Can You Still Eat Ultra-Healthy on a Budget?
We all want to eat healthy foods — plant-based, organic, non-GMO, and whole, whenever possible.
For me and many others, that translates as “when we can afford to do so.” After all, a healthy diet can cost three times more than an unhealthy one, and my family (and I bet yours) has got the grocery bills to prove it.
But are we supposed to just settle? That’s a hard choice to make, especially when it’s not just your health, but your kids’ health that’s at stake.
Today, I hope to make that choice just a little bit easier for you. Not by answering the “Is it worth it to buy healthy foods?” question — that’s up to you — but instead providing some objective guidance as to which healthy foods are the most worth your hard-earned money.
A Start: Dr. Fuhrman’s ANDI Index
If you’ve ever shopped at Whole Foods, particularly at the salad bar, you’ve probably seen signs advertising the ANDI scores of certain foods.
It’s a little weird to think about boiling the nutritional value of a food down to a single number, but I like it. Nobody’s arguing that you should eat only a few high-scoring foods and ignore all others, but within the context of a healthy and varied diet, I like being able to “power rank” my foods and make choices accordingly.
ANDI stands for Aggregate Nutrient Density Index, and basically, it reports “nutrients divided by calories,” Fuhrman’s formula for healthy eating. This means the index rewards foods that are nutrient-dense (those high in micronutrients per calorie), and penalizes that are high in calories without packing much in the way of nutrition. Then the scores are scaled so that the highest score 1000 and the lowest score 1. (More details about the methods at the bottom of this page.)
The results are interesting, but not all that surprising: leafy greens top the chart because they pack lots of nutrition in very few calories, followed by other vegetables, then fruits (as the calories start to increase), then nuts and seeds, then beans, then animal products, then junk food.
To get anything from the charts that follow in this post, check out the sampling of ANDI scores for common foods here.
But which healthy foods are the most affordable?
This is the question I found myself asking the other day as I reached for a bunch of kale from the Whole Foods produce section.
Actually, it was a more specific one: Are all these greens worth the cost?
I mean, I know kale is healthy — ANDI says so, giving it the highest score of 1000. But are there perhaps cheaper vegetables that, while not quite as nutrient-dense as kale, might be a much better value for the price?
And thus, this post (and a day of gathering data and fiddling with numbers) was born.
Two Ways to Eat
This turned out to be squirmier than I had anticipated, and the issue comes down to caloric density.
Some people believe that we eat roughly the same weight of food each day — enough to fill up our stomach several times throughout the day (about four to five pounds of food per day, according to Chef AJ in our recent podcast interview). If you’re eating nothing but vegetables, you might consume only 1200 calories per day this way. But add in fruits, nuts, oils, and other more calorically dense foods, and you get 2000 or 3000 calories for the same weight of food.
To people like this who want to save money, the question is “How many pounds of food can I buy for a given amount of money?”
Others believe they need a certain number of calories per day, and they’ll be hungry, have no energy, or become unhealthy if they don’t reach that number. To them, the budget-conscious question is “How many calories worth of food can I buy for a given amount of money?”
Let’s assume that both types of people want to eat as healthily as possible within their framework — they’re not out to buy junk food because it tastes good.
So how should they shop?
Table 1: The lowest ‘cost per unit of nutrient density’ foods
My first step was simply dividing each food’s price-per pound by its ANDI score, to get a “price per ANDI point” for each food. This would be a decent metric for the person who doesn’t aim to hit a certain number of calories, only to fill his or her stomach with healthy food.
The numbers this produced were tiny, so I multiplied by 100 to make them easier to grasp, similar to how ANDI normalizes scores so that they fall between 1 and 1000.
You can think of my calculation, then, as a cost per ANDI-pound, where ANDI-pound is my shorthand for “pound of 100-ANDI-score food.”
For example: Oranges score 98 on the ANDI scale. A pound of oranges, then is roughly equal to an ANDI-pound of oranges. But a pound of kale, which scores 1000 on the ANDI scale, is equal to 10 ANDI-pounds. Assuming both pounds of food fill your stomach the same amount, the kale does so with 10 times as much micronutrient content per calorie. (And remember, here we don’t care about how many calories we consume when we eat a pound of food, other than through its impact on the ANDI score.)
The table below ranks the foods according to their cost per 100-ANDI-point pound — again, a simple measure of cost per unit of nutrient density. You can see that many of the high ANDI-score foods stay near the top, making them a great value, too. But some lower-ANDI foods, like carrots, jump up the chart because of their relatively low cost per pound, compared to greens.
