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Muscle for life

How to Eat Healthy Foods on a Budget

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How to Eat Healthy Foods on a Budget

Despite the rising costs of food, you can still eat healthy foods on a budget. Here’s how.

 

Many people think that eating healthy is becoming harder and harder these days unless you’re willing to blow half your paycheck on groceries every week.

A good argument can be made to eat organic, but it can cost an arm and a leg.

Eating too many cheap, processed meats poses serious health risks, but finding high-quality, affordable alternatives can be tough.

According to research conducted by the University of Washington, eating healthy can cost up to 10 times as much as living off junk food. Is it really that bad? Well, more on that in a second.

Thus, it’s not surprising that it’s becoming kind of trendy to “eat junk and get shredded,” thanks to the rise in popularity of dietary protocols like If It Fits Your Macros.

While it’s true that you can build muscle and lose fat eating low-quality food (HOW MUCH you eat is what matters most, not WHAT), these types of diets aren’t sustainable in the long run due to micronutrient deficiencies and other health-related concerns. And let’s not forget how expensive poor health can become, especially when conditions become chronic.

By sticking primarily to healthy foods, you will enjoy improved energy levels, immune health, cognitive performance, and a general sense of well-being. And anecdotally speaking, the guys with the best physiques I can think of get the vast majority of their calories from healthy foods, with only a small portion coming from low-quality indulgences.

So, how do we solve this dilemma, then? Well, fortunately, eating healthy isn’t as expensive as some people claim. If you’re willing to do a little meal planning and add some variety to your diet, you can eat healthy without breaking the bank.

Cheap Sources of Healthy Protein and Fat

Here are my favorite healthy, inexpensive sources of protein:

  • Eggs. They’re one of the best all-around sources of protein, with about 6 grams per egg, and are also a great source of healthy fats. Eggs also have several health benefits such as reducing the risk of thrombosis, and raising blood concentrations of two powerful antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin.

Oh, and if you’re afraid that the cholesterol in eggs will increase your risk of heart disease, this myth has been thoroughly debunked by both epidemiological and clinical research.

With an average price is about $0.20 per egg, or $2 per dozen, they’re hard to beat in terms of nutrition and price.

  • Chicken breast. There’s a reason why fitness-minded people eat so much chicken: it’s cheap, extremely high in protein, and low in fat. A pound of chicken breast has about 100 grams of protein, and will cost you about $3.50.

While it’s true that poultry’s omega-6 and -3 ratios are out of whack (about 10:1, whereas beef is about 2:1), we can easily handle any imbalances by supplementing with fish or krill oil or eating fatty fish like salmon, tuna, trout, herring, sardines, or mackerel (which we should all be doing anyway).

Salmon contains about 22 grams of protein and 12 grams of fat per 4-ounce serving, and costs under $2. Tuna measures in at about 40 grams of protein and 2 grams of fat per 6-ounce can, at an average cost of around $1.50.

My favorite uses are making salmon burgers, and mixing tuna with Greek yogurt or chopped veggies.

  • Almonds. These are by far my favorite type of nut. They’re delicious and nutritious, with a handful (about 15) weighing in at 9 grams of healthy fat, 4 grams of protein, and just under 4 grams of carbs. Like eggs, they also come with added health benefits, such as a reduced risk of diabetes, and lower body weight.

Almonds cost about $0.50 per ounce (25-30 nuts), making them easy to fit into any budget. They’re great by themselves, and go well in cold cereals like granola or muesli, and hot cereals like oatmeal. My favorite way to eat them, however, is to buy freshly ground almond butter. It’s delicious by itself, but really shines when you combine it with some fruits like bananas or apples.

  • Low-fat cottage cheese. You can buy a ½-cup serving of low-fat cottage cheese for less than a dollar, and you get 14 grams of protein and only 1 gram of fat. I think it tastes great with just a dash of salt and pepper, but also like it with fruit like pineapple or berries.
  • Protein powder. If you’re choosy, protein powder can actually be very cost efficient.

