Food and Frugality

Adithyan Ilangovan 5 min read


“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” – Virginia Woolf

Food is an integral part of our lives. Significant time and effort are dedicated to getting our daily sustenance. With that backdrop, I have been thinking hard about food in the last few weeks. Especially, food in the context of financial independence (FI), health, and frugality.

I did some research, reevaluated my relationship with food, and found some surprising conclusions. I would like to share them.

Overdoing the Frugality on Food

One of the easiest things that you could control when you start on the FI journey, is how much you spend.

It may not be possible to increase your income by 20% overnight, but you could cut down your expenses by 20% overnight.

That is the mindset I started employing for various things, including food. Reflecting back, I had the right mindset but the wrong approach for food.

Wrong approach – Calories Per Dollar

The first thing that I look for when I walk in a supermarket is the PRICE. Maybe, its the immigrant Asian in me. But my mind goes on overdrive on finding the most amount of calories at a given price.  

Essentially, I am optimizing for calorie-per-dollar.

Calorie per dollar optimization for food.

This could, for example, mean :

  • You prefer buying potatoes over greens.
  • You prefer buying meat/dairy rather than seemingly expensive fruits/vegetables.
  • You buy pasta over whole grains.
  • You buy bottled sauces over fresh tomatoes.
  • You avoid berries because they are expensive (per-gram I found berries to be costliest in my supermarket).

This approach has drawbacks, such as :

  1. It focusses on calories and not on nutrients.
    • Nutrients simple stands for all the magic, diverse components that are found in foods (proteins, carbs, fiber, and such).
    • Well, balanced nutrients help us sustain, fight diseases, make us look vital, repair body, and several other things2
    • Overall, nutrients are the sustenance we need to keep a well functioning body. Not the calories!
  2. You do not need as many calories as you think you need.
    • Unless you are a bricklayer in Massachusetts you really do not many calories.
    • For our modern lifestyle, most of us are actually are over-consuming calories.

Screenshot 2020-06-14 at 19.47.22
Most of us are over consuming calories

Right Approach – Nutrients per dollar

So, the right way to think about frugality in food is to optimizing nutrients-per-dollar.

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With that as the optimization criteria, what should we choose now?

  • Are the typical choices that we make in the supermarket still the best choices?
  • Or counter-intuitively, the seemingly expensive choices are not so expensive anymore?

Luckily somebody else already did the research.

“Researchers at Harvard University compared the cost and healthfulness of various foods across the country, hunting for the best bargains. They found that in terms of nutritional bang for your buck, people should buy more nuts, berries, vegetables, beans, and whole grains, and less meat and dairy. They concluded: The purchase of whole plant-based foods may offer the best investment for dietary health.” 2

The nutrient density of different foods [Source.]

  • Fresh Vegetables vs Processed Foods (Pasta Sauce, Chips, among others)
    • Vegetables may cost roughly four times more than the average serving of junk food, but those veggies have been calculated to average twenty-four times more nutrition.
    • On a cost-per-nutrition basis, veggies are 6 times better!
  • Fresh Vegetables vs Meat 
    • Meat costs about three times more than vegetables yet yields sixteen times less nutrition based on an aggregate of nutrients 3
    • On a cost-per-nutrition basis, veggies are 48 times better!!!! (does that fact not blow your mind?) 
  • The high maintenance berries Berries might seem expensive when measured per gram.
    • But berries offer 10 times more antioxidants than any other fruits and vegetables and exceed 50 times more than animal-based foods. 4
    • From now, I can go on guilt-free binges on berries.
    • They are one of the best foods for the buck on the planet.
  • Nuts
    • Seems expensive but I found the same conclusions as for berries, and veggies.

It ain’t about Vegan-ism or any other -ism’s

To be clear, this post is not about Veganism, Vegetarianism, or any other ism’s.
Primarily, I care about frugality and I care about my health.

If those two were the sole criteria when you go out shopping, then you need to look no further than the fresh produce aisle in your local supermarket.

It may seem expensive, but “unprocessed whole plant/fruit-based food” provides the best “health” for a given buck.




A research found that, for most of the casual shoppers,

“Spending just fifty cents more per day on fruits and vegetables may buy you a 10 percent drop in mortality.”5

Imagine if there were a magic pill that could reduce your chance of dying by 10 percent over the next decade. Would you take it?

Well, there is a magic pill. And it is unprocessed whole plant-fruit-based foods.

Maybe, some of you intuitively know all of this. But I like facts, and figures to come to conclusions. And when I did my personal research on Food the evidence was so overwhelming and clear.

Now, I have clear sense of direction on what to do with food in my journey. Hope it helped you too.

Maybe, you have an alternative opinion that you would like to share. Let me know in the comment section below.


  • The right way to optimize for food, in terms of frugality, is to maximize nutrition-per-cost.
  • While certain foods might seem expensive, with the above criteria, they actual win.
  • The best kind of food is unprocessed whole plant-fruit based food.


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