Cheap and Сheerful: Healthy Alternatives to American Fast Food
For the last thirty years our eating habits have changed – food is getting cheaper and incomes are rising. In the US the average household in the late 80’s spent about 17% of its income on food while today it is about 11% (1).
The trend is global but the US tends to spend less on food than any other country. Over the last century, Americans have spent more and more on food they didn't prepare at home (1). The paradox is the following: high-income countries, like the US and UK, spend less on food at home but receive for that money much more calories, that it raises questions, what kind of food we’re talking about? For example, a dollar today buys 1,200 calories of potato chips and only 250 calories of vegetables or 170 calories of fresh fruit (2). Thus, there is no surprise that even with food expenditures having fallen by half in the last half-century, obesity rates have doubled (3).
So does it mean that you get what you pay for – including higher risk of obesity – when you choose cheap food? Luckily, no. There are many options of cheap but healthy food that you can find in any supermarket.
Frozen and Canned Food
Best way to eat something that is out of season or even unavailable in your region is to buy it canned or frozen. Researchers at the University of California–Davis found that the carbohydrate, protein, fiber, and mineral content are similar between fresh and frozen, and does not lose vitamins and phytonutrients during storage (4). Frozen vegetables are a great option for money-saving too: they are less expensive, and since you only use what you need, there is no waste. We recommend trying frozen spinach – it can be cooked and served many ways (from frying to smoothies) and a 16-oz. bag containing six 1-cup servings costs $1.99 which is 31¢ per serving (5).
Canned food is cooked and usually contains salt as a preservative, and canned fruit may come in sugary syrup with various additives. Removing the skin and rinsing off the salty or sugary canning liquids can reduce mineral content of canned produce. Ready-to-eat canned beans could be tossed into salads, whirl into dips or mashed for veggie burgers, and it will take only a couple of minutes instead of hours of cooking. Beans contain a significant amount of fiber and a variety of vitamins and minerals, including folate, iron, magnesium and potassium (6). A can of 15-15.5-oz. costs from $1.10 to $2.50, which works out to between 31¢ and 71¢ per ½-cup serving (5).
Only for around $2 for pound oats contain several components that have been proposed to have health benefits. Beta-glucan – the primary type of soluble fiber in oats – has been researched to help slow digestion, increase satiety, and suppress appetite. Oats rich in fiber (insoluble and soluble), phosphorus, thiamine, magnesium, zinc and pure oats are gluten-free (7).
Cheap as chips but rich in vitamin K, C and A, and many other nutrients, kale is one of the best ingredients to add to your healthy plate. It is now known as superfood (we have already written many reasons for that (8)) and costs only from ¢88 to $1.10 for a bunch.
Eggs are an efficient, rich source of protein and vitamins. Egg yolks are significant sources of lutein and zeaxanthin, which have been found to reduce the risk of cataracts and macular degeneration (9).The American Heart Association suggests one egg (or two egg whites) per day for people who eat them, as part of a healthy diet (10). Affordable average price of $1.54 per dozen allows eggs to rank on our list.
One of the cheapest fruits (about ¢60 a pound) bananas have a variety of health benefits. They are full of vitamins and minerals, potassium and manganese, as long as a decent amount of fiber, which may benefit digestive health and protect against diabetes (6). Bananas are great as a quick snack food and nicely combined with peanut butter or yogurt.
Flax seeds are tiny, but so powerful. They are high in fiber, omega-3 fatty acids for heart health, B vitamins, antioxidants, and lignans to reduce breast and prostate cancer risk (11). Seeds themselves are neutral in taste and can be added to anything, for example, crackers, granola, salad, smoothies, etc. There is also flaxseed oil that can be a great dressing. 16-oz. of flax seeds cost $5-6, but it is a long-term investment – a couple of pinches is enough for a serving.
- Derek Thompson Cheap Eats: How America Spends Money on Food. The Atlantic. March 8, 2013. Available at:
- Derek Thompson Why is American Food So Cheap? The Atlantic. January 11, 2010. Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2010/01/why-is-american-food-so-cheap/33259/
- Economic Explanations of Increased Obesity. National Bureau of Economic Research. Issue No. 4, April, 2006. Available at: https://www.nber.org/digest/apr06/economic-explanations-increased-obesity
- Fresh or frozen produce? The health benefit is all in the mix. Harvard Health Publishing. June, 2014. Available at: https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/fresh-or-frozen-produce-the-health-benefit-is-all-in-the-mix
- Beth Lipton 7 Healthy Foods That All Cost Less Than $1. Time. July 13, 2017. Available at: https://time.com/4855542/cheap-healthy-foods/
- Brianna Elliott 29 Healthy Foods That Are Incredibly Cheap. Healthline. August 20, 2020. Available at: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/29-cheap-healthy-foods
- Oats. The Nutrition Source. Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health’s Department of Nutrition. Available at: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/food-features/oats/
- Superfood list #3. Breaking Bread. September 10, 2020. Available at:
- Are eggs good for you or not? American Heart Association News. August 16, 2018. Available at: https://www.heart.org/en/news/2018/08/15/are-eggs-good-for-you-or-not
- Suggested Servings from Each Food Group. American Heart Association News. January, 2017. Available at: https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/nutrition-basics/suggested-servings-from-each-food-group
- Varena Tan Top 10 Health Benefits of Flax Seeds. Healthline. April 26, 2017. Available at: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/benefits-of-flaxseeds
Illustration: Janice Lin/Unsplash.com
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