Nutrition On A Shoestring (Part 1)

Gas prices have passed the $4.00 mark, at least in some parts of Massachusetts, while prices of homes continue to drop. And you’d pretty much have to have your head buried in the sand not to notice that the price of food has skyrocketed, too.


Just last week, there was an article in The Boston Globe featuring three families and how much they paid for weekly groceries. Two out of three families shared that they’ve had to curb their food spending somewhat and have switched to store brands along with scanning the weekly supermarket flyers, trying to find the best price. One single mother was also relying on WIC support to feed her two sons.

But not everyone may be feeling the pinch, or, if they are, they’re taking it in stride. The third family, a family of four, highlighted in the Globe story stated that they spend about $400 per week on groceries, shopping at Whole Foods and buying mostly organic foods. They have no intention of trying to cut back in any way. What has your experience been lately?

I’ll admit that I’ve been more careful of late in what I buy at the grocery store. And it’s painful to see that the cost of milk and produce, for example, has escalated. I just paid $3.69 for a gallon of skim milk; not so long ago, I was paying about $1.00 less. And, just last week, I bought some Edy’s light ice cream, marveling at how the price had dropped to $2.99 instead of the recent $3.99. However, when I reached into the case to grab it, I realized that the size of the container had shrunk to 1.5 quarts (I think it was 2 quarts not too long ago). So, food manufacturers may be dropping the prices on some items, but they’ll get you with smaller sizes.

All of this has got me thinking about some of my patients with diabetes who used to complain that they couldn’t afford to eat healthfully. I’ve read articles and columns by other dietitians and health experts who claim that buying healthy foods is actually less expensive than buying refined, processed foods.

However, a few months ago, I read an article by Adam Drewnowski, Ph.D., who is a professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington in Seattle. He’s currently focusing on the issue of obesity and poverty, as well as the link between obesity and diabetes and access to nutritious foods. Drewnowski coauthored a study that was published in last December’s Journal of the American Dietetic Association. In this study, he analyzed the cost of almost 400 foods and beverages from various supermarkets in Seattle from 2004 and 2006. He calculated the energy density of these foods, and the prices were expressed as $ per 100 grams of edible portion and $ per 1,000 calories. (High–energy-density foods are high in calories, low in overall nutrition, and tend to be linked with overweight and obesity.)

Drewnowski found that foods with the lowest energy density cost about $18 per 1,000 calories, whereas the high–energy-density foods cost $1.76 per 1,000 calories. To top it off, the price of the low–energy-density foods increased by almost 20% over the two years, while the price of high–energy-density foods actually dropped by almost 2%.

The conclusion? Other than the obvious (that more nutritious foods cost more), it’s becoming more and more apparent that the rising cost of healthy foods and the declining cost of less-healthy foods is a significant barrier for people who are struggling to lose and control weight. Many of these people have or are at risk for Type 2 diabetes. From this study, it would appear, then, that one needs to have enough money to eat healthfully.

You might be thinking, “Well, I already knew that!” Yet there are still some tough decisions that families must make every week, whether they’re feeding two people or eight people, especially when cherries cost $3.99 per pound and the store brand of vanilla crème cookies is only $2.39 for a 24-ounce package. And whether to spend precious gas going from store to store trying to find the best prices.

Anyway, this is my lead-in for next week’s post about ways to still eat healthfully while on a budget. And I hope you’ll share some tips, too.

Learn more about the health and medical experts who who provide you with the cutting-edge resources, tools, news, and more on Diabetes Self-Management.
About Our Experts >>

  • Bahamut

    I started buying store-brand and buying in bulk with my neighbors. We make a list of “common” items between us (ie, cereal) then we go to the wholesale stores like Costco. It helps reduce the cost.

    The high gas prices look really bad on paper but can be a blessing in disguise. It will force people to use less gas, force corporations to invest in alternative energy (and hopefully finding a cheap renewable alternative, corn ethanol not being one of them) and stop relying so heavily on oil corporations (and the foreign countries).

