Calories Per Dollar: Great Idea Or Dumb Mistake?

Does it make sense to count calories per dollar?

Maybe you’re running out of money. You hope that you can save a buck here and there with a frugal diet.

Or maybe you’re trying to build muscle. But you don’t want to spend $100s on chicken breasts and protein supplements.

The good news is, it’s cheaper than you think. Every product has a different cost per calorie. So if you only buy high-calories-per-dollar products, you’re getting the most value from your money.


You do need to meet a certain number of calories to maintain your weight. But there are other factors that determine your health and energy levels. Because of this, buying the right food is an investment. If you buy less, you’re minimizing your returns.

We’ll show what products offer the most calories per dollar, and what you should know before buying them.

Calories Per Dollar: Great Idea Or Dumb Mistake?

Calories Per Dollar Great Idea Or Dumb Mistake

Let’s see the products that give the most calories per dollar. According to this list estimate, its:

  • Flour – 4464 c/$
  • White bread – 3333 c/$
  • Sugar – 2854 c/$

Who would have thought that it would be some of the unhealthiest products? That also explains why we’re so prone to eat them.

After millions of years of evolution, our body prefers the products that offer the most calories for survival, whether they’re healthy or not. You won’t starve if you eat these, but you won’t feel amazing either.

If your goal were to eat as many cheap calories as possible, it would turn into something like this:

Very different from this:

Not only does it taste better, but junk food is also easier to eat.

Let’s look at some healthy alternatives with high calories per dollar:

  • Rice – 2320 c/$
  • Plain oats – 2148 c/$
  • White pasta – 1600c/$
  • Peanut butter – 1487c/$
  • Pearled barley – 1429c/$

Other products include coconut oil, whole milk, pinto beans, spaghetti, eggs, potatoes, and bacon. You can find a more detailed infographic here:


As you can see, some calories cost over 10X more than others. And if you really wanted to save money, you could as well:

  • Buy seasonal products
  • Go discount shopping
  • Buy in bulk

By contrast, the less efficient products are raspberries, artichokes, macadamias, shrimp, bulgar wheat, tofu, sirloin steak, bison, feta cheese, and Greek yogurts.

If you wanted to save on groceries and don’t mind changing your diet, this is the best way to do it while buying the same amount of food. And most of the listed products are natural and healthy.

Now, here’s what you should know before buying any of these.

Should You Save Money By Counting Calories Per Dollar?

This strategy makes sense, assuming:

  • You don’t mind following a harder diet
  • You exclude sugars and unhealthy fats
  • You exclude ultra-processed products

If we say that time is money, you have to account for the cooking time too. It takes more time to prepare meat/fish/vegetables than it is to buy a McDonald’s burger or some ramen noodles.

If you’re trying to save money, we’ve written a guide here on how to eat healthily on a budget and how to save on groceries.

With these assumptions, you won’t be eating the most efficient products, but you’ll be filling your body with junk food. If all you cared about were calories, that would be counter-productive.

Why Only Saving on Calories Is a Terrible Idea

Why Only Saving on Calories Is a Terrible Idea

No matter how cheap it is, food still costs money. Money that you make with your hard work and energy. And not all high-calorie foods give you the same energy.

Let’s say you don’t care about eating healthy and only care about calories. Here’s what will happen:

  • You get fewer calories than what you eat

Let’s put aside the health advice for a moment. Objectively, our bodies have evolved eating natural foods. If you eat something processed, it’s going to take more energy and time to digest it.

That means you get far less efficiency for the calories you consumed. If a processed product gives you 1000 Kcal, the body may spend about 100 kcal per hour to digest it. And because it’s processed, it will likely take 4 to 8 hours.

What’s left? 200 to 600 kcal as “net calories.” All you did was kill hunger for a while.

Now, the nutritional facts.

  • It makes you overeat and still feel hungry

Sugars often give the most calories, which creates an energy boost for a few minutes but offers no health benefits. And like everything in this world, if something isn’t helping you, it’s harming you.

And you can’t fool your body with empty calories. Sugars have no nutritional value, which means you’re more likely to feel hungry and overeat.

  • It’s too hard to access that energy

What about fats? Saturated fats are the unhealthiest and easiest to consume. But these nutrients will likely store in your body. And you have to make a lot of effort to make you use them. Instead of fueling your body, it’s burdening you.

As a side effect of strength training, you get to use more calories from your storage (and burn fat), even when you’re not exercising.

  • You will earn less money

From the investment perspective, your body is an asset with the capacity of earning money. That matter is made of the products you consume. It’s also how you keep your brain functioning.

Have you ever sat to work and felt like it’s too hard to focus? Your diet may have caused it:

  • You’re eating processed food, so your body spends more energy in digestion (about 40%). You feel drained
  • You don’t have the right nutrients, and your alertness decreases

Investing 101 says that you have to put money down if you want to make more. As for your diet, it’s not just the money you spend on calories. It’s how much you make.

If a frugal diet makes you tired and you earn less money, it’s a bad decision. Processed high-calorie products are legal scams.

What Should You Do Instead?

Buy the foods that will make you more money potentially. But how do you “invest” in your diet?

  • Look for natural, anti-inflammatory products with lots of nutrients. These are lighter to digest and you won’t overeat (chicken, oatmeal, spinach, fatty fish, olive oil)
  • Eat just enough protein, most of which should come from vegetables.

Even if you’re building muscle, you don’t need more than 0.8-2g of protein per pound. And if you buy more vegetables than meat, you’ll save money (e.g., gorillas have more muscle and they only eat leaves).

  • Buy fruits and vegetables to make digestion lighter. If you first needed two calories to digest five, now you only need one. You get vitamins too.
  • Consume healthy fats to keep your brain sharp

Along with non-sugar carbs, these can be your main source of energy. Assuming they’re natural, you’re getting the best value from your money.

The Bottom Line

You don’t need to spend much on food to be healthy, and you can still eat like a king.

If you stick to a healthy diet, it’s still okay to skip it occasionally (as long as you don’t overeat). And remember to add variety to make it more satisfying.

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