David L. Katz, MD
Photo: Mackenzie Stroh
Q: I'm trying to eat better, but it's hard to do it on a budget. Junk food really is the cheaper way to go. Is there a way to keep my grocery bill down and still eat healthy?
— Bethany Teahan, Nashville

A: You may have to spend a little more, but not as much as you might think. My lab is currently running a school-based nutrition-training program in Independence, Missouri. The teachers and parents were just as concerned as you about the cost, so we've been tracking the difference. What we've found so far is that, with few exceptions, the more nutritious cereals, breads, crackers, cookies, chips, spreads, dips, and dairy products cost only pennies more.

And sometimes the better choice is cheaper. I checked prices at the online grocery Peapod.com and at my local store in Hamden, Connecticut. I found that Post Fruity Pebbles cereal costs about 10 cents more than the very nutritious Barbara's Puffins. White Wonder Bread comes in at 40 cents more than the store-brand 100 percent whole wheat. Ground beef for hamburgers ranged from $2.60 to $4.60 a pound, while a leaner alternative, ground turkey, was available for as little as $1.89 a pound. Dried beans and lentils, which are an excellent source of protein and a good meat alternative, sell for as little as 50 cents per pound (and that's before they expand with cooking). Grains such as brown rice and bulgur provide great nutrition at a very low cost.

You might also have to cook more meals from scratch: Processed foods, especially the healthy versions, are more expensive. Making your own soups and stews can deliver nutrition while keeping your meal costs down. What's more, evidence shows that the extra fluid in the form of broth fills you up on fewer calories. Admittedly, fresh produce can be pricey. But don't feel as if you need to buy organic to be healthy, or that you have to pay the premium charged by boutique farmers or companies. Choosing organic food helps the planet and can reduce your exposure to certain chemicals, but it isn't essential for someone trying to eat healthfully on a budget.

Perhaps the simplest way to offset the majority of your expense and simultaneously improve your diet is to eliminate soda. Most Americans drink too much of it, and it's a lot more expensive than tap water.

There is one more angle to consider: If you don't eat well, your medical bills could skyrocket. Experts estimate that obesity results in healthcare costs of up to $2,500 per person per year, and diabetes is easily double that. Both conditions also raise your risk of high blood pressure, stroke, and heart disease.

So while you might pay a bit more to eat well, your savings could be immeasurable.