Get the Most Nutrients for Your Money: How to Eat a Nutritious Diet on a Budget

Your health and nutrition choices are like making a savvy investment. It’s all about maximizing your returns; in this case, your returns come in the form of well-being.

Now, let’s talk about the elephant in the room – the ever-increasing cost of living, especially when it comes to putting food on the table. It’s a concern that many are grappling with, and they’re asking the million-dollar question:

“How can I make smart choices to prioritize protein, satisfaction, and nutrient richness without draining my bank account?”

Well, folks, it’s time to dive headfirst into the data, unravelling the secrets of how to get the most value out of your weekly shopping haul.

In this article, we’re taking you on a journey where you’ll discover that the cheapest foods per calorie, the sugar, oils, and flours of the world, won’t give you much nutritional or satisfying bang for your buck.

But here’s the kicker – the most nutrient-packed, appetite-satisfying foods often come with a heftier price tag.

Fear not, because nestled between these extremes, there’s a sweet spot waiting to be uncovered. It’s where you’ll find foods that deliver the nutrients, protein, and fullness that both you and your family need to thrive.

Are you ready to make the most out of your food investment? Let’s get started!

Ways to Measure Your Nutrition (Other Than Cost)                          

Before we dive into the cost of food, let’s set the scene.  Over the years, we’ve developed several ways to quantify nutrition.  The chart below shows three of them together. 

  • The horizontal axis shows the nutrient density per calorie.  We can use the foods towards the right to fill in our priority nutrient gaps with minimal calories.  However, nutrient-dense foods like watercress, spinach and asparagus are hard to consume in significant quantities, so we may not get a lot of nutrients from them.  And, as you’ll see, they’re not the cheapest options.   
  • The vertical axis nutrients per serving.  Towards the top of this chart, foods like liver, beef, salmon and eggs provide plenty of nutrients in the typical serving sizes that we consume them.  These foods are great for building the foundation of our diet and getting the protein, energy and nutrients we require. 
  • The colouring on the chart is based on our Satiety Index Score.  Foods shown in green are more challenging to overeat than the ones in the bottom left in red.   

Overall, we can see that foods that are satiating are also nutrient-dense.  However, you may want to use different approaches depending on your goals. 

For more details, check out:

Building these approaches to quantifying and prioritising our nutrition, we can introduce cost into the analysis.  The results may surprise you.  

Cost Per Calorie vs. Nutrient Density

To create the charts in this analysis, I sourced the current cost of 180 popular foods from the Coles and Super Butcher websites which we use for family shopping.  Exact prices will vary depending on the season and your location, but the trends will be similar.

I wish I could give you a simple list of these foods that will give you the best nutritional bang for your buck, but nutrition is multifactorial.  The cheapest or most nutrient-dense foods may not be ideal, so I’ve shown lots of data in these charts to help you make a more informed decision based on your goals, context and budget. 

This first chart shows cost ($ per 2000 calories) vs. nutrient density per calorie.   

  • Towards the bottom left, we see you could minimise your food bill by living on sugar, oil and rice.  However, these foods also provide minimal nutrients and satiety
  • In the top right, we see that non-starchy green vegetables, like spinach, watercress and parsley, are nutrient-dense but also super expensive.   You’ll also struggle to eat enough of these foods to get the required protein and energy. 

To find the balance between cost and nutrient density, we can zoom in on the top left of the chart to look at the relatively cheap foods that are also nutrient-dense.    The ideal food that is both nutritious and cheap would be located in the top left – unfortunately, this area is blank, so we have to compromise to some extent. 

  • We see liver is both super nutritious and cost-effective. 
  • Not everyone is a fan of organ meats, so as we move down, we see mackerel, Brussels sprouts, salmon, canned tuna, chicken, egg and bacon in the top right. 
  • Towards the bottom left, lentils, peanuts, sunflower seeds and flax seeds are cheap but not as nutritious or satiating, but they will still give you a solid amount of nutrition if your budget is limited.

If you’re eager, you can dive into the details in the interactive Tableau version of these charts here (on your computer).

Cost-Effective Protein Sources

In our Macros Masterclass, we focus on getting enough protein without excess energy.  To help Optimisers find cost-effective protein sources, the chart below shows protein ($/100g) vs protein %.  The colouring is based on the satiety score

  • In the bottom left, we see that foods like butter and fruit have a low protein % and are not cost-effective protein sources. 
  • Towards the top left, we see that non-starchy green vegetables, even though they have a high protein %, will not provide much for your hard-earned dollar.
  • Towards the bottom right, we see that plant-based foods like peanuts, sunflower seeds and rice might provide a solid amount of protein per dollar, but you’ll have to consume more energy than you otherwise need to get that protein.  If you’re trying to increase your protein %, you may need to move further up the chart. 

The ‘sweet spot’ to get enough protein without breaking the bank is in the upper right of this chart, so we’ll zoom in there. 

Towards the right, we see that organ meats like liver and heart provide heaps of protein.  However, if that’s not your thing, we also have low-fat/high-protein yogurt, protein powder, canned tuna, and pork are also excellent sources of protein if your budget is tight.

Cost vs. Protein %

To help you find cost-effective higher-protein foods, the following chart shows cost ($ per 2000 calories) vs. protein %.  While the foods in the bottom left corner are the cheapest, they don’t provide a lot of protein or satiety.  But towards the right, the most expensive foods also don’t have a high protein %. 

When we zoom in on the higher protein % foods, we see that chicken, liver, high-protein yogurt, and protein powder are the most cost-effective.  Meanwhile, towards the right, you’ll have to invest more to get your protein from tuna, salmon, beef, shrimp and egg whites. 

Satiety per Dollar vs. Nutrient Density (Per Serving)

Several people have suggested that it would be interesting to see satiety per $ to understand which foods provide the most satiety with a limited budget. 

  • The x-axis in the chart below is our satiety score divided by $/2000 calories. 
  • The vertical axis is nutrient density (per serving).
  • The colouring is based on our satiety score. 
  • Towards the left, we see that sugar and oil provide the least satiety per dollar.  Even though they are cheap sources of calories, they provide minimal satiety. 
  • Interestingly, towards the far right, we see that lentils, peanuts, kidney beans and sunflower seeds provide a solid amount of satiety per dollar but aren’t great in terms of nutrients per serving. 

Let’s zoom in to the top right to see foods that provide a solid amount of nutrients per serving and higher satiety/$.  Again, we see that liver is an excellent source of satiating nutrients, followed by chicken and ground beef.  Towards the left, we see that steak and salmon are more expensive, although they provide plenty of nutrients per serving. 

The other bonus with higher-satiety foods is that you are satisfied with less of them, which will further reduce your weekly grocery bill.   

Summary

I hope this analysis has given you some inspiration for some cost-effective, nutrition and satiating investments in your nutrition. 

There are several ways to view your investment in nutrition, but they all lead to similar conclusions.  

  • The cheapest foods per calorie are not necessarily optimal for your health in terms of satiety or nutrient density. 
  • Non-starchy green vegetables like spinach and watercress are excellent options in terms of nutrient density and satiety per calorie, but they’re not cheap.  
  • But between these extremes, we can find foods that provide the nutrients and satiety that we need without breaking the bank and also align with our preferences, context and goals. 

Before you go, if you haven’t yet, check out the interactive Tablau version of these charts (on your computer) that suit your goals and budget.

I’d love to know in the comments below:

  • What are your favourite cost-effective, nutritious, satiating foods? 
  • What new foods are you going to try after reading this article? 

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