Yes, you're not imagining it when you look at that receipt from Whole Foods: It seems to be cheaper to eat a less healthful diet. Spanish researchers recently published a study in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health that showed that the more closely people adhered to a Mediterranean diet (associated with better health), the more money they spent on food. Those who adhered to the typical Western diet (associated with poorer measures of health) had "significantly lower daily costs," the researchers said.
[Read more about how to follow the Mediterranean and three other healthful diets.]
I decided to conduct my own admittedly extremely unscientific experiment and see if the results seen in Spain also held true in my corner of Brooklyn, N.Y. So without looking at prices, I made two meal plans, each amounting to about 2,000 calories for the day. One drew from the list of foods that the researchers used to define the typical Western diet: red meat, processed meat, eggs, sauces, precooked foods, fast food, caloric soft drinks, whole-fat dairy, and potatoes. The other plan, matched to include about the same number of calories per meal, was based on the foods that define the Mediterranean eating pattern: olive oil, poultry, fish, low-fat dairy, legumes, fruits, and veggies. Only after I created the menus—which include a variety of foods but which, since I'm not a dietitian, I won't promise are nutritionally balanced—did I go out and get prices from the local Key Food grocery store, the nearby Trader Joe's, and my closest McDonald's. Here's how things stacked up, calorie- and cost-wise.
Breakfast: I gave my imaginary Western eater a serving of Froot Loops and a half-cup of whole milk, plus one large hard-boiled egg. Total calories: about 255. Total budget: $1.75. The Mediterranean eater got a 7-ounce cup of Fage 2 percent Greek yogurt and a 5-ounce prepared fruit cup, for a total of 205 calories and a cost of $3.50.
Lunch: Ms. Western had a sandwich, made up of 3 slices of beef bologna and two slices of white bread (with mayo), and a can of Coca-Cola. That cost her 550 calories and $1.44. Ms. Med had one can of Progresso lentil and spinach soup, a slice of whole-wheat bread, and half of a prepared Trader Joe's salad of spinach, dried cranberries, pecans, and blue cheese with raspberry vinaigrette. That set her back 545 calories and a whopping $4.91.
Afternoon snack: I gave the Western-style eater an energy bar, at 200 calories and 99 cents. The Mediterranean-style eater had an ounce of dry-roasted almonds (about 22 nuts) and a medium apple, at 265 calories and 80 cents.
Dinner: To end the day, the Western-style eater went to McDonald's and feasted on a Quarter Pounder with Cheese, small fries, and cookies, for about 1,000 calories at a cost of $6.19. The Mediterranean-style eater stayed in and prepared a 6-ounce grilled salmon fillet with a teriyaki marinade, broccoli sautéed in olive oil, the other half of the Trader Joe's prepared salad, and, for dessert, a quarter-cup of frozen blueberries mixed with half a cup of Ben & Jerry's low-fat vanilla frozen yogurt. Total calories: 928, at a cost of $6.57.
The verdict: The Western eater in my scenario paid $10.37 for her 2,005-odd daily calories. The Mediterranean eater paid 52 percent more; her 1,943 calories cost $15.78.
Analysis: Though I tried to keep things fairly balanced between the diets by including both prepared and home-assembled foods in each, the Mediterranean eater could probably have saved quite a bit of money by making her own salads, soups, and fruit cups rather than buying prepared versions. Shopping in bulk, obviously, would have lowered the cost of things like bread and soup, too, for both people. I was surprised, however, that the dinners matched up fairly closely, pricewise; I assumed that McDonald's was far cheaper than home-cooked fish. (Maybe if Ms. Western had ordered a Value Meal, it would have been.)
I'd bet that people who are used to consistently eating closer to the Mediterranean or other diets generally accepted as healthful have developed tips on how to save money on their nutritionally rich components. Please share your ideas! Here are some to get you started; the Miami Herald recently published this list of 20 ways to pinch pennies and still be healthy, including embracing DIY salad dressings and leftovers.
[For more on shopping for nutritious foods, read about new nutrition info systems and whether they work, then check out 8 fixes nutritionists want on food labels and 7 must-dos before you buy a functional food.]