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Is it really that expensive?

So, I spend a lot of time talking to my patients about their diets and lifestyle choices. We talk about ways to get more exercise here and there: take the stairs, park farther away, take a lap around the parking lot at lunch time, etc.

We talk about food choices: cutting out sweets and sugary drinks, eating smaller portions and getting more vegetables and fruits.

Throughout my career, I've heard lots of reasons why people don't buy vegetables and fruits:

-They go bad before I can eat them (so buy fewer at a time?)

-It's hard to get fresh fruits or vegetables out of season (so buy frozen? or try something different?)

-I was told I can't have fruit because I'm diabetic (that's not true, you probably should eat more than just fruit 24/7, but it's not forbidden.)

-It's so expensive (let's talk about that . . .)

-I do not like vegetables and you will never change my mind, so I'm not going to eat them (uh, well, other than telling you that I didn't let my toddler get away with that excuse, I got nothing)

Let's get to that bit about fruits and vegetables being expensive. The US Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service released a paper that challenges this idea. The Cost of Satisfying Fruit and Vegetable Recommendations in the Dietary Guidelines (pdf) explores the cost of fruits and veggies as a portion of an average family's overall food budget. They evaluated a number of recent studies reviewing the average cost of fruits and vegetables and discovered that the average American can satisfy their recommended intake of vegetables and fruits for about $2.60 per day. This includes fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as those that are processed (canned, frozen, dried or juiced). I won't wade too far into the weeds of the details, the full report is available at the link above. Suffice it to say that you can get your daily veggies for less than the cost of a Happy Meal.

Speaking of Happy Meals, in September the USDAERS released data on how Americans spend their money on food. This report, Following Dietary Guidance Need Not Cost More—But Many Americans Would Need To Re-Allocate Their Food Budget, showed that most American families buy the same kinds of foods, regardless of family income. It also showed us that "The largest expenditure category among all income groups (about 35 percent) is “miscellaneous foods” which includes soft drinks and other sugar-sweetened beverages, frozen meals, snacks, canned and packaged soups, salad dressings, candy, condiments, gourmet and specialty items, baby food, and seasonings. Some of the foods in the “miscellaneous foods” category are high in solid fats, added sugars, or sodium—nutrients that the Dietary Guidelines advise Americans to eat less of." And that's just the stuff we buy at the store.

So, to sum up, we buy a lot of foods that aren't good for us, and we like to eat out. Here's a table because data is cooler when you can display it graphically:

The problem isn't cost. It's perceived cost. And behavioral patterns. We like to eat out. We like to buy things that are tasty (which are often high in fat, salt and sugar).

Here's another cool thing that September study showed, though: it doesn't take too much effort to both save money AND eat better.

That's right, if you just replace one fast food meal with store bought food, not only is it cheaper, it's more healthy. The numbers are similar if you stop going out to a non-fast food restaurant (here's a shocker: when we eat out, we don't make good food choices, regardless of whether it's a drive through or a sit down meal).

The onus, then, comes back to us. Yes, if you keep shopping like you normally do, then fruits and vegetables are obviously going to make your grocery bill go up. But it comes down to not only getting more of the good stuff, but also cutting out the bad stuff. Take the money normally spent on crackers and chips and spend them on apples and carrots. I get it, it's a challenge. Crackers and chips keep longer and don't go bad in the fridge while everyone refuses to eat them. Hungry kids don't beg for apple slices as snacks when they can have cookies. But it takes commitment to simple adjustments, which can lead to big changes.

The good news is that every time you make a decision about food (which is about 200 times a day, according to researchers at Cornell), you have another chance both to save money and make good choices. The first step is to admit that it's not about the expense.

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