of different foods, such as fruit, vegetables and wholegrains as well as proteins, while limiting the amount of less-healthy fats, sugar and salt.
What makes a diet expensive?
Typically, the most expensive components of a diet are those that cost more to produce and distribute. Fresh fruit and vegetables (especially when out of season), eggs, meat and dairy tend to cost more. Food quality plays a role here too, with organic and more sustainable produce costing more to produce.
Food inflation has seen staples, traditionally good-value items, increase in price too. Some spreadable ‘butters’, bread and pasta have all been impacted by rising input costs and similar effects are being seen in meat production as higher wheat prices drive up the cost of animal feed. The first of these to hit our wallets is poultry meat because of its fast production time.
Plant-based meat alternatives have, to date, failed to offer a cheaper solution. Costs have remained high owing to small-scale production as well as high innovation and development costs – these products can be twice as expensive as beef and four times that of chicken. These growing costs have also meant that sales for vegan alternatives such as chilled and frozen 'meats' declined by 16.8% and 13.5% respectively since 2022.
Having to isolate or concentrate vegetable protein (typically from pea or soya) to provide a comparable level to that of meat is a costly production process. Similarly, with plant-based ‘milks’, which typically retail at a premium to dairy, higher quality packaging accounts for some of this cost. Market analysts expects costs to reduce as companies find economies of scale and seek price parity.
Other factors that could keep your weekly shop expensive are value-added products. These are foods that have been enhanced to increase their appeal or extend their shelf life. They’re aimed at satisfying our ‘needs’ – be that to save time, cut down on preparation and cooking, cut food waste or simply be ready to use. Whatever the reason, we pay more for it!
Heavily marketed food and drink products, including those ‘on trend’, are always going to demand a higher cost from the consumer. Novel foods, as well as some we’re increasingly familiar with, such as plant-based milks, have higher budgets for marketing as they seek to grow their share of the market.
What makes a diet cheap?
Those same factors – seasonality, production and distribution, packaging, development and marketing as well as popularity – can make foods cheaper, too.
Recent world events have meant we’ve had to rethink some of the traditionally good-value items, such as wheat, vegetable oil and root crops. But this doesn’t mean a healthy diet has to be expensive; there are ways you can make your diet cheaper.
Buying in season when fresh produce is plentiful, and arguably at its best, is always going to be the most cost-effective choice for fresh produce. Failing that, head for the freezer aisle. Commercially produced frozen produce is frozen at the point of harvest, locking in its nutritional value and making it possibly a better nutritional option than the fresh equivalent. Food manufacture recorded that volume sales of frozen fruit and vegetables and freezer aisle products in general continued to soar, with the value of retail frozen food sales increasing by 20%. Purchasing frozen fruit and veg may be a better way of inputting nutritional value at higher volumes for into families diets, as you can guarantee they stay fresh and the produce goes further.
And, while meat, dairy and other protein foods are costly to produce, you can buy less popular, cheaper cuts. Meats such as beef skirt need longer cooking times but are no less tasty or nutritious; the wide range of offal is fabulous value and incredibly beneficial to health. Not keen? Try introducing a little liver into a cottage pie or lasagne while cutting back on the amount of meat you use in the recipe – you’ll find the flavour is enhanced and the meat not missed.
If sustainability is an important factor in your buying decisions, then it’s worth remembering that many small, local producers adopt organic practices but can’t afford the cost of organic certification. You’ll find these producers at local farmer’s markets, where you’ll have direct access to the seller/producer as well as the food’s provenance.
Buying fresh produce loose and picking up staples, such as grains, nuts and seeds, from refill shops may help minimise expensive packaging costs. Plus, buying wholefoods in this way cuts out the value-added premium of extra processing. Cooking from scratch not only puts you in control of the cost of ingredients but also their nutritional contribution.
One way to save money if you’re looking for convenience is to opt for supermarket own-label rather than premium-branded products. But if you’re wedded to a particular mainstream brand, get to know when your local supermarket offers discounts and get there early to bag a bargain. Alternatively, new retailers, such as Motatos, sell heavily discounted branded foods close to their best-before dates.
What is the most expensive healthy diet?
If cost was of no consideration it would be easy to eat a healthy diet all the time. Fresh wild or line-caught fish, organic meat, fresh produce and extra virgin olive oil are at the heart of the Mediterranean-style diet, a diet famed for its health credentials. But eating healthily doesn’t mean we have to overspend or miss out on a healthier way of eating.
What is the cheapest healthy diet?
The cheapest, healthy diet is simply the one you plan and put some thought into. Cooking from scratch and choosing your ingredients well is at the heart of healthy budget eating. Cutting back on meat and animal products as well as costlier manufactured plant-based foods will save you money.
That said, choose high-protein plant foods, such as tempeh or tofu, in preference to manufactured ‘meat’ alternatives and combine these with wholegrains, beans and pulses. A healthy, balanced vegan diet does need planning and an understanding of what makes it healthy to ensure it supplies all the nutrients you need.
How can I lower my food costs?
Tightening your purse strings needn’t mean food hardship. Indeed, it could be the start of a whole new relationship with food. Here are some ways to buy smarter:
• Avoid the rise in wheat prices and spend your money on staples such as lentils, chickpeas and brown rice instead. These make great base ingredients for filling, nourishing meals
• Buy fresh produce only when in season, otherwise buy frozen, canned or dried
• Choose cheaper cuts of meat. Chicken legs are better value than breast or thigh. And don’t forget offal – liver, kidney and heart all offer great value
• Check out the freezer cabinets for meat and fish. These are often a fraction of the price of their fresh equivalent and are typically prepped ready to use
• Can’t afford fresh or frozen fish? Buy canned. Sardines, salmon and mackerel are all great value for money options
• Buy wholefoods and cook from scratch. Avoid the value-added ranges – there’s really no need to buy pre-grated cheese, chopped onion or trimmed vegetables!
• Check out the yellow sticker reductions. These items may not be on your shopping list but they could be useful staples
• Buy own-label rather than premium-branded products
The key to eating healthily on a budget is flexibility and planning. Be prepared to change where you shop, how you shop and what you choose to put in your basket. Adapting your shopping habits, includes getting back in store rather than shopping online – this gives you the opportunity to check out new products and take advantage as retailers make changes to their value ranges, offer more discounts and fix prices of essential items.
Be prepared to look beyond your regular purchases and consider swapping fresh meat and fish for frozen and canned versions. Experiment with your cooking to replace or bulk out favourite recipes with more budget-friendly beans, pulses, wholegrains and vegetables.
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Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a registered nutritionist with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food. Find her on Instagram at @kerry_torrens_nutrition_
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