Nutrition On A Shoestring (Part 1)

By Amy Campbell | June 2, 2008 4:47 pm

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[1] 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[2], he analyzed the cost of almost 400 foods and beverages from various supermarkets in Seattle from 2004 and 2006. He calculated the energy density[3] 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[4]. 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.

  1. article in The Boston Globe:
  2. this study:
  3. energy density:
  4. Type 2 diabetes:

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Amy Campbell: Amy Campbell is the author of Staying Healthy with Diabetes: Nutrition and Meal Planning and a frequent contributor to Diabetes Self-Management and Diabetes & You. She has co-authored several books, including the The Joslin Guide to Diabetes and the American Diabetes Association’s 16 Myths of a “Diabetic Diet,” for which she received a Will Solimene Award of Excellence in Medical Communication and a National Health Information Award in 2000. Amy also developed menus for Fit Not Fat at Forty Plus and co-authored Eat Carbs, Lose Weight with fitness expert Denise Austin.

Amy earned a bachelor’s degree in nutrition from Simmons College and a master’s degree in nutrition education from Boston University. In addition to being a Registered Dietitian, she is a Certified Diabetes Educator and a member of the American Dietetic Association, the American Diabetes Association, and the American Association of Diabetes Educators. Amy was formerly a Diabetes and Nutrition Educator at Joslin Diabetes Center, where she was responsible for the development, implementation, and evaluation of disease management programs, including clinical guideline and educational material development, and the development, testing, and implementation of disease management applications. She is currently the Director of Clinical Education Content Development and Training at Good Measures. Amy has developed and conducted training sessions for various disease and case management programs and is a frequent presenter at disease management events.

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