Bang for your Buck Nutrition: the Cheapest and Healthiest Foods

In August of 2011, a study from the School of Public Health at the University of Washington concluded that eating healthfully is too expensive for most Americans. According to lead study author Dr. Pablo Monsivais, purchasing healthy, nutrient-packed foods could tack on $380 to your average grocery bill. And it certainly seems that way, with a half pint of raspberries costing as much as $5 and omega-3 packed salmon more than $24.99 a pound. But eating nutritiously can be cheap — as long as you pick the right foods. Below are ten of the cheapest but most nutritious foods:

1. Beans: $.12 per ¼ cup, uncooked (about ½ – ¾ cup cooked)
For just more than a dime, beans offer a whopping 15 grams of fiber and 9 grams of protein, making them a hunger-quashing powerhouse that neither whole grains nor meat can rival. In addition to maintaining steady blood sugar and energy levels, fiber boosts digestive health, helps to lower cholesterol, and reduces the risk of both diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Protein is also satiating, and, of course, it’s imperative for muscle growth. Dried beans are cheaper and lower in sodium than canned beans, but canned beans are still a bargain at around $.50 per serving.

2. Eggs: $.17 per 1 egg

Eggs are considered the gold standard for protein: in fact, they’re used as a reference point for the biological value scale, which measures the proportion of protein that is actually absorbed and used by your body. But even though more than half of the protein is found in the whites, don’t throw away the yolk: it’s rich in a choline, a nutrient that plays a role in brain and liver health and helps to reduce inflammation, as well as lutein and zeaxanthin, two antioxidants that boost eye health.

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3. Sweet Potatoes: $.30 per medium sweet potato
Sweet potatoes owe their bright orange color to beta-carotene, a precursor to vitamin A, which helps maintain a strong immune system, healthy skin, and good vision. Sweet potatoes might be one of the most practical source of beta-carotene, as they’re available year-round and, according to some studies, offer a more bioavailable form of the nutrient than leafy green vegetables. They’re also high in fiber; in fact, they improve (not just maintain) blood sugar levels, making them an ideal side dish for diabetics and healthy people alike.

4. Canned tuna: $.60 per ½ can
Fresh tuna can cost anywhere from $15 to $45 per pound — but you can get a much more affordable package at the grocery store. One five ounce can, which costs just $1.10, offers 36 grams of protein — a bonus for those trying to lose weight: a recent study found that high-protein dieters lost twice as much belly fat as low-protein dieters. But what makes tuna especially nutritious is its omega-3 fatty acids, which can help lower cholesterol and reduce the risk for both cardiovascular disease and stroke. (If you’re worried about mercury content, pick canned salmon — although it’s a bit more expensive, at $1.00 per serving.)

5. Lentils: $.10 per ¼ cup, uncooked (about ½ to ¾ cup cooked)
Lentils, like beans, are high in fiber — but that’s not their only claim to fame when it comes to heart health: they’re also rich in folate and magnesium. Folate help reduce levels of circulating homocysteine, which is a risk factor for heart disease; magnesium regulates blood flow and blood pressure. Lentils also provide iron, a mineral that is easiest to get through more expensive meat and poultry.

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6. Bananas: $.35 per banana
Next time you’re out and about, carry a banana instead of heading to the vending machine: they certainly beat that $1.99 pack of pretzels in terms of cost and nutrition, and they’re already packaged into a portable snack. They’re also a great option for athletes: a recent study from Appalachian State University’s Human Performance Lab found that cyclists who ate bananas during intense exercise performed just as well as those drinking a carbohydrate-based sports drink; plus, they got the added benefits of fiber, potassium, and vitamin B6.

7. Spinach: $.33 per 2 cups
Calorie for calorie, leafy green vegetables — like spinach — provide more nutrients than any other food. Spinach contains more than twelve flavonoids that have been shown to reduce inflammation and reduce the risk of cancer. Popeye’s favorite food also contains more than 200% of your daily recommended value for vitamin K, which maintains bone health. Serve spinach with a healthy fat (like an olive oil-based dressing) to maximize absorption of nutrients.

8. Peanut butter: $.15 per two tablespoons
Talk of antioxidants often conjures up images of vividly colored fruits and dark green vegetables — but peanuts actually contain more antioxidants than blackberries and strawberries. According to University of Florida researchers, peanuts are rich in p-coumaric acid, a polyphenol that fights neurodegenerative and cardiovascular disease. In addition to healthy monounsaturated fats, peanut butter boasts protein, fiber, calcium and iron. Pick natural peanut butter to cut down on added sugars and sodium.

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9. Oats: $.15 per ½ cup, cooked
Oats beat out every type of breakfast cereal in terms of cost and nutrition. Because oats are unrefined, their nutrients remain intact, including zinc, magnesium, iron and antioxidants. Oats are also one of the richest dietary sources of soluble fiber, which, in addition to boosting satiety, protects against heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, and obesity. Dress oats up with cinnamon, coconut flakes, fruit, and nuts.

10. Skim milk: $.20 per 8-ounce cup
Skim milk is your best bet when it comes to dairy — it’s cheaper than yogurt, offers more calcium than whole or 2% milk, and contains no unhealthy unsaturated fats. Besides offering 30% of your daily intake for calcium, 9 grams of protein, and B vitamins, skim milk might be a powerful tool for weight loss: a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that participants with the greatest intake of calcium from dairy experienced the most weight loss.

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