The formula for the rightmost data column in this one is “100 x cost per pound / ANDI”. Methods are explained in more detail at the very end of this post.
|Food||ANDI score||Cost per pound||Cost per ANDI-pound||Notes|
|Bok Choy||865||$1.19||$0.14||Organic price for bok choy|
|Brown Rice||28||$0.48||$1.72||Price is per cooked pound, starting from dried, assuming cooking multiplies weight by 3.5|
|Ground Beef, 85% lean||21||$5.19||$24.71|
|Kidney Beans (canned)||64||$0.74||$1.16|
|Kidney Beans (dried)||64||$0.68||$1.06||Price is per cooked pound, starting from dried, assuming cooking multiplies weight by 2.5|
|Lentils (dried)||72||$0.60||$0.83||Price is per cooked pound, starting from dried, assuming cooking multiplies weight by 2.5|
|Low Fat Plain Yogurt||28||$1.00||$3.55|
|Oatmeal||36||$1.01||$2.81||Price is per cooked pound, starting from dried, assuming cooking multiplies weight by 1.75 for rolled oats|
|Pomegranates||119||$4.00||$3.36||Price is for entire fruit|
|Vanilla Ice Cream||9||$1.00||$11.07|
|Whole Wheat Bread||30||$1.33||$4.42|
Table 2: The lowest “cost per unit of nutrition” foods
But what if you don’t buy the idea that all you need is a certain weight of food each day, and instead you aim to get as many (healthy) calories as you can for your money?
This is much different from the first calculation. Now, instead of “dollars per pound” being the numerator, it’s “dollars per calorie.” When we put “per calorie” in the numerator, we’re canceling the “per calorie” in the ANDI score, which is in the denominator, thus losing any sense of nutrient density. Instead, we’re now measuring dollars per unit of micronutrient content.
The numbers in this calculation also ended up being tiny, so I multiplied by 10,000.
An example makes the difference between the two tables clear: in Table 1, mustard greens outranked kale because the mustard greens are cheaper per pound (78 cents instead of 95 cents, while both greens have the same ANDI score of 1000). But in Table 2, kale comes out ahead.
Why the difference? Because kale packs twice as many calories per pound as mustard greens do, at least according to the source I used for caloric density.
The formula for here is “10,000 x cost per pound x calories per pound / ANDI”. Again, you can see more about my methods at the end of this post.
|Food||ANDI score||Cost per pound||Calories per pound||Cost per ANDI-pound, calories rewarded||Notes|
|Lentils||72||$0.60||512||$0.16||Price is per cooked pound, starting from dried, assuming cooking multiplies weight by 2.5|
|Kidney Beans||64||$0.68||384||$0.28||Price is per cooked pound, starting from dried, assuming cooking multiplies weight by 2.5|
|Bok Choy||865||$1.19||48||$0.29||Organic price for bok choy|
|Kidney Beans (cooked||64||$0.74||384||$0.30|
|Brown Rice||28||$0.48||496||$0.35||Price is per cooked pound, starting from dried, assuming cooking multiplies weight by 3.5|
|Whole Wheat Bread||30||$1.33||1104||$0.40|
|Pomegranates||119||$4.00||368||$0.91||Price is for entire fruit|
|Vanilla Ice Cream||9||$1.00||928||$1.19|
|Low Fat Plain Yogurt||28||$1.00||288||$1.23|
|Oatmeal||36||$1.01||176||$1.60||Price is per cooked pound, starting from dried, assuming cooking multiplies weight by 1.75 for rolled oats|
|Ground Beef, 85% lean||21||$5.19||960||$2.57|
Methods, Shortcomings, and Next Steps
This already-nerdy post is about to get nerdier. Here’s more detail about what I did, including some things that could clearly be improved:
- I did this only for the foods on this sampling of the ANDI chart. Fuhrman sells a more comprehensive list on his site, but I figured it might be a problem to publish those numbers. Plus it’d be extremely time consuming. But if a bunch of us worked together …
- For consistency, I used prices of non-organic food, with one exception (bok choy) where I couldn’t find a non-organic price.
- I used the USDA’s National Retail Report for Fruits and Vegetables for average prices of many foods. For foods that I couldn’t find in this report (even non-fruits-and-vegetables), I used the prices at a Safeway in Maryland. For those I couldn’t find there, I did Google searches. Certainly this introduces some biases which could be removed with more thorough gathering.
- I used 1-pound packages wherever possible, to avoid different prices due to buying in bulk. But many times this wasn’t possible.
- If I saw multiple prices, I went with the lowest.
- Some foods that are sold by weight come with inedible waste, like banana peels and the outside of pomegranates. I didn’t do anything to adjust for this.
- I used the nutrition calculator at nutritiondata.self.com to get calories-per-pound data.
So there you have it. I had a lot of fun with this project, but to do it thoroughly would clearly take many times more work. If that’s something you’d like to help me with, get in touch and we’ll see what we can do!
This is awesome but I wish it was in order of highest to lowest nurtient density and also wish lists like that where just more approachable for the lay person like myself who is just starting to remove meat from there diet
Click on the ANDI score and you can sort it from high to low. That is what I did.
I love this post! I ask myself a lot if the money I spend on my groceries (mostly organic, mostly produce) are worth it – I think we spend more than most people on grocery trips. However, this justifies it for me (as I am sure it did for you). Thanks for the fun, nerdy, informative post!
