Mythbusting the cost of healthy eating

20:26, Feb 25 2014
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MYTH BUSTED: No matter how you nitpick the numbers, it's hard to keep arguing that healthy food is prohibitively expensive.

It's not our fault we're obese. Potato chips are cheaper than apples. Coke is cheaper than milk. Fruit and veggies are unaffordable. The Government must act!

That's the tone of a slew of opinion pieces which have popped up in recent weeks, calling for everything from subsidies for fruit and veggies to taxes on sugar and fat.

But the underlying premise - that it's cheaper to stuff your face with fizzy drink and KFC than to cook healthy meals - is simply wrong. 

Takeaway food is convenient, delicious - and generally very expensive.

With a bit of knowhow and a dash of common sense, you can spend at least two to three times less with a frugal but healthy diet.

Here we break down how wholesome food choices compare to their greasy, salty or diabetes-inducing counterparts.

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With the help of some nutritionists, it's time to put the healthy food myths to bed once and for all.

Breakfast

There's a reason they feed oats to horses - they're incredibly affordable, and packed with energy.

"Oats with some low fat milk is a perfectly great breakfast - it doesn't have to be an expensive breakfast cereal," says Healthy Food Guide nutritionist Claire Turnbull.

A big bag of oatmeal costs 15c per serving, while a cup of milk is another 35c. All up, that's breakfast sorted for 50c.

Want to splash out on a cooked meal? It'll still cost you less than a dollar.

Eggs, which are a great protein source, are roughly 30c each, while wholemeal bread is about 15c a slice. Two eggs plus two slices equals 90c.

How does fast food stack up? The cheapest possible pie - with roughly the same protein, but more fat and calories - is $2.

Meanwhile, a breakfast muffin or burger from the likes of Burger King will cost about $3-$5.

Healthy breakfast: 50c-$1
Fast food breakfast: $2-$5

Lunch

The midday meal should contain some protein, but that doesn't necessarily mean meat.

"Things like lentils, kidney beans and chickpeas, which are a great source of protein and fibre, are really cheap," says Turnbull.

You need to eat a range of vegetable-based proteins to get the goodies you need, but that's simple enough.

Mix a grain with a legume - say, a wholemeal peanut butter sandwich - and you're set.

One hundred grams of lentils contains a whopping 26 grams of protein, along with at least 12 micronutrients - and costs just 70c.

Add some brown rice - also insanely cheap at about 10c per serve - and you're on track for a filling meal.

AUT professor of nutrition Elaine Rush says it's all too easy to overeat refined carbs, like white rice, white flour and white sugar.

''Wholegrain rice, the brown rice, actually does have more nutrients in it - and it requires a bit more chewing, which helps satiety,'' she says.

You'll need some vegetables, too. They can be very expensive - but only if you buy out of season, and don't know how to shop smart.

''We often neglect the tinned, canned and frozen,'' says Rush. ''They're actually really quite good value for money, because they've already been prepared.''

Not only that - frozen veggies tend to retain their nutrients even better than fresh ones, which have been lingering on shelves.

Frozen vegetables start from $2.30 a kg for basics like peas, carrots, beans and corn, which works out to about 50c a serve.

Allow 80c for seasonings, sauces and some wriggle room, and you're still only looking at a total cost of $2 a portion.

Healthy lunch: $2
Fast food lunch: $7 (Big Mac and fries)

Dinner

According to Rush, dinner should be a quarter carbohydrates, a quarter protein, and half different-coloured vegetables.

''That's the ideal for the proportions of your plate, and your shopping basket,'' she says.

Protein is the most expensive, so we'll tackle that first. Whether it's chicken breast on special, cheap fish, mince, BBQ steak, or stewing cuts of meat, you should be able to pick something up for about $10 a kilo.

Rush did an analysis on the cost per gram of protein a few years ago.

''Mince actually came out on top - it beat Kentucky Fried,'' she says.

Rush recommends leaner cuts of meat and premium mince - not to demonise the fat content, but because it provides more protein for your dollar.

Eating meat is affordable, says Dale Folland, a nutritionist and director of Newlives Nutrition.

''The problem is, we overeat,'' he says.

''You may have your average male eating 200g, 250g of protein [in a meal]. That's when it gets expensive, when you're eating more than you need to.''

He says 100g to 130g of meat or other protein is about right for a woman's evening meal, while men should take in 100g to 170g, depending on size.

That's a cost of about $1 to $1.70 per meal.

Add another 50c or so for veggies, and another 50c for a serving of carbs, like  potatoes or pasta.

All up we're talking less than $3 - or $4 if you allow wriggle room for a bit of flavour and variety.

Healthy dinner: $3-$4
Fast food dinner: $9.90 (KFC quarter pack)

Snacks

''We tend to as a society skip breakfast, have a bakery lunch, skip afternoon tea and have a massive dinner,'' says Folland.

''If you eat affordable snacks throughout the day, you don't have to pile it all in the evenings as well.''

Two or three healthy snacks is enough. A banana or apple is about 30c-50c, as is a handful of unsalted peanuts or cashews.

However, the cheapest chippy packets work out to about 25c each, while ''cereal'' bars like LCMs are about 50c each.

Healthy snacks: $1
Convenience food: 75c

Drinks

''Coke is less expensive than milk'' is perhaps the most pervasive whinge of all. But not only is it factually wrong, it also makes no sense.

If you couldn't afford milk, you wouldn't pour Coke over your cereal. Coke's healthy equivalent is water- which comes out of the tap for free.

Nevertheless, we'll include milk anyway because it's such a great food.

''Milk is an excellent source of protein and calcium,'' says Rush.

''Value-wise, it's got so much more nutrients in it - of course it needs to cost more.''

Milk is about 35c a glass, roughly on par with Coke at its lowest price of 40c.

That's undercut by the very cheapest home brand fizz, which is more like 15c a glass.

Healthy drinks: 70c for two glasses of milk
Fizzy drink: 30c for two glasses of soda

MYTH BUSTED

If you add up the three meals, snacks, and drinks, the artery-clogging convenience diet costs $20 at the bare minimum - and probably a whole lot more.

A bare-basics healthy diet with a bit of leeway costs more like $7 to $9, roughly two to three times cheaper.

No matter how you nitpick the numbers, it's hard to keep arguing that healthy food is prohibitively expensive.

A recent overview of 27 existing studies on the topic found that on average, normal healthy diets were just US$1.50 ($1.80) a day more expensive than unhealthy ones.

So it is possible to eat a healthy diet on a limited budget, but you'll need to put some thought into it, says Turnbull.

 ''There are lots and lots of practical ways you can make really good healthy choices, but it can require learning some new skills and being willing to try new things, or ways of doing things.''

That means putting the time and effort in to look out for specials, shop at fruit and veggie stores, and learn how to cook.

However, Rush says it's not always as simple as that for everyone.

''The generalisations about 'people should just cook their meals' is simplifying it far too much,'' she says.

''To be able to prepare it yourself, you need time, you need the resource, you need the knowledge to be able to cook.''

It's certainly a complex problem. There are cultural differences in food sources, education barriers, and accessibility issues.

But none of that changes the fact that there is affordable, healthy food out there.

The real question is how to get it get it onto people's plates, and get rid of the junk.

Fairfax Media