Topics » Social Issues » Is a Healthy Diet More Expensive?
T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies

Perceived expensiveness is the most common deterrent to healthier eating in the US, according to a recent Cleveland Clinic survey, with forty-six percent of people believing eating healthier costs more.[1] But does this perception match reality? The answer depends, in part, on how we define a healthy diet. Although there are a few evidence-based goals that almost everyone would agree are components of eating more healthily—eating more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, for example, or eating fewer highly processed foods—there is so much flexibility in how we achieve these goals. Consider the potential price difference between a diet centered on simple ingredients, including healthy canned and frozen options, and a diet that more frequently incorporates out-of-season organic berries, so-called superfoods like maca powder, and unusual specialty products.

In a report from the Economic Research Service (ERS) of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) that calculated the cost of healthy eating, authors used the Dietary Guidelines for Americans as a benchmark of what a healthy diet might look like (as underwhelming as those guidelines may be, they at least encourage eating fewer processed foods and fewer foods high in saturated fat, moderate goals which many Americans struggle to meet).[2] The ERS authors reported that choosing healthier foods costs less by all metrics except for the price per calorie, which makes sense considering that healthy foods are generally not as calorically dense.

But this report was published in 2012. Does it still align with the lived experience of most shoppers? To answer this question, we should first zoom out and consider the overall spending habits and trends in grocery costs from the previous years and decades.

For Most People, Food Is Currently Expensive

Perhaps one reason the cost of healthy food might loom large in the minds of many shoppers is that the cost of all food has become a sensitive subject. Average annual spending on food at home increased five percent from 2022 to 2023, double the average increase from the previous two decades; although this inflation has somewhat lessened in recent months, consumers on average expect food prices to continue increasing in the coming year.[3][4] These trends and our expectations of these trends add stress, which can severely undermine our decision-making: acute stress particularly impairs our ability to evaluate rewards and reinforces habit-based decision-making (as opposed to goal-directed decision-making).[5]

Unfortunately, the families at the highest risk of suffering from chronic health conditions—that is, the families most likely to benefit from a healthier diet—are also the most likely to feel the effects of these stressors.[6] Households with the lowest incomes spend the least total amount on groceries but the highest amount as a percentage of their income.[7] (Incidentally, somewhat relatedly, nations consuming the most calories per capita spend the smallest percentage of their incomes on food at home.[8])

While the exact dollar amount spent by American families on food varies depending on the source of the data, the US Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey (HPS) has found that American families spend an average of $270 per week on groceries.[9] Where a family lives and whether they have kids make a massive difference, with families that have kids under the age of 18 spending at least forty percent more than families without kids.

The HPS differs from Census Bureau benchmark surveys in that it “was designed to deploy quickly and efficiently, collecting data to measure how emergent issues are impacting U.S. households from a social and economic perspective.”[10] Although it is not as statistically rigorous as the more deliberative benchmark surveys, which require years to compile and distribute, data from the HPS provide snapshots of the most important factors immediately affecting Americans.

Of course, this grocery spending does not include eating out, which makes up a large proportion of overall food spending. This is crucial to remember when considering the overall cost of a healthy dietary lifestyle: individuals prioritizing a diet rich in whole plant-based foods might find they eat out less frequently than others and so immediately save money. (Granted, eating more home-cooked meals also requires more time and energy spent at home preparing food, which some might feel is a luxury, but more on this later.)

healthy food expensive

What about Plant-Based Diets Specifically?

The demand for plant-based diets has increased alongside the growing awareness of animal foods’ effects on human health, environmental sustainability, and animal welfare. Although a wide range of diet types fall under the umbrella of plant-based, the general perception seems to be that these are more expensive. Researchers in Portugal speculate that this perception may be because shoppers are swayed by the relative cost of novel meat substitutes, which are often more expensive than their animal food counterparts.[11][12] Of course, those products are only one part of a plant-based diet (and it’s questionable whether they should be considered part of a healthy diet); however, it makes sense that shoppers might extrapolate from the high prices of these items, given that many people rely on them during the transition away from animal-based foods.