For instance, if you head over to www.truenutrition.com and build a 100% whey isolate with natural chocolate flavoring and stevia sweetener, it will cost you about $11 per pound. That’s 405 grams of protein for $11!

You can do more with it than just make guacamole, as well. It goes great with eggs, in soups, and in salsas. Although the prices fluctuate due to seasonal highs and lows in both demand and production, they usually range between $1-2 per fruit, and each fruit can last several food servings.

Cheap Sources of Healthy Carbs

Despite the current crusade mainstream crusade against carbs, they play a vital role in the diet of people that exercise.  (If you want to learn more about why carbohydrates don’t make you fat, check out my post on carbohydrates and weight loss.)

That said, the most popular forms of carbohydrate here in the states are processed junk foods, which may pose serious health risks if consumed too regularly for too long. On the other hand, regular intake of nutritious carbohydrates has been associated with a reduced risk of chronic disease.

Here are my favorite sources of cheap, healthy carbs:

  • Oats. One cup of dry steel cut oats packs just over 50 grams of carbs, 10 grams of protein, and 6 grams of fat.

You can buy it in bulk for about $1 per pound, and it’s a great source of medium-GI carbohydrate and dietary fiber.  Research has also indicated that oats can reduce levels of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol.

Oatmeal is a staple in many bodybuilders’ diets, but you can even substitute blended oats for flour when baking, or as breadcrumbs or breading for spicing up chicken dishes.

  • Black beans. Black beans are awesome source of carbohydrates as well as potassium, calcium, folic acid, and fiber. One cup contains about 40 grams of carbs, 15 grams of protein, and 1 gram of fat, and you can buy them for about $1 per can, or in bulk (dry) for even less.

Boil them up and they make a great side to any protein dish, but they’re also perfect for making soups and dips.

  • Brown rice. Like oatmeal, brown rice is a “go-to” food for most of us fitness folk, and for good reason.

You can pick it up dirt cheap—around $2 per pound—and  one cup provides close to 45 grams of carbs, 5 grams of protein, and 2 grams of fat, and has nearly four times the fiber as white rice, as well as more vitamins, minerals, and other beneficial micronutrients.

A better nutrition profile and lower score on the glycemic index make brown rice a better choice than white. Research has associated high levels of intake of refined grains such as white rice with an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes, whereas regular consumption of whole grains such as brown rice has been associated with a reduced risk.

  • Quinoa. It might be hard to pronounce (keen-wah), but it’s easy to prepare, extremely tasty, cheap (about $4 per box), and full of healthy protein and carbs.

One cup of dry kernels has a 110 grams of carbs, 24 grams of protein, and 10 grams of fat, and it can be prepared in the same ways as brown rice.

  • Fruit. You really can’t go wrong with fruit. My favorite choices are grapes, apples, bananas, and oranges, which are full of a variety of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and fibers. And price? All range between $0.60 and $1.50 per pound.

Oh and if you’re worried that fruit and fructose might be bad for your health, check out my post on why fruit and fructose don’t make you fat and unhealthy.

  • Sweet potato. Sweet potatoes let you feel like you’re cheating when you’re not. They can be dessert sweet, they’re in the middle of the glycemic index, and they’re full of vitamin A and other micronutrients.

One cup of mashed sweet potato provides you with about 60 grams of carbs, 4 grams of protein, and less than 1 gram of fat. At a paltry cost of about $1 per pound, you can’t afford to leave the sweet potato out of your diet.

You Can Eat Healthy Foods on a Budget

So there you have it, it IS possible to eat healthy without maxing out your credit cards.

In fact, you may even save money if you use a few other tricks like buying frozen veggies, buying in bulk, paying attention to sales and what’s in and out of season, and preparing your food in batches so you can use everything you buy.

And let’s not forget that the ultimate value of eating healthy—longevity, vitality, and disease-free living—is hard to put a price tag on.

 

What’s your take on eating healthy foods on a budget? Do you find it easy or hard? Let me know in the comments below!

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  • Beck

    Hey Mike-
    I’ve never heard of True Nutrition before, do you recommend any of their other proteins like casein or egg?

