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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 the same.

"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.

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"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.

-- Updated: Feb. 2, 2005
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See Also
6 ways to eat low-carb for less
10 secrets of the weight-loss industry
Low-cost ways to lose a pound of flesh (or 10)
Financial advice glossary
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