How Much Does Whole30 Cost? Breaking Down the Price of Healthy Eating
When I began my Whole30 challenge, I knew I was going from a diet heavy on fast food and soda to one that was ultra-healthy but super restrictive. I had some bad habits to break. But I also understood that it was going to change my budget just as much as it would change my body. So I decided to track my food expenses and see if it was true that eating healthy was really more expensive.
To make as clean of a comparison as possible, I compared my grocery and restaurant spending from the period of my Whole30 run (March 4 to April 3) to the same date range in 2016.
Before I dive in to the details, I want to make it clear that aside from a minor freak out over the price of some steaks during my first grocery run, I wasn't actively trying to save money while eating healthy. I wasn't really sticking to a food budget before I gave it a shot, either, and so I decided to keep the comparison as fair as possible. I wasn't trying to prove a point so much as I just wanted to see what would happen if I stuck to my usual shopping methods. So yes, there will be a whole bunch of readers whose eyes will pop at the amount I spend on food for one person, and that's okay. A lot of the habits I was looking to break are the ones that were costing me the most. I'll talk more about that at the end.
2016: Lots of fast food breakfasts and pizza delivery
From March 4 to April 3 in 2016, I spent grand total of $376.92 on feeding myself 82 meals, at an average cost of $4.60 per meal.
During this period, I was not watching what I ate at all. I was in the habit of grabbing breakfast on the way to the office, usually a McGriddle combo with a medium Dr. Pepper. I ordered pizza delivery and opened a bottle of wine on Wednesdays. I nearly always had some kind of fresh baked dessert on hand. At the grocery store, I stocked up on fresh produce, but also on sugary orange juice, shredded cheeses, and lots of rice and pasta.
I'd wager that it looks a lot like the average middle-class American diet. According to one study, the average American spends $1,200 annually on fast food, roughly $100 per month at an average cost of $12.50 per meal. Seventy percent of Americans admit to eating fast food three times per week.
Why only 82 meals? Why not 90? Brad's Deals caters lunch for the office on Wednesdays, and I usually can make a meal out of the leftovers on Thursday as well. (If that sounds pretty great, check out our Careers page.) That took the cost of eight meals off my plate. Since most American workers don't get this kind of benefit, I broke the costs down by meal instead of by month.
2017: Healthy but ultra-restrictive diet
During the same period in 2017, I stuck to a Whole30-compliant diet. Feeding myself 90 meals in accordance with the program's very strict rules cost me $528.97, which works out to $5.88 per meal.
While I was doing Whole30, I couldn't rely on the catered meals to be compliant with the program's super strict rules, and thus brought lunch from home on those days. If I didn't have catered lunches at my disposal, the cost difference adds up to an extra $115.20 per month spent in pursuit of eating clean.
Now before you say "A-HA! I knew it would be more expensive!" I want to point out that what I was doing was extremely restrictive, and remember, as I said at the beginning, I wasn't actively trying to make it cost effective. There are about a million articles out there addressing the topic of eating healthy on a budget, including this one that we wrote ourselves. This subject is pretty well covered everywhere you look.
Instead, my goal was to do the thing and then give an honest accounting of what happened when I traded McDonald's for Whole Foods. I wasn't looking for the best deal. I was looking for something I could actually eat without breaking the rules. Sometimes, okay, often, those two things were definitely at odds.
On Whole30, there are plenty of foods that under normal circumstances would be considered healthy, but which for one reason or another are not allowed. If it had sulfites, soy, or any kind of added sugar or sugar substitute, I couldn't have it, and the alternatives were often expensive. I ended up doing a lot of shopping at Whole Foods to accommodate those restrictions, and well, there's a reason they call it Whole Paycheck.
In reality, most of us don't need to worry about sulfites or only eating hormone-free meats and eggs, and honestly, those were the biggest expenses. In my first grocery outing, I accidentally spent $60 on what ended up being just a week's worth of grass-fed and hormone-free meats.
Two ribeyes clocked in at $30. The prosciutto that I bought as a bacon substitute was $11.50. Even the ground beef was $8.50. YIKES.
If you don't have a very specific dietary need to stick to grass-fed and hormone-free meats, you can save a ton and still be eating healthy. I did not repeat my mistake with the steaks (it still hurts to think about them), and later I discovered that ground bison is a dollar cheaper than the grass-fed ground beef. Now that I'm done with Whole30, I'll be going back to not worrying about it.
On the other hand, replacing bread, pasta, and rice with potatoes wasn't a big deal. I splurged on pre-cut fruit which would have been cheaper to buy whole and cut myself.
