Eat Healthy Without Breaking The Bank

If you’re like millions of people, you resolved to eat healthier in the new year. We have all tried, at one point or another, to eat healthier. But what, exactly, does that mean? How is healthy defined?

Some people say to eat more fruits and vegetables and less meats and sweets. Unfortunately, fruits and veggies that are sprayed with pesticides and herbicides are not healthy. But aside from the debate about the importance of eating organic food, what would a healthy plate of food look like?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently converted its pyramid to “My Plate.”


The U.K.’s National Health Service recommends “The Eatwell Plate.”


And now, Harvard has come up with its own guidelines for healthy eating. And by my estimation, Harvard has hit a two-run homer in developing the “Healthy Eating Plate” and calculating “the cost of healthy eating.”


Healthy Eating Plate

In response to the perceived shortcomings of the USDA’s My Plate, nutrition experts at the Harvard School of Public Health, in collaboration with editors at Harvard Health Publications, developed the Healthy Eating Plate. This plate is a visual representation of what they believe a typical healthy meal should look like on someone’s plate. Here’s the gist:

  • 50 percent of your plate (or meal): Consists of vegetables and fruits. When choosing which fruits and vegetables to include, the general advice is to “pick from the rainbow,” including a diverse assortments of foods in as many colors as possible. When eating apples or peppers, eat a variety of colors: green, red and yellow.
  • 25 percent of your plate (or meal): Consists of whole grains. These should be in as close to their natural form as possible. In other words, skip the simple carbs derived from grains, the white flour, the “enriched” breads and pastas. These spike blood sugar and contribute to diseases like diabetes and obesity. Instead, go for whole wheat, quinoa, oats, brown rice and the like.
  • 25 percent of your plate (or meal): Consists of proteins. This means healthy cuts of beef and chicken, wild-caught fish, beans and nuts. Avoid heavily processed proteins and those with preservatives, nitrates and added chemical colors. (Omit standard hot dogs and bacon. Many stores now sell uncured, organic and nitrate-free hotdogs and bacon.)
  • Extras: Choose oils wisely, opting for olive, canola and sunflower oils and staying very clear of hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils. Drink plenty of water, and also drink tea and coffee. Limit sugary drinks and dairy products, including milk and milk products, to no more than two servings per day.

The Harvard experts say that staying active and adhering to the above guidelines will help you retain a healthy weight and reduce your risk of diseases like high blood pressure, high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes. I believe them.

The Cost Of Healthy Eating

While knowing what to eat and having the mind-set to do so are well and good, there are many people who simply think they can’t afford to do so. There is an urban myth that eating healthy costs so much more than eating crappy. A stroll through the aisles of Whole Foods can leave you wondering if you have enough funds to shop.

Well, fear not, friend in health. The great minds at Harvard have researched this, too. They conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis of prices of healthier versus less healthy foods/diet patterns in 27 studies in countries across the globe. The results were published in the December issue of the British Medical Journal.

Basically, the researchers compared the global costs of healthy foods against their unhealthy counterparts. For instance, they contrasted lean cuts of meat with cheaper and fattier cuts of the same protein sources (e.g., beef, chicken). While the costs of grains, dairy and sweets showed little variance across nations, meats had the widest differences. Healthier meats cost an average of 29 cents more per serving. The way they calculated the costs is quite interesting; if you have time, click here to learn the details.

The results overall? According to Mayuree Rao, lead study author, “We found that the healthiest diets cost about $1.50 more per day, and that’s less than we might have expected.”

This comes to about $550 more per person per year. That is less than purchasing one cup of Starbucks coffee every day. In other words, healthy eating, according to Harvard, is only nominally more expensive than unhealthy eating.


Now that we know how to eat healthy and that healthy food is really not much more expensive than unhealthier options, where’s the hitch? Well, for me, the hitch in all this is not addressing the difference in cost between organic healthy foods and the so-called “regular” versions of the same foods that are sprayed with toxic chemicals, like pesticides.

My suggestion is to use Harvard’s new Healthy Eating Plate as a guideline. Know that this huge meta-analysis shows a small disparity between unhealthy foods and healthy foods, so let go of anxiety about that. Then turn to nutrient-dense, organic options of the healthier foods and see how you feel physically — and financially — in 90 days.



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Dr. Mark Wiley