Whoa! So we do need that junior high math after all! This was lots of work, and interesting. Your prices are definitely lower than what we find around here. Maybe a good idea would be to take some of these high ANDI score greens and grow them… kale, spinach, and chard are easy peasy to grow… in containers, or scattered in your flower beds between the petunias. Then you really are getting more bang for your buck.
Thanks for doing this! Certainly helps when trying to budget and plan for grocery shopping.
One thing that i think could definitely help in terms of even more efficient planning is to figure out portion sizes! May be a good way tk start a system for building the best meal plan and maximising nutrients/money 🙂
Also wondering how you are calculating all this, i hope you are using some sort of automated spreadsheet, if not let me know, I’m sure i can set up something to help you out!
Wow, that’s the math-nerdiest post I’ve ever read about food – I love it!! I think that often when people complain about how much it costs to eat healthy, it’s because they aren’t comparing apples to apples (for lack of a better phrase). Buying whole ingredients costs more up front, but often makes many more servings than a ready-made, lower quality meal, and I think that when we compare protein sources pound for pound (beef, chicken or fish versus dried beans, tofu, etc.) the cost difference begins to erase itself.
That article was very interesting but I started to get confused. I think I would need to print it out and read it more slowly and then highlight parts that are important to me. Thanks!
Thanks for doing the work, Matt. However, I can tell you that it is ALWAYS cheaper to eat healthy, ESPECIALLY when not purchasing meat. When I was single, I spent $25 per week at the grocery store and ate very well. Beans, vegetables (frozen is perfectly fine)…. unprocessed food is CHEAP!
A lot of the times people claim it costs to much to eat healthy I think they are looking for an excuse, at least some of the time and want to use that to justify buying absolute junk with no nutritional value whatsoever. Other times they may be talking about how much is wasted which has a lot to do with meal planning and whether they are motivated to cook often enough to use up the stuff they bought. In my extended family I am the weird one because I make the extra effort to eat healthy. I am trying to avoid the health problems so many of my relatives have – Type II Diabetes, high blood pressure, cholesterol, overweight, etc., you name a American health problem related to the modern diet and they have it. But they will say things like “Something’s going to kill you…” as if to say that one might as well eat what they want because one will die in the end… But my view is while I am here, I want to enjoy my food and have the energy and physical ability and quality of health to enjoy my life doing active things. I so wish I could convince my family to make changes but they have yet to do so. I also think it goes back to the person’s view of food — if you don’t think your health is directly related to your food choices and lifestyle (activity and whether you drink alcohol or smoke and if so, how much) as I do then why would you place any importance on choosing healthy food? If you think vegetables are the tough-to-chew, time-consuming to prepare bland fiber chunks so you avoid them in order to have more money and time for eating cheese covered fried meaty things then you would be looking for the largest quantity of cheapest chewable things as opposed to the highest quality nutritious food that enhances your health. Also, what is the healthy food compared to, in terms of expense? That is different for different people. For me it is less expensive than medications and operations I hope to avoid in addition to the benefits of better quality of life allowing me to be active instead of molding into a permanent fixture on the couch.
Good work on the charts. Very interesting. I think it is probably too complicated for some folks who might be more easily convinced if the info was easier to understand though but then again some people will never be convinced.
i think that only looking at “direct” costs disregards the huge cost that an unhealthy diet has. I am 54 and unlike the rest of my family I am vegan (have been vegetarian for 30+ years) and am not on any medication for any chronic health issue. Thus my “expensive” foods over the years have saved me a lot of money that many other people I know spen on doctor visits or medications.
I know that we always look at only what is right in front of our face at the moment and we don’t take the longterm effects into consideration, thus unhealthy diets, global warming etc and the list goes on and on. Any thinking, ratioal person will gladly spend the extra money to keep themselves and their loved ones healthy.
additionally, you do not need to shop at Whole Foods for healthy foods, farmer’s markets, CSAs and “regular” grocery stores often have the same stuff but cheaper.
here’s to putting good fuel into your engine. We all only have one body, why not take the best care possible?
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Wow you really put a lot of work in for your readers here. Either way, the greens turn out pretty well. I like the focus of your blog on everyday, inexpensive ingredients– much as I might like the occasional goji berry or whatnot, there is a lot of less hyped, less expensive, nutritious food out there. I am going to share this with my husband, he’s very into thinking about food in terms of the ANDI score, too.
Not that eating healthy is costly, i think the problem is that some people are picky when it comes to food that’s why they don’t even bother to acquire new food recipes and learn how to prepare them. But i must imply that some of these raw foods are not found easily in some area. Thanks Matt for sharing this, it must have come from your personal experience.
This is just the kind of data I was looking for. Thank you Matt.
Super work, thank you for the effort and for giving this away for free.
Probably the most useful post on food I have ever read on the internet.
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