  • mcreswell

    One way to save money and eat healthier is to make things from scratch rather than relying only on convenience foods. I know that this isn’t always easy or practical, but you can save money on some of your main meal items. You will then have more money available for fresh produce items that may cost more. Also, a garden to grow some of your vegetables/fruits is helpful, too. I know this isn’t available to everyone, but for those who can, you get fresh veggies for less.

    I read an article once where someone was defending the price they had to pay for organic food vs. non-organic food and they made the point the people always try to cut costs in their monthly budget on groceries instead of cutting back on Starbucks, convenience store items, recreation (movies, etc.). This may not be the case for everyone, but it is an interesting point.

  • acampbell

    Hi Bahamut,

    That’s a great idea – buying in bulk but sharing with others. Warehouse clubs are great, but some people tend to shy away from them since they force you to buy in bulk. Going in on a purchase with others is a good way around that issue. Thanks for sharing.

  • cseverson

    This is a very interesting point and has been around for some time. But now it is really coming to light. I try to buy expensive items (cereal) wherever I can find them on sale CVS, Walgreens may have my favorites for 2/$5.00.
    I also buy a lot of Organic foods at Trader Joe’s which is so much cheaper than Whole Foods and I keep the organic fruits and veggies to the ones that we eat the peel. If we don’t I will buy the conventional produce.
    Costco is good too, but you may end up buying items you never would have because they seem like such good deals.
    I agree with the Starbucks comment. Just awhile ago people had no problem paying $3.00 for a 12 oz. latte but not for a gallon of gas. Well it’s all going up now.

  • Airborne Mom

    We recently relocated to a small town. I am a type 2 diabetic. I walk to work and I walk home for lunch daily. It is about 8 blocks. I also walk to the grocery store. Everything we need is within walking distance even my doctors office. We keep a list posted of the items we need to stock up on for the next time we are near a “big city”. The nearest Wal-Mart is an hour away and the nearest Costco is 2 hours away. Locally I try and only purchase what we will actually eat. My treat is a frozen fruit bar (instead of ice cream). I have also started to make my own bread again. I have a bread machine that works wonders. I buy the ingredients in bulk. A good loaf of bread is nearly $4.00. I have a basic whole wheat bread recipe that does not spike my blood sugars and I am working on a recipe that has added sunflower seeds, oatmeal and flaxseed. I have always looked at weekly grocery ads and buy by the case. A few years ago my husband bought me a Food Saver machine with containers. I can make a large salad and it stays good for up to a week and a half (although we usually eat it all before then). The less you throw away the more you save wether you spend a lot or not. If we are not going to be able to finish a quiche. I put portions in the freezer for quick meals. I just add a bowl of salad and dinner is done. I have not had to change many habits due to the gas prices, I have always made a list of stops I need to make on the rare occasions when I drive the car.

  • Ephrenia

    Being on a VERY limited income, the recent prices have caused me a lot of hardship. I’ve had to cut my driving WAY back in order to be able to afford to eat. I’ve had to change some of the foods I’m eating as well. I no longer buy cereal… or milk. I have to figure how many MEALS I can get for my money more than how nutritious those meals are.

  • emma9

    When grocery shopping , just do not buy the “do I really NEED this” items. Get back to cooking instead of serving heat and eat foods.

  • acampbell

    Hi emma9,

    I agree with you. As time-consuming as it can be at times, making your own meals at home is one of the best ways to eat healthfully and economically.

  • drupkey

    I have to say – we have a family of 5 ( 3 teenagers and 2 adults) and I have a weekly budget of about $20-$25 per week , and that is only if we are lucky. Our meals consist of Oatmeal or pancake for breakfast – NO MILK – Ramen noodles for lunch – and usually hotdogs or smoked sausage for dinner with instant mashed potatoes , rice or mac and cheese. Veggies are most times out of the question. Once a month when we get our $90.00 in food stamps we eat pork chops and small beef steaks ( all packages of meat under $5.00) for about a week. We survive. Of course the kids eat at school – us adults usually skip all meals except dinner. Now, i know that this is harmful – but in today’s economy what are we supposed to do? Money is scarce and food is expensive. I have Fibromyalgia – very very bad and i do not get enough nutrition to help – so what is an average americam family to do these days? And believe it or not , my husband and i both are overweight- not obese- but overweight.