Lose Weight, Save Money

How to eat healthy without blowing your budget

By Leanna Skarnulis
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD

You want a trimmer body, not a slimmer wallet. But when you're cutting calories, it's not always easy to cut costs. If you're not careful, fresh salads, juicy fruits, and lean meats can add up to far more than the value meal at McDonald's or that economy-size box of macaroni and cheese. What's a cost-conscious dieter to do?

The first thing to keep in mind is this: When you count the costs of a healthier diet, don't forget to tally the costs of being overweight. Just ask the famously cheap author and radio personality Clark Howard.

It's true that fans of the Clark Howard Show tune in for Howard's cost-cutting strategies, not diet tips. "I've got the exercise part down," he tells WebMD. "I exercise every day and run a half-marathon every year. But I eat fast food."

But after Howard told his radio audience that buying fast food burgers could be cheaper than cooking at home, a doctor at the University of Virginia wrote to him to point out the medical costs of obesity, diabetes, and hypertension. The doctor wrote, "Cholesterol drugs can cost you $100 a month, and being admitted to a hospital can cost you hundreds per day. So is it really worth it to eat fast food?"

Healthier diets could save Americans more than $200 billion a year in medical costs, lost productivity, and expenses caused by death, according to the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). Bad eating habits, combined with a lack of exercise, lead to 310,000 to 580,000 deaths each year -- about as many as smoking. Diseases linked to poor nutrition and a sedentary lifestyle include cancer, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, stroke, and high blood pressure.

Low-Cost Eating at Home

Another thing to think about when buying food is how much nutrition you're getting for your money, says M.J. Smith, author of 60 Days of Low-Fat, Low-Cost Meals in Minutes.

"French fries are cheap, but other than a little vitamin C, some energy, and a whole lot of dangerous fat in most cases, that's the contribution relative to the cost," Smith says.

In her nutritional counseling practice, Smith noticed that mothers often were comfortable splurging on name-brand cereals for the kids and expensive sodas-by-the-can for dad. Then, they had no grocery money left for healthy foods like fresh pineapple or salmon filets. "Mom will buy the sugary cereal that costs $4 a pound but will think a pineapple at $2.89 is too expensive," Smith tells WebMD.

Similarly, a 3 pound lean pork roast priced at $12 might seem out of reach. "The average consumer doesn't look at the roast and think, that's enough meat to provide three dinners for a family of four," says Smith. "They just look at the $12."

She suggests the first meal might be slices of roast pork, served with a baked potato or fresh breadsticks, and steamed broccoli or a salad. For the second and third meals, leftover pork roast can be made into chili or stew, and shredded to make barbecue sandwiches on whole-wheat buns.

Smith, who lives in Guttenberg, Iowa, tells WebMD that a lot of eating during Midwestern winters is centered on televised sporting events.

"Instead of serving a sugary soda on nights when you're providing a special beverage, pour glasses of juice," she suggests. "There are so many fun juice blends. Look at the label to make sure it's 100% juice and its vitamin C content is 100%. For example, Juicy Juice has a berry blend with added vitamin C to make it comparable to orange juice."


She offers some other tips for a nutritious diet that's low in cost, too:


"Put nutritious food on your table without breaking the bank...by simply doing a little planning before you shop."

  • Use pulled or diced chicken, found in the freezer section, to make fajitas, soups, or stir fries at home.
  • Mock crab, already diced, is great for crab cakes or crab salad with low-fat dressing. And it's far less expensive than real crab.
  • Sprinkle raisins on top of cooked squash and sweet potatoes to add sweetness.
  • Use broccoli and cauliflower flowerets for fresh salads, and then chop the stems for soup.
  • Use low-fat evaporated milk instead of cream in cream soups.
  • Substitute Romaine lettuce for iceberg to get more flavor and less waste per pound.
  • Eat apples every day, and watch for seasonal specials that run from September through January on different varieties.
  • Make a main dish salad in 10 minutes with a package of tabouli, grape tomatoes, chopped cucumber, and a sprinkle of fresh grated Parmesan cheese.
  • Serve couscous alongside small portions of chicken or fish.
  • Make a meal of packaged black-bean-and-rice mix by adding fresh tomato, cilantro, and/or diced cooked chicken. (This will also dilute the mix's salt content.)
  • One slice of 100% whole wheat or seven-grain bread will satisfy kids' appetites.
  • Instead of small packages of flavored yogurt, buy low-fat yogurt in quart containers and mix it with crushed pineapple in juice.
  • Serve low-fat cottage cheese with canned diced peaches in juice.
  • Buy part-skim mozzarella cheese by the large block. Slice it into 8-ounce portions and freeze.
  • Buy store brands of nutritious cereals, such as raisin bran, corn flakes, Chex, and mini-wheats.

Plan Ahead to Save



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