You Are What You Eat: Saving Money Buying Processed Foods Will Likely Cost You in Healthcare Expenses

The following post is by MPFJ staff writer, Melissa Batai.  Melissa is a freelance writer who covers topics ranging from personal finance to business to organics to food.  She blogs at Mom’s Plans where she shares her family’s journey to healthier living and paying down debt.

Three years ago, I thought I was being quite responsible with my family’s available money when I searched the bargain shelves at the grocery store.

I bought meat that was deeply discounted because it was at the expiration date.  I cut coupons, and I stocked up on boxed products like Hamburger Helper and Knorr pasta sides that I could buy for pennies.  I bought the cheapest fruits and vegetables I could find, often on the clearance rack because they were already well past their prime.

Did I mention that saving all this money helped us have more money to go out to eat a few times a week?  We often had sushi, but we also had our share of unhealthy meals like pizza and fast food.

While I might have been responsible with my family’s money, I wasn’t being responsible with our health, as I discovered the next year when I became sick with gastrointestinal distress every day and couldn’t find what the problem was.  It would be over two years before I found a doctor who diagnosed a leaky gut and an intestinal yeast overgrowth as well as an intestinal parasite and multiple food intolerances.  (Gross, I know.)

That was all discovered a year ago, and our eating habits have changed dramatically.  Now we buy fresh organic fruits and vegetables, local and in season, if possible.  In the summer and fall, we buy direct from the farmer through a vegetable CSA.

Rather than buying meat that’s about to expire, we buy grass fed meat direct from the farmer.

We eat very little processed foods; we cook from scratch and eat at home for all of our meals, and we don’t eat at restaurants save a few times a year when we’re traveling.

Thanks to my own experience, I’ve come to believe the old adage, “Pay now for good food or pay later for medical care.”

Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food:  An Eater’s Manifesto, elaborates on this when he explains, “In 1960, 18 percent of our national income was spent on food, and only 5 percent on healthcare.  Today 9 percent of our income is spent on food and a whopping 17 percent on healthcare.  ‘The less we spend on food, the more we spend on healthcare'” (Oprah).

 

What Are You Doing with the Money You’re Saving at the Grocery Store?

I’ve been an avid blog reader for four years now.  I used to love reading women’s posts about how much they saved at the grocery store.  It felt like they were cheating the system (even though they weren’t), and I wanted to do the same thing.  I was so proud of myself when I got food for pennies on the dollar even though it was slowly making me obese and very sick.

Before you draw the conclusion that I think it’s terrible to buy processed foods and use coupons, let’s be clear–there are some people who do not have money to buy quality groceries.  These people are scraping by, and if they don’t buy the cheapest food available, their family won’t eat.  I don’t begrudge them.  They are doing the best they can to take care of their family.

But too often, what I see are people who scrimp and save on their grocery bills so they can splurge in other areas.  Maybe they spring for an iPhone or buy designer clothes for work or, like us, use the savings to go out to eat more often.

Of course, that’s their prerogative, but why is it that people always try to skimp on groceries as much as possible rather than other areas of our lives?  Why is what goes into our bodies, gives us energy, and keeps us healthy and strong, always placed last?  Why do we want the cheapest food for ourselves just so we can go out to eat more, buy the latest smart phone, or get new clothes?

 

How Saving Pennies Now Can Cost Us Thousands Later

Most of the processed foods that we buy in the supermarket contain trans fats, which, in part, give foods a smooth texture and help extend shelf life.  You can see why manufacturers would like to add this to as many foods as possible.

However, the convenience of trans fat for the manufacturer comes with a steep price for the consumer.  Dr. Enig, a nutritionist well-known for her research on fats and oils states, “More than a decade of research at the University of Maryland, as well as research that was being done at other institutions, showed that consumption of trans fatty acids from partially hydrogenated (a process that adds hydrogen to solidify or harden) vegetable fats and oils had many adverse effects in health areas such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, immunity, reproduction and lactation, and obesity” (Healthy.net)

Those super couponers who are buying processed foods on the penny are eating large quantities of trans fats every day, and it’s slowly killing them.  But even if you’re not a super couponer, if you’re not cooking from scratch with whole foods, you’re probably consuming trans fats.

 

You may argue that I’m being too extreme, but I would disagree. 

Michael Pollan explains, “Even if you think you’re making smart choices, the processed foods you buy at the store may affect your health.  ‘Before the Western diet comes in, which is around the turn of the last century, populations did not have high levels of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, all these diseases'” (Oprah).