    • Michael Matthews

      Yeah their service looks really cool. I haven’t bought anything from them though…

  • Nicolas

    hi mike , a quick question , how you cycle the sources of protein that you eat ?
    i switching some of my sources in a specific meal in the day (between chicken, red meat and fish ) , but in the other ones , i eat the same almost every day , (egg, whey protein , pasta/brown/rice, low-fat cheese)

    what to do think about it ?

    Thanks

    • Michael Matthews

      I don’t worry much about this, but I do rotate through chicken, ground turkey, red meat, whey, eggs, egg powder, and Greek yogurt.

  • val

    Great article Mike! Eating healthy does get expensive. I like to shop at Sam’s Club for some things that I can buy in bulk and get fruits and veggies at Farmer’s Markets. I also recently bought water bottles with brita filters which saves me a ton on water!

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks Val! Yeah it can get expensive, but buying in bulk is a great idea. Good call on the water. Bottled water is SUCH a ripoff!

  • Tania Dikova

    Wow .. thanks Mike! Wonderful article, I’ve been looking for something like this short and to the point. I am adding all to my shoping list right away 🙂

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks Tania! Really glad you liked it! Hope you enjoy the foods!

  • Jenny Leadem

    Best article ever. Most of these are actually my staple foods already except avocado. I didn’t know canned salmon was good though, gotta try that. And what’s this about canned tuna and yogurt? I didn’t see that recipe in the shredded chef : P I must try it. It sound’s a little weird but you haven’t been wrong thus far. I’ve tried the Spicy Tuna and Schoolyard Tuna recipes and they were delicious. WAY better than when I just ate the tuna straight up. I get the low sodium in water and it was sooo dry. I wasn’t creative enough to think of how to add stuff myself.
    Oh, but wtf 26g of protein per cup of oatmeal?? Where is this oatmeal you speak of? Mine says 10g per cup. Its not instant or anything junky like that either.

    • Michael Matthews

      Oops I missed this comment. Thanks Jenny!

      Haha try the tuna and yogurt! It’s simple and yummy. 🙂

      Yeah straight tuna sucks. Always gotta do something to make it different.

      Lol oops on the protein count. Typo. 🙂 Will fix.

      • Jenny Leadem

        Well that’s a shame 🙁 I was really looking forward to eating this magical oatmeal with 26g’s. I would seriously eat it every single day.

        • Michael Matthews

          Hahah

    • Fanatoli Guyoff

      You must not live in California. Here many people have actually never eaten something other than an Avocado. I remember the first time I found out there was other foods, it blew my mind.

      • Michael Matthews

        Lol

  • caleb hoag

    I’ve found it in general cheapest to eat healthy but it is always temptin to eat off the dollar menu at McDonald’s but is never as satisfying or filling, regardless of the satiety high fat foods can provide. As ling as I cook food ahead of time whole foods always win

    • Michael Matthews

      Yeah a big problem with fast food is it’s nutritionally worthless. Every once in a while won’t cause issues, but if you’re eating it regularly, your body is going to be starved for nutrients.

  • Caleb Hoag

    I just wanted to let you that because of your books on dieting and lifting I have been able to turn my life around completely. I have gone from 260 pounds to 160, in this past year, and had previouslystruggled to lose 5 or 10 pounds at a time. Because of your no nonsense approach iI have transtransformed my mind and body. I now hope to one day be a registered dietitian and help people like me change their lives completely. So thank you so much.

    • Michael Matthews

      Wow, amazing Caleb! I love it!

      I would LOVE to feature you on the website as a success story! Shoot me an email if you’re interested!

      And keep up the great work. What’s your new goal for your physique?

      • Caleb Hoag

        I’m hoping to get down to 145 or 150 (depending on what my body fat percentage is at that weight) and then bulk up to 175. I would definitely be interested in being featured on your website. Thanks!

        • Michael Matthews

          Awesome. I love it. And great on being featured! I see I have an email from you so you’ll hear from me soon!