A lot of the things we've grown accustomed to buying pre-made are easy and cheap to make at home. For example, making a zesty preservative-free and sugar-free Italian vinaigrette from scratch only required staples that most kitchens already have on hand, and now that I've tasted lemony homemade mayonnaise, I don't think I can justify paying for a jar ever again. (Seriously. It's amazing, and shockingly easy to make.)
Surprisingly, while avoiding added sugar was annoying, the cost of sugar-free alternatives were generally reasonable. It was a lot harder to avoid things like flour and corn starch. There was one recipe I tried that called for arrowroot. I couldn't find it at Whole Foods, and I ended up with a whole bag of tapioca starch. Meanwhile, there's a can of corn starch in my cupboard, but I wasn't allowed to use it because rules are rules. So my advice is this: Unless you're adhering to a strict paleo regimen, there's no reason to inflict this particular trauma upon your wallet. Just use up the corn starch. There's no reason to avoid things like wheat and sulfites if you're not sensitive to them.
Basically, there are a lot of ways to bring that cost down significantly if your requirements aren't so complicated by ultra-strict dietary rules as I was under Whole30.
What I learned going from one extreme to the other
Super strict, inflexible diets are definitely not cheap. I have a new found empathy for anyone with an actual gluten intolerance disorder. Eating at home wasn't hard, but affordable grain-free alternatives can be hard to find, and can cost a lot when you find them.
My coffee is now cheaper. I learned to drink my coffee black, and the revelation that a cup of black coffee costs so little compared to the creamy sugary concoctions I previously would order was almost disorienting. This is a thing that most people know, but I doubt many appreciate it unless they've made a similar switch.
A lot of what you're paying for when you buy food is the convenience. Base ingredients are often cheap because additional labor has not been spent on them. Your own labor comes at the expense of your time. During my 30 days, nearly everything had to be made from scratch. Most of my time at home was devoted to cooking, eating, and then writing about it.
My restaurant spending fell to nearly zero since most menus had nothing I could eat. It was very exciting one day when I was out with a friend and ordered a scrambled egg, a side of roasted potatoes, and a pot of black tea (no milk or honey, of course). And if that was exciting, I was over the moon when, near the end, I figured out how to hack a Chipotle chorizo salad bowl.
Although I did spend more per meal, I strongly believe that taking a budget cost-conscious approach under relaxed rules would be much simpler than conventional wisdom claims. The main difficulty lies not in the groceries but in the time needed to cook them.
So what's next?
Now that I understand what it costs to eat an extreme version of healthy, I'm ready to pull it back to a happy medium where healthy and affordable meet in the middle.
As a consequence of giving up all added sugar and sugar substitutes for a month, I no longer crave soda. Which means I no longer shell out for 12-packs of Dr. Pepper. At an average of $3 per 12-pack, consumed at an average rate of three per month, that puts $108 per year back in my wallet. (Real talk: I'll probably turn around and spend half of that on tea instead, but that's so much better than soda.)
The same is now true for coffee, as I already noted, though I was never a huge coffee drinker to begin with. After years of spending $6+ on sugary coffee treats, paying an average $2.50 for a cup of black coffee at a cafe feels like I'm robbing them.
I've already gone back to nothing-special ground beef and other meats. While I'm committed to remaining sugar free, I'm not going to sweat it when it comes to bacon. And I'm perfectly fine with the idea of going back to peanut butter when almond butter costs $10 per jar. I'll probably splurge for the all natural sugar-free stuff, but that's still cheaper than the almond butter.
Reading labels at the grocery store is now de rigueur, but if the grain or soy or sugar-free version of a thing is crazy expensive, I'll probably skip it. I'm not gluten-intolerant or anything so if a little wheat slips into my diet via some kind of condiment, oh well.
I'm sticking with the catered lunches, of course. I made free lunch day into my cheat day, because that's eight meals I don't have to pay for.
The last change I'm making is that I'm using Qapital to incur a financial "penalty" any time I order takeout. From now on, every time I stop at McDonald's for breakfast or order deep dish delivered from Lou Malnati's, an extra $3 will go into a savings account. I may not actually be losing money, but neither will it be so readily accessible, and the penalty makes me think twice about whether or not I really need that Bacon, Egg and Cheese McGriddle when I can fix a plate of scrambled eggs and fresh fruit at home that's both healthier and cheaper.
For more information on how to save on healthy eats, check out our post on the best credit cards for grocery shopping!