Many people don’t have a good understanding of the differences between healthy food and junk food.

They assume healthy food is better, but also more expensive. Is this really the case? Let’s take a closer look.

Let’s examine the breakdown of calories first.

Calories are a unit of measurement for energy.

You may have heard that 1 calorie is is the amount of energy it takes to raise the temperature of one gram of water one degree or that 1 calorie equals 4.184 joules or that 1 calorie in the context of food is really 1 kilocalorie (kCal).

All of these are true and as you can see, it’s all a way to measure energy.

Whether you get a calorie from a fruit, vegetable or ice cream, you’re still ingesting the same amount of energy, so in that sense, the calories are the same.

However, there are important differences in the MAKEUP of those calories.

Macronutrient differences:

The calories in food can come from protein, carbohydrates, or fat, which are the three types of macronutrients.

  • Protein contains 4 calories per gram, so a calorie of protein is 1/4 of a gram of protein.
  • Carbohydrates (carbs) contain 4 calories per gram, so a calorie of carbs is 1/4 of a gram of carbs.
  • Fat contains 9 calories per gram, so a calorie of fat is 1/9 of a gram of fat.

Although each of these calories provide the same amount of energy, the way that energy is used in the body differs based on the macronutrient source.

Here is a very simplistic view of how the energy from each of the macronutrients is utilized:

Protein calories help to build and repair muscle. Carbohydrate calories provide energy for strenuous activity. Fat calories provide energy for mild activity and help you absorb vitamins and minerals. There’s much more to all three, but for the sake of this answer, I’ll keep it simple.

Micronutrient differences:

Foods also contain various micronutrients, which are what we commonly know as vitamins and minerals.

Micronutrients do not contain a significant enough amount of energy to be “counted” in terms of calories, but they do play an important role in your health and well-being.

Micronutrients enable your body to perform daily functions. Some micronutrients are even critical for survival. A lack of micronutrients in your diet will lead to deficiencies which can result in serious health problems over time.

Healthy foods, such as fruits, vegetables, potatoes, and high-quality meats, typically contain more micronutrients than junk foods, such as chips, cookies, and candy. You may have heard these junk foods referred to as “empty calories” for this reason.

This is why getting the majority your calories from healthy food is ideal. If you do this, your nutritional bases will be covered and you can still enjoy occasional “junk food” without sacrificing your health.

To recap:

A “healthy food” calorie is the same as a “junk food” calorie in terms of energy. Calories differ in their source of macronutrients, which determines how that energy is used in the body. Calories may also differ in their micronutrient (vitamin and mineral) content, which are essential to bodily functions and overall health.


Healthy Food vs. Junk Food Prices:

Is eating healthy really more expensive?

It depends on where you are eating.

If you’re preparing meals from scratch at home, then eating healthy is not more expensive.

In fact, it can be a lot cheaper.

I bought two Publix Greenwise 8 oz. top sirloin filets the other night for under $10.

That’s a fraction of what you’d pay at even a mid-tier chain restaurant and if you know how to prepare steak well, it will taste just as good, if not better. This is how I cook steak.

Add some potatoes and veggies for a few bucks and you’ve got yourself a healthy, delicious, and satisfying meal for two people for under $15.

If you’re eating out, eating healthy may or may not be more expensive.

In my experience I’ve found that eating healthy isn’t more expensive at high-end restaurants.

When you compare entree vs. entree, healthier choices like salmon or chicken are usually about the same price or cheaper than unhealthy entrees like burgers or pasta.

An entree salad may actually be much cheaper than a traditional entree. You can usually also substitute healthier sides like veggies with a meat entree for no extra charge.

However, if you want a salad to start as an appetizer, that will cost you extra.

The places I’ve found eating healthier to be significantly more expensive are fast food and fast casual restaurants.

If you go to a fast food restaurant, like McDonald’s or Wendy’s, a salad will cost you around $7 or $8.

But you can get a crap load more unhealthy food for under $5 by purchasing off the value menu.

Wendy’s has a 4 for $4 deal which is a big hit that’s “winning customers back.” [1] In the 4 for $4, you can get a Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger or chicken sandwich, nuggets, fries, and a soda for $4.

That’s three to four times the calories as a salad for half the price.

Even if you go to a “healthy” fast place like Chipotle, by the time you’re done, you’re looking at around $10 for a salad or bowl.

If I had to eat healthy at a fast place, I would personally opt for Chipotle over a Wendy’s salad since it’s only a couple bucks more, but way more tasty and filling.

But still, it’s no match against the value of the 4 for $4.

At Taco Bell, you can probably get even more calories for under $5 than at Wendy’s.

When you consider these options, it’s not really surprising that many people who struggle financially choose unhealthy fast food.

I sometimes eat at M Shack [2], which is a local burger joint that has both healthy and unhealthy options. I’d consider M Shack to be on the higher end of fast casual.

Their burgers are really tasty and not that expensive.

You can get a Sunrise Burger, which has “Bacon, Sunny Side Egg, American Cheese and Shack Sauce” for $6.95.

Or you can get an Omega-Fit, which is “Two Salmon Cakes, Sweet Bell Peppers, Farro Salad, Seared Kale, Edamame, Sunny Side Egg, No Bun” for $11.95.

Whether it’s this example or the $10 Chipotle meal, I just consider the extra $5 to be the premium you pay to eat healthy at fast places.

It’s a little annoying in the moment, but a healthy diet obviously pays off in the long-run with disease prevention, improved quality of life, etc.

To recap:

If you want to eat healthier without spending a lot of money, then prepare meals at home. If you eat at high-end restaurants, eating healthier won’t be more expensive. If you eat at fast food or fast casual restaurants, be prepared to spend a lot more on healthier options.


[1] Wendy’s 4 for $4 Menu Is Winning Customers Back

[2] FULL MENU – M Shack Burgers

First published on Quora (1, 2).

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