How much is your diet costing you?
Obesity researcher Leonard Epstein agrees that
a good diet doesn't have to cost more. Epstein, a professor of pediatrics
at the University of Buffalo School of Medicine, has seen proof that
a healthy diet and a healthy wallet can coexist.
"When you eat less, you can spend more money
on each individual food and spend less," says Epstein.
Subjects in one study didn't follow a particular diet,
but ate "more fruits and vegetables, more low-fat dairy, lean
cuts of meat and fish," he says. The result? Food bills stayed
"Certainly many people think it costs more to
eat healthy," says Epstein. "Certainly if you're eating
the same amount of food it would cost more." But if you're
reducing the amounts you eat and eating whole foods instead of processed,
he says, "it's a wash."
The cost of prepared foods
What if you decide to diet by picking up some lean-style TV
dinners or a few meal-replacement bars or shakes at the grocery
store? That will cost about the same as no diet plan at all, Fujioka
and his researchers found.
"That was surprising to us," he says. His
team's theory: Dieters aren't shelling out for between-meal snack
foods and sweets.
What does tend to cost more? Buying food from specialized
diet boutiques. "Those can be pricey," Fujioka says. Adding
to the price: membership or meeting fees, plus optional add-ons
like tapes or vitamins, he says.
Jenny Craig estimates that a day's worth of prepared-food
purchases on the plan would run from $10 to $15, says Gail Manginelli,
spokeswoman for Jenny Craig Inc. In addition, the plan encourages
clients to supplement with fresh fruits and vegetables, low-fat
dairy products and whole grains, she says.
While that would put the dieter above the average
American's food bill, it's well below what clients had been spending
on food before they joined, says Manginelli.
In addition, membership can cost from $20 to $399.
Other plans, like Weight Watchers, don't require members
to buy the plan's food. The only add-on: membership and meeting
fees. At Weight Watchers, membership averages $15, but is often
waived during special promotions, says Chris Corcoran, senior manager
of public relations for Weight Watchers International Inc. Weekly
meetings, which are not required, are $10.95 to $14.
Trim dollars and pounds
Want to cut costs instantly while you help your waistline?
Watch those portion sizes.
Americans eat 10 to 20 percent more now than they
did 10 years ago, says Fujioka. And while men consume about 10 percent
more food, women have increased their consumption by about 20 percent,
he says. "It's not that women have gotten bad," Fujioka
explains. "It's that men were always bad.
"If you're watching your portions, you might
get the steak, but a smaller portion, and make up the bulk with
fruits and vegetables," he says.
The problem: "Starches are very inexpensive,"
Fujioka says. "The group that really gets hit hard are the
lower-income families where the bulk of the calories do come from
a pot of rice or baked potatoes."
And in a country where diabetes and obesity are on
the rise, it's important that a healthy diet is accessible, not
elitist, says Sears.
No matter what kind of plan you select, fruits and
vegetables are always a good choice for the waistline and your wallet.
When produce is in season, it tends to be more plentiful and cheaper.
When it's not, frozen foods -- especially store brands or generic
-- offer a good value.
And watch out for some expensive "low-carbohydrate"
versions of your favorite foods that might not be what they appear,
says Fujioka. Some makers are using clever marketing to put their
products on the low-carbohydrate bandwagon. For instance has the
manufacturer really cut the carbohydrates in that bread or just
sliced it thinner so that you get a smaller portion?
"That's fine, but anybody can do that,"
says Fujioka. "Instead of three or four pieces, eat two."
Corcoran draws a connection between budgeting calories
and food dollars. "If you have a wonderful bakery and you love
fresh bread, get it," he says. "Spend the money there
and cut back somewhere else. The most important thing, in terms
of food choices, is that you select foods that are going to satisfy
you and make you feel great, and are healthy, too."
Dana Dratch is a freelance
writer based in Atlanta.