  • Thijs

    I am sorry but here I disagree. The cheap eggs and chicken you mention are products of a bio industry that only cares about profits, not about food quality, environmental concerns and animal wellbeing. There is a reason why they are cheap, because it is crap in every sense of the word. I am definitely not rich but I choose to buy organic for health and environmental reasons. Cheap shit most of the time is bad shit (another example being cheap clothing, somebody pays the price, namely the fashion victims in Bangladesh). Great website though!

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks for the comment! I actually agree with you, and only eat organic food myself (which I will talk about in an upcoming article).

      That said, if someone can’t afford organic, they can still maintain their health by eating non-organic food, exercising regularly, and supplementing with a couple things like a good multi-vitamin and omega 3s.

  • So glad that this article is here. Been on the paleo diet lately, burning holes in my pockets

    • Michael Matthews

      Glad you liked the article David! You might find this post of mine helpful:

      https://www.muscleforlife.com /how-to-eat-healthy-foods-on-a-budget/

  • António Alves

    I agree with that anytime, it’s just that for people that have never tried to come up with a diet of their own don’t realize how nerve-wracking it can be if you get too specific. So would you say that since the goal here is to develop healthy lifestyles, one could first apply If it fits your macros, and once he is comfortable with he can start to slowly make changes like white rice to brown rice and potatoes to sweet potatoes?

    • Michael Matthews

      I’m not a fan of the IIFYM movement. Flexible dieting has been around for a long time but many IIFYM advocates try to use it to promote eating a bunch of junk food while looking good.

      Health is important. Limit the junk food. Shoot for at least 80% of your food from healthy, nutrient-dense sources.

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  • Christina Curran

    for the eggs, I heard eggs whites are healthier and a better option when trying yo lose weight and get lean. is this true?

    • Michael Matthews

      They’re not healthier or better, but they’re lower in calories (no fat) so that can help with meal planning.

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  • Jonny Souter

    Hey Mike, great post!
    I used to exclusively eat whole grains and essentially a ‘slow carb’ diet but have been consuming mostly glutinous white rice and well cooked potatoes lately. This was because quite a few fitness experts espoused it, including Nate Miyaki, Mark Sisson, John Kiefer, Christopher Walker & Greg O’Gallagher. I’m confused now though in terms of my best carb sources. Brown rice supposedly contains phytic acid which leeches to nutrients and prevents absorption. And, on a lean bulk, would your bedtime snack consist of any carbohydrate usually?
    Thanks a lot,
    Jonny.

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks Jonny!

      There’s nothing special about white rice, and those claims against brown rice are misleading.

      First, brown rice IS lower GI, which matters if you’re going to be eating a lot of it over time:

      http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23930929

      Second, the phytic acid cooks out and is neutralized by enzymes released in the cooking process:

      http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1654732

      Potatoes are very nutritious, which is great, but I would have them as a part of a mixed meal to slow the absorption down a bit.

      No, I eat protein before bed to help with muscle recovery:

      http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22330017

      • Jonny Souter

        Thanks for the swift reply Mike, you’re a great bloke! Okay, well I did get great results while eating more brown rice and less carbohydrates before bed time 2 years ago. I’ve completely gone against my previous nutritional routine that espoused a large breakfast and smaller dinner, and have been intermittent fasting most days (carb back-loading in the evening). I’ve added 5kg in 4 months and at a BF% of 7.6, but am starting to feel a bit soft. Do you recommend a protein/fat rich breakfast and low carb in general unless it’s around training? I’m trying to bulk as efficiently as possible, and don’t know how many carbs to eat preworkout, if at all.

        Thanks once again Mike, keep up the great articles.
        Jonny.

        • Michael Matthews

          YW!

          Honestly meal and macro timing isn’t too important. Pre- and post-workout meals do probably matter, but otherwise there’s nothing much special to IF or carb backloading. They work if you regulate your food intake, just like how traditional dieting does as well…

          Do 30 – 50 g carbs pre-workout with some protein.