What is more interesting, however, is what the Portuguese researchers discovered from their surveys and statistical analyses: far from being more expensive, plant-based diets, particularly the vegan diet, were associated with less spending than any of the other diets they included in their analysis (in total, they compared five diet types: vegan, ovo-lacto-vegetarian, flexitarian, pescatarian, and omnivorous).[11]

These findings reflect what researchers in the US concluded in 2016: true vegetarians report spending less on food.[13] Maybe the strangest detail from this study was that individuals who identified as vegetarians but occasionally bought meat spent even more than meat eaters. “This demonstrates,” they concluded, “that there are at least two different types of self-identified vegetarians”—the vegetarians who are vegetarians, and the ones who aren’t.

N of One

We generally discourage readers from putting too much stock into anecdotes. While personal experiences can be helpful, they are weak evidence for a claim.

That said, I was curious to see how much my wife and I spend on groceries compared to average Americans, and the results surprised me. We keep a fairly detailed budget, so our expenses are well accounted for at the end of each month. Last year, we spent just under $170 per week at the grocery store. Remember, the average American household spends $270 per week according to the HPS. We don’t have kids, but even if we did, I am confident we would maintain a lower spend than the average.

We enjoy a whole food, plant-based (WFPB) diet containing a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. Although seasonality is a factor in what we choose, which likely translates into spending less, we generally do not go out of our way to find deals. If anything, I am convinced we could spend significantly less on groceries than we do. We split our shopping between the local co-op, where we load up on bulk items (dried beans, whole grains, spices and herbs, etc.) and produce that is predominantly organic and very often local or else Fair Trade certified, and a regional chain that carries a few of our preferred staples: whole-wheat pasta, low-sodium vegetable broth, corn tortillas, unsweetened soy milk, etc. Most of our spending last year came from the co-op, as one would expect.

We live in the second most populous metropolitan area of North Carolina, which is by no means one of the most expensive parts of the country, but our spending is lower than the state average. The average North Carolina household spends $266.23 weekly on groceries (compared to the top spenders nationwide, California, at $297.72), and two-person households in North Carolina spend $212.49 on average.[9]

Everything in my experience points to the same conclusion reached by the researchers cited above: if you want to thrive on a WFPB diet but are concerned about your grocery bill increasing, you probably have nothing to worry about. The price of this healthy lifestyle is overstated if not completely imagined. If for some reason you do find your grocery spending out of control, you might find tips and guidance from the kind, supportive community of WFPB enthusiasts in CNS Kitchen, our free online community.

healthy food expensive

Avoiding the Cost of Unhealthy Foods

Even if it were true that a healthy dietary lifestyle is more expensive, we should not forget the cost of illness and disease. The average American with diabetes spends more than $12,000 per year managing their disease; cancer patients often spend far more than that, particularly in the end-of-life phase; hospitals charge tens of thousands, if not more, for surgical procedures, many of which have, unfortunately, become quite common in recent decades.[14][15][16] It’s no wonder healthcare costs are the number one reason Americans declare bankruptcy.[17]

(Learn more about the cost of malnutrition.)

Even in California, the most expensive state for groceries in the country, the average single person spends thousands of dollars less on groceries ($9,200) than the average diabetic spends on managing their disease. By choosing an antidiabetes diet, every dollar you save at the grocery store checkout is a dollar saved multiple times.

Health Is Not Only for the Wealthy

The facts in this article might seem to make a pretty convincing case, but the psychological barrier remains: if enough people assume healthy foods are more expensive, they will be less likely to choose them. As long as a warped view of healthy foods persists, it will not matter how consistent and definitive the facts are.

One difficulty mentioned briefly above is that far too many people mistakenly think they need specialty products. Dr. T. Colin Campbell describes this challenge in The Future of Nutrition:

Many of the foods touted as super also come with a super-high price tag, which reinforces the average consumer’s false impression that health is only for the wealthy. As health has become increasingly commodified, higher price has also come to imply higher health value. That healthy eating will break your budget is one of the most common, dangerous myths about healthy eating, and the sooner we upend that narrative, the better. While headlines trumpeting maca powder’s miraculous benefits may be interesting, and may serve an elite class, our attention would be much better directed toward the “peasant foods” that save lives: garbanzo beans, rolled oats, sweet potatoes, and so forth. Unfortunately, those foods don’t glow with the same luster, in part because they are so common, and the exclusivity of specialty foods is part and parcel of their appeal.

