Lose Weight, Save Money

Last Editorial Review: 4/7/2005

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

The best way to put nutritious food on your table without breaking the bank is by simply doing a little planning before you shop. Use the grocery ads, whether they come in the newspaper, by email, or you pick them up at the stores.

Before you head out to the store, take three to five minutes to make a list, says Smith.

"Figure you'll have three or four dinners at home this week, and at least two of those will be leftovers. Where will you get the most value? We would certainly recoup our investment of time if we'd spend that three minutes."

Because much of your food dollar is spent on protein, Smith says, it's smart to have a freezer. That way you can stock up at sales of lean ground beef, turkey, chuck roast, and other healthy meats that will stay fresh in the freezer for six to nine months. But, she adds, buying in bulk isn't for everyone.

"Some people are freshness freaks and don't like the idea of keeping food over a long period of time," she says. "Others don't want the work of managing the food inventory. You have to get in the habit of looking the food over and rotating it, and that takes an investment of time."

Time is also a factor in the popularity of bagged salads, grated cheese, cut-up apples and celery, and similar convenience items that are used by about 75% of Americans.

If you want to be frugal, Howard suggests you wash your own greens, grate cheese, and cut up apples and celery. Markup on the prepared versions represents $80 an hour in labor costs for shredded cheese and $75 an hour for sliced apples. But pre-cut watermelon represents just $6 an hour, which Howard says you may find worth it.

Here's a money-saving diet tip that doesn't take time: Don't buy bottled water. Instead, buy dishwasher-safe bottles, and refill them from the tap. As soon as a bottle is empty, it goes into the dishwasher.

"I want to stress that those bottles need to be washed," says Smith. "Get everybody in the household following the same pattern."

When it comes to eating out, saving money often means saving calories as well. Portion control is the key.

"When I talk about my rules for dining out, people roll their eyes," Howard tells WebMD. "No. 1 is, I can think of no restaurant meal I've had in a nice restaurant in the last five years that I couldn't have easily split with someone else. The portions are often enough for three or four people."

He suggests sharing an entree with someone, which most restaurants allow (some add a modest plate charge).

"My rule that really upsets people is, never eat dessert," Howard says. "Desserts that once cost $2 or $3 are now priced at $6 or $7. Yet restaurants make desserts usually for under a quarter." If you must have dessert, order one dessert and extra forks, and share it with the table.

Similarly, he advises not ordering wine with dinner. "The typical house wine costs a restaurant 20 or 30 cents," he says. "Think of what you're paying for a glass."

One less controversial recommendation he has is to take advantage of restaurants' early bird specials. "I like it because it's cheap, and also the portions are smaller," says Howard. "It used to be that restaurants served the same thing for less money during early bird hours, but now they're likely to serve smaller portions for less money."

Of course, trimming portions translates to fewer calories and fewer dollars at home, too. Smith says that restaurants' tendency to supersize has led us to expect larger portions than we need.

The U. S. Department of Agriculture offers an easy-to-remember guide that equates serving sizes to familiar objects. Keep these in mind, and you'll keep both your body and your budget in good shape:

  • A teaspoon of butter or margarine is roughly the same size as the tip of your thumb (to the first joint).
  • Three ounces of meat is equal to a deck of cards.
  • One cup of pasta is about the size of a tennis ball.
  • One bagel is about the size of a hockey puck.
  • 1 1/2 ounces of cheese is the size of three dominoes.
  • Two tablespoons of peanut butter is roughly equivalent to pingpong ball.
  • A half-cup of vegetables is the size of a light bulb.

Originally published Dec. 23, 2003
Medically updated Dec. 9, 2004

SOURCES: Clark Howard, host, The Clark Howard Show. M.J. Smith, RD/FADA, author of 60 Days of Low-Fat, Low-Cost Meals in Minutes. WebMD Weight Loss Clinic Expert Column: Portion Distortion, by Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, published Aug. 8, 2003. Center for Science in the Public Interest.

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