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  • Michelle

    Hello Mike, question for you. Been trying to tone my body up, but no matter what i seem to eat, even in moderation my stomach swells with everything I eat. Not quite sure if its water retention, but its frustrating that everything i eat, even fruit at times makes me look bloated. Consume a lot of bread products in my diet, but literally eating lean chicken or turkey gives me the same effect. Lost in every food I eat, please help me figure out a turnaround for myself, thanks Mike!

    • Michael Matthews

      Hmm my first recommendation would be to cut out all bread and dairy and see how your body responds. These two foods can often cause gas and bloating.

    • Jessica

      Michelle-
      I have the same problem. I have given up everything- no bread, very limited fruits/veggies, no pop, no alcohol, no caffeine, no gum, no straws. I’ve tried tons of water, low FODMAP, apple cider vinegar, digestive enzymes, multiple fiber supplements, methylcellulose, activated charcoal, dandelion, peppermint. I have seen gi and gyn specialists and they all say “you’ll figure it out”.
      I’ve put on a ton of muscle and have a great figure besides my “perm. pregnant stomach” that is only flat in the morning. I lift, run, and am very clean in my diet (oats, chicken, fish, spinach, eggs, brown rice, flax are my staples)
      It’s been 4 years- so if you figure it out, let me know!

      • Michael Matthews

        Interesting! Have you tried ALCAT food intolerance testing? I know it’s notoriously inaccurate in terms of false positives but IMO it’s worth doing and eliminating all foods that hit positive to see what happens…

      • I have this problem as well. I’ll try the apple cider vinegar and digestive enzymes to see if that helps.

  • Julien

    Hi Mike,

    Tuna is a really easy way to get a lot of protein in but i have read that you should not eat more than 2-3 cans a week due to its mercury content? Is this true?

    • Michael Matthews

      Good point. Yes this is true.

      • Conrad

        Does this apply to Tilapia also? I have been eating 4 oz a day. I read that Tilapia is a low mercury fish but now you’ve got me worried… haha

        • Michael Matthews

          I’m not sure. I think the USDA has data/recommendations on this.

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  • aj

    The cans of tuna i buy have barely a spec of fat and almonds, fruits and sweet potato are pretty costly, so is salmon. Why isn’t natural peanut butter, mayo or (olive) oil on this when they are clearly cheaper anywhere you go? 3-6 ratio is insignificant.

    • Michael Matthews

      Peanut butter is a good option but mayo is a condiment, not really a food.

  • Fernando

    I seriously thought canned tuna was bad for the body due to the preservation

    • Michael Matthews

      You just want to limit weekly intake.

      • Fernando

        k thnx

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  • Concerned

    What about the Human body’s ability to produce its own carbohydrates from protein? This is called gluconeogenisis. In much the same way your body can make its own proteins out of amino acids. Why do you not touch on this and tell how your body makes sugars and your liver turns them into glycogen? Do you just not know? or are you purposefully trying to deceive people into buying your books? You do not ‘need’ to eat any sugar… ever… your body makes it. Please go take some bio chemistry classes! You do however need to find alternate vitamin sources that normal sugar containing foods contain to stay nutrient rich. My degree is in this biochemical processes please tell me what biochemical schooling you have…

  • Thanks for stopping by and checking out my article! I hope you enjoyed it.

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  • Laura

    Hi Mike,
    i have been slightly overweight most of my life, except a few times where I was too skinny, through not eating carbs at all and overdoing it at the gym (cardio)
    I have currently been losing weight slowly over the last 6 months about 10kg, but I want it to happen faster, I try to eat healthy – but will start eating a small amount of good carbs after reading this, and will start the resistance training and heavy weight lifting you suggested, I don’t eat enough, or regularily, 2-3 times a day very small protein based meals, would you recommend protein shakes as a meal replacement? as I am scared I will put on the weight that I have lost by eating more even with the added training, should I continue my 1.5 hour power walking in this new regime?