But also, none of this is to discount the legitimate difficulties some groups will face when trying to shift to a healthier lifestyle. Perceived cost is only one of several barriers to making better decisions. Communities in both rural and urban areas often have to overcome unequal food access, a top priority of food policy makers on all levels, and many individuals feel they lack sufficient time to cook or familiarity with preparing healthier foods.[18][19][1] Although these obstacles to healthier eating are not as frequently cited as perceived cost, they are not always easy to overcome. Learning how to prepare foods in a WFPB diet can take time. Even though cost is not the issue we make it out to be, people still need support in other areas of their lives. Recall from above how stress reinforces habit-based behaviors and limits our ability to evaluate rewards.[5]

In the spirit of de-stressing, then, let’s not make things worse than they need to be. It is more than possible to maintain a reasonable grocery budget or even save money while making wholesome decisions.


  1. Cleveland Clinic. Americans cite cost of healthy food as biggest barrier to a heart-healthy diet, according to cleveland clinic survey. Cleveland Clinic Newsroom. February 1, 2023.
  2. Carlson, Andrea, and Elizabeth Frazão. Are Healthy Foods Really More Expensive? It depends on How You Measure the Price, EIB-96, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, May 2012.
  3. USDA Economic Research Service. U.S. food-at-home prices increased 5 percent in 2023 compared with 2022.
  4. Koppes S. Most consumers continue to expect rising food prices. Purdue University News. March 13, 2024.
  5. Porcelli AJ, Delgado MR. Stress and Decision Making: Effects on Valuation, Learning, and Risk-taking. Curr Opin Behav Sci. 2017;14:33-39. doi:10.1016/j.cobeha.2016.11.015
  6. Shaw K. M., Theis K. A., Self-Brown S, Roblin D. W., Barker L. Chronic disease disparities by county economic status and metropolitan classification, behavioral risk factor surveillance system, 2013. Preventing Chronic Disease 13 (2016). DOI:
  7. USDA Economic Research Service. Food spending as a share of income declines as income rises.
  8. USDA Economic Research Service. Calorie availability and importance of food in household spending are inversely related.
  9. US Census Bureau. Week 63 Household Pulse Survey: October 18 – October 30 (Food Table 6: Household Food Spending, by Select Characteristics: United States).
  10. US Census Bureau. Household Pulse Survey: Measuring Emergent Social and Economic Matters Facing U.S. Households. April 2, 2024.
  11. Pais DF, Marques AC, Fuinhas JA. The cost of healthier and more sustainable food choices: Do plant-based consumers spend more on food?. Agric Food Econ. 2022;10(1):18. doi:10.1186/s40100-022-00224-9
  12. Cohen M. Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat battle to achieve price parity with real meat. CNBC. Updated August 31, 2021.
  13. Lusk JL and Norwood FB. Some vegetarians spend less money on food, others don’t. Ecol Econ. 2016;130:232–242. doi:10.1016/j.ecolecon.2016.07.005
  14. Parker ED, Lin J, Mahoney T, et al. Economic Costs of Diabetes in the U.S. in 2022. Diabetes Care. 2024;47(1):26-43. doi:10.2337/dci23-0085
  15. Mariotto AB, Enewold L, Zhao J, Zeruto CA, Yabroff KR. Medical Care Costs Associated with Cancer Survivorship in the United States. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2020;29(7):1304-1312. doi:10.1158/1055-9965.EPI-19-1534
  16. Learish J. Most expensive medical procedures in the U.S. ranked. CBS News. July 8, 2020.
  17. Himmelstein DU, Thorne D, Warren E, Woolhandler S. Medical bankruptcy in the United States, 2007: results of a national study. Am J Med. 2009;122(8):741-746. doi:10.1016/j.amjmed.2009.04.012
  18. Bonderson A. Rural grocery stores are dying. Here’s how some small towns are trying to save them. April 19, 2023. NPR.
  19. Mead MN. The sprawl of food deserts. Environ Health Perspect. 2008;116(8):A335. doi:10.1289/ehp.116-a335a

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