The Cost of Eating Healthy vs Unhealthy by City

Written by Tye Medical on Mar 2nd 2021

The Cost of Eating Healthy vs Unhealthy by City

Science has proven the benefits that a balanced and nutritious diet can have on our physical condition both now and as we age. While the benefits of eating healthy are well known and accepted, one thing that often stops people from pursuing such a lifestyle is price.

Many people have an idea in their head that eating healthy requires buying and preparing expensive organic foods. Given the choice between fast food options that are as cheap and convenient as they are unhealthy, or grocery bills for healthy options that they believe will be complicated and expensive, many people will opt for the unhealthy options. They assume it will be lighter on their wallet even if it is heavier on their bathroom scale.

But are they right about those cost assumptions?

To find out, our team at TYE Medical conducted a study to determine how much it actually costs to eat healthy compared to fast food in cities across the U.S.

How We Did It

We used a combination of DoorDash and official company websites to collect the cost of the same breakfast, lunch and dinner fast food meals in 50 of the largest U.S. cities. These are the fast food meals included in the study:

  • Breakfast: Small iced coffee and sausage, egg, and cheese breakfast sandwich from Dunkin
  • Lunch: A McDonald’s combo meal (entree, side, drink)
  • Dinner: Three slices of a Papa John’s meats pizza

Finally, we created a healthy alternative meal for each meal and collected pricing data on the specific set of ingredients required for each using Walmart’s online shopping functionality. Ingredient costs were divided into appropriate serving sizes to get costs for a meal for one. These are the healthy meals included in the study:

  • Breakfast: A strawberry breakfast smoothie
  • Lunch: Salad with dressing, pecans, cranberries, and grilled chicken
  • Dinner: A marinated chicken breast, brown rice, a side of mixed vegetables, and a roll

Calorie Count Methodology

For the fast food meals we used official calorie count and nutrition information provided by each restaurant to find the full calorie counts for each meal. For the healthy meal options we calculated the amount of each ingredient that was used in each meal and compared that to serving sizes and nutritional information on the back of the package for each item to calculate the overall calorie count per meal. 

Comparing Meal Costs And Calories

A breakdown of the study, values, costs, test methods, etc.

The full results of these calculations, both for costs and calories, can be seen above. For both breakfast and dinner the healthy meals we have chosen contain 455 fewer calories than the fast food alternatives, while a healthy lunch saves over 700 calories. On average, healthy meals can save the average person over $4 for the first two meals of the day, and another $2.50 at dinnertime.

The average meal costs across all of the cities is also included, showing that on the whole people who take the time to make healthy options similar to our examples three times a day can save over $11 and 1600 calories on average over the course of a day! 

Cities Where Fast Food Is Most Expensive

Map of the USA with numbered circles depicting result locations, detailed chart at bottom

To dive deeper into our analysis, we first wanted to spotlight how much a full day of fast food meals can cost. The map above shows the 15 cities where the combined totals of the fast food breakfast, lunch, and dinner meals we included are most expensive, each of which surpasses $20. In each of these cities you will need more than $20 to feed yourself for a day, with Seattle being the most expensive at just shy of $25. While that amount isn’t going to break the bank, it does begin to feel a little wasteful when compared to the prices for the healthy meals. 

That is because even in the cities where a full day of healthy meals is most expensive, people can eat for less than half the price of fast food in the 15 cities where fast food is most expensive. In fact, Las Vegas is the only city in the entire 50 city set we analyzed where the daily cost for three healthy meals exceeds $10. 

Cities Where Healthy Meals Are Cheapest

Map of the USA with numbered circles depicting result locations, detailed chart at bottom

The differences get even starker when looking at the cities where it is cheapest to eat healthy. Pittsburgh is the cheapest city in the country, with a daily healthy meals cost that is nearly 66% cheaper than a day of fast food in Seattle! 

Cities Where Eating Healthy Saves The Most Money
Map of the USA with numbered circles depicting result locations, detailed chart at bottom

Speaking of Seattle, the Emerald City is the place where healthy meals are second cheapest. Given that it also has the most expensive fast food costs in the country, it is no surprise that the home of Starbucks is the place where people can save most by eating healthy, to the tune of a $16.44 difference, a full $1.54 more than any other city! While that $16 total is the most significant in the country, each of the top 15 represent a savings of at least $11.50 every single day. That’s a lot of savings over the course of a year!

Made with Flourish

Made with Flourish

While each of those graphics only focus on the top or bottom 15 cities in any given category, we also wanted to make the full results of our analysis available. To that end, we created the interactive elements above. The map includes all 50 cities included in the study, and hovering on a dot will display the cost for a day of fast food meals, the cost for a day of healthy meals, and the difference between the two for each city. The interactive chart goes even more in-depth, showing the exact price for each individual meal, both fast food and healthy, in each city as well as the respective totals and differences.

Final Thoughts

Whether or not we’ve changed your minds or habits when it comes to healthy eating versus fast food and their respective costs, we hope this analysis has been as illuminating for you reading as it was for our team as we compiled the results. Eating healthy is one of the best ways to improve your mental and physical health, including benefits for your heart, brain, and digestive system. And remember, if you are experiencing incontinence issues related to diet, aging, or illness, TYE Medical has plenty of solutions to meet your needs.