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  • Eddie

    Hi Mike,
    At the age of 50, I am beginning to make smarter food choices and wanting to be healthy and live longer. My question, in the past, I have yo- yo diet so many times through out my life and I
    notice fat deposit near my inner thigh. Each day I plan to perfect the micro plan to achieve muscle mass and hoping those fat deposit can be replace by muscle and wont be noticeable. Do you think fat deposit sagging skin can be replaced by muscle?

  • Ryan

    Hey Mike!
    Do you have an article with a list of foods to try for each macronutrient. I’m getting bored with my brown rice. lol

    Ryan

    • Haha just go with what you like to eat then, keeping in mind that you want to get the majority of your daily calories from nutritious, relatively unprocessed foods.

  • Guillermo Vera

    Hey Mike,

    When I get my macros I get
    Carbs:189.3
    Protein: 176
    Fat:88
    Fibers: 44 – 55
    Cals: 2253

    My question is, are these carbs net carbs or overall carbs including the 44-55 fiber?

    Thanks. I stumbled onto your site today and have learned a lot!

    • Good question!

      There are two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble.

      Our body can’t digest insoluble fiber (which is why it helps clean you out), so those carbs “don’t count.” Soluble fiber, on the other hand, is digested and processed and does contain calories.

      I don’t bother subtracting fiber from my meal plans because I don’t really feel like calculating just my insoluble fiber intake so I can eat maybe 10 to 15 grams more carbs every day.

      Welcome! Happy to hear it. 🙂

      • Guillermo Vera

        Thanks for the quick reply Mike! I’ve been soaking in so much information on your site since coming across it last week.

        • Welcome Guillermo!

          That’s great! Hope you’ve been enjoying it.

          LMK if you have any questions. I’m happy to help!

  • NAVEEN raaj

    hy hi im naveen from india and in 17 years with 6.2 feet hight and 70kg and i need to know about masterbution and building muscle im doing ones per week is it good or bad for building muscle or quite masterbution
    im waiting for ur reply pls

    • Hey Naveen! You don’t need to worry about it affecting muscle growth.

  • Daniel Vroman Rusteen

    I notice you don’t mention pasta, why not?

    • Good question. Oversight. Pasta can be great. Especially whole wheat as it’s more nutritious.

  • Nath

    Hi,
    Any trustable equivalent of truenutrition.com for Canada? Shipping costs as much as the proteins…
    Thanks

  • sakib800

    Hey Mike if you have diabetes or have high cholesterol or are going to the doctor for possible plagues in your arteries wont eating egg yolks be bad for you? Like what foods would be safe if you are diagnosed with clogged arteries or like a plague buildup in the arteries?

  • sakib800

    I find it very hard to get all my protein from just foods when cutting so I need cheap protein shakes, and so i went to true nutrition and built the cheapest one there is but the shipping cost was like 10 dollars which makes it useless
    Lmao!!

    • Shakes can definitely help you hit your target with a low cost. You do get what you pay for though…be sure to check their ingredients.

  • melike

    hey Mike, I wonder how you guys fit ‘mackerel’ into your daily macros? It contains about 18 grams of fat in 100 gr according to CalorieKing. An average mackerel weighs 250 gr if I am not wrong and it makes apprx. 45 gr for a meal ! I love this fish, and I don’t want to stick with tuna anymore, but I am a bit concerned since it nearly doesn’t leave me any room for any other fat that might be coming from other sources in that day.

    • That’s a lot of fat indeed. If you want to work it into your macros, you might have to cut into your carbs so that you still stay within your calorie target. You can also reconsider your other food choices so that you decrease fats to accommodate the high fat content of mackerel.

      • melike

        Yeah, it looks like I should do that. Thanks Mike, you have always been my first choice at the times that I got confused about something, since 2014!

  • Nath

    Hi Mike,
    Any thoughts on beef protein isolate?
    Thanks

  • Marks M

    What about buckwheat?
    Its also great source of carbs.

  • jjp5907

    Hi Mike great site is drinking a raw egg once in awhile ok?

    • Thanks! That’s fine, but it is better to eat a cooked egg. The protein of a raw egg is not as bioavailable as protein of a cooked egg.

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