A few years ago, I, too, would have argued that processed foods weren’t hurting my health.  But then I radically changed my diet in an effort to heal my body.  Within eight months of giving up processed foods and eating a nutritionally sound whole foods diet, I lost 70 pounds.  My cholesterol dropped 20 points and my blood pressure improved.

Suddenly, I could see that by skimping on the foods I bought for myself and my family, I was affecting our health.

 

How Much More Does a Whole Food Diet Cost

I won’t lie to you.  Eating processed foods that you can buy with coupons is much, much cheaper than eating a whole foods diet.  Our grocery bill for our family of 5 jumped from about $350 a month to $800 a month.  It’s our largest monthly expense behind our rent payment.

We have had to make significant sacrifices to eat this way, but I feel it’s worthwhile.  We’re improving the quality of our life with the food we’re eating. Best of all, there are ways to save when eating whole foods.

First, you don’t have to buy all organic produce to be healthy.  I’ve chosen to do so because I want my body to heal faster.  However, if you can’t afford organics, eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, even if they are conventionally grown, is a much better choice than buying freezer meals or boxed foods.

That being said, there are ways to save when eating organic produce such as buying vegetables from local CSAs or buying frozen organic vegetables (without any additives).  Sometimes I can get a 5 lb. bag of organic vegetables from Costco for $6.  That’s a lot of vegetables!

If you’re a meat eater, buying grass-fed meat is best.  That can get expensive, but you can lower costs by  buying meat direct from the farmer.  I buy a 1/4 cow from an Angus beef farmer and pay on average $5.50 per pound.  That is for steaks and hamburger and all other cuts of meat.  You can also choose to have some vegetarian meals so you don’t have to spend as much on grass fed meat meals.

In the end, it comes down to your choices.  Is extra “stuff” that important?  Or would you rather nourish your body with whole foods that improve your health and can potentially help you live a longer, more satisfying life?

As someone who was sick for two years, I can tell you that I’ll never go back to cheap, processed foods.  I’d rather skimp and save in other areas to feed my family better food.

How about you all? Do you try to save as much as possible on groceries, or do you spend more for higher quality foods?

Share your experiences by commenting below! 

***Photo courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/24218656@N03/4587200719/sizes/m/in/

Comments

  1. We don’t eat processed food. We cook at home, from scratch, using fresh ingredients and olive oil. We’re all healthy, don’t have weight issues and are in great shape. I’m all for being responsible when it comes to grocery shopping, but we don’t put money in a more important position than our well being, though.
    dojo recently posted…Saving & Frugality: 10 sure ways to start saving money TODAYMy Profile

  2. Great article! Glad you’re doing much health-wise. I try to use as much fresh ingredients as possible and stay away from as many processed foods. My biggest weakness is bread though…I try at least to go for the whole grain stuff.
    Christine @ ThePursuitofGreen recently posted…The Great PumpkinMy Profile

  3. This is a great article and I’m glad that you took into account eating a completely healthy diet can be quite expensive. I’ve been working hard at eating more fresh fruit/vegetables and staying away from eating out. I may eat out twice a month. I have noticed eating a diet filled with less process foods does make me feel better overall and adds to my energy level. It’s a shame eating healthy wasn’t more feasible for everyone.
    Kostas @ Finance Blog Zone recently posted…Credit Card Skimming And How You Can Protect YourselfMy Profile

  4. Not eating processed food is not that much more expensive than eating processed food. I recently improved my diet and changed it from eating junk all the time and feeling really bad to eating healthy with almost no sugar, less carbs and feeling great (while everyone around me seemed to have caught a cold).
    My budget is comparably tiny and I live in an expensive city so I dare to day that this should be possible for everyone. If you have trouble doing it, I would suggest cutting out *all* the crap, the candy, the potato chips, everything and only buying healthy stuff which will save a lot of money. The getting used to it part might be the hardest part, so don’t give up on it. Changing your diet needs time and patience.

  5. We buy grass fed meat and do most things from scratch although I don’t generally buy organic vegetables, I just wash them well. While traveling in the US we would often go to all you can eat Chinese buffets to cut the budget, and we would eat sushi, salad, and the fruit buffet, but most other tables would only eat fried junk, and they looked in pretty bad shape. It will certainly be expensive for them down the road.

  6. Thanks for the great article and all your encouragements. I thought I was the only one struggling to eat fresh foods. They somewhat get expensive but you can always find a way of making extra savings. Personally, I grow vegetables in pots which I place at the veranda. This not only guarantees me fresh vegetables but also saves me a lot of money that I would have incurred when buying fresh vegetables.
    Musa @ My Personal Finance Journey recently posted…10 Things to Keep in Your Car During WintertimeMy Profile

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