If you’re just getting started on a weight-loss plan, adopting a healthier lifestyle can seem expensive. After all, you’ll likely want to invest in new workout gear, a gym membership and a fridge full of healthy staples.
Before you stretch your budget beyond your means, “it’s important to consider which purchases make the greatest impact on your weight-loss goals,” says Eric Bowling, a certified personal trainer at Ultimate Performance in Los Angeles.
What’s more, some of the best weight-loss tools are budget-friendly or even free. Here, experts share how you can shed pounds without emptying your wallet:
STICK TO WHOLE FOODS
While more than $2 billion each year is spent on weight-loss supplements, little is known about whether they’re actually effective, and they can cause more harm than good for your body and budget, per the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
“If your weight-loss plan includes pricey specialty powders or liquids designed to ‘replace’ meals, you may want to rethink your approach,” says Jackie Newgent, RD, author of “The All-Natural Diabetes Cookbook.” “Stick to lean proteins, whole grains, healthy fats and plenty of fruits and veggies,” she says.
To save money and safely lose weight, you’re better off taking the old-fashioned route. Create a calorie deficit through a healthy diet and exercise, and stick with it consistently, advises Bowling.
EAT MORE MEALS AT HOME
Eating more meals at sit-down and fast-food restaurants is associated with a higher BMI, shows one study in the American Journal of Health Promotion. Instead, “audit your restaurant choices,” says Ben Tzeel, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and registered dietitian. Think about why you’re choosing these eating spots and whether their menu and serving sizes are preventing you from reaching your weight-loss goals.
Then, “try prepping healthier versions of your favorite restaurant meals at home, so you can track your portions and intake while saving calories and money,” says Tzeel. Think homemade burrito bowls, healthier kung pao chicken and high-protein, low-cal pasta dishes.
MEAL PREP FOR SNACKS
Use meal planning to trim down your grocery list. “Batch-cooking meals will not only save you time and money in the grand scheme of things, but it will also ensure you’re more consistent with your nutritional intake and not just ‘guessing,’ since you can portion out all of your meals,” says Tzeel.
And don’t forget about snack prep, adds Newgent. Rather than grazing throughout the day or eating straight out of the bag, plan snacks ahead of time to keep your metabolism revved up while also preventing overeating — and overspending — when hunger calls, she suggests.
GROCERY SHOP A FEW TIMES A WEEK …
Stretch your time budget a little, and you could save cash and calories. “If it’s possible, consider dividing up your grocery list and only shopping for two or three days’ worth of groceries at a time to assure food stays fresh while preventing temptation to eat more,” says Newgent.
Buying only what you need for the next few days can help simplify meal planning, make kryptonite foods a special treat rather than a frequent indulgence and reduce food waste — all of which saves you money, too.
… AND MAKE THE TRIP AFTER YOU EAT
“To help you stick to your weight-loss plan and steer clear of unplanned indulgences, shop on a satisfied stomach, not a grumbling belly,” says Newgent. When you’re hungry between meals, you’re more likely to crave high-calorie, high-sugar foods and pick up a candy bar (or two) at checkout.
Even if it’s just a small snack after work to hold you over until dinner time, this tiny tweak can make all the difference when it comes to keeping your cart low-budget and low-calorie. If you’re short on time or staying home more often these days, a grocery delivery service could also make it easier to shop smart and stay within your budget.
PURCHASE BUDGET-FRIENDLY PROTEINS
Protein is key for weight loss because it helps you feel full (which can help prevent overeating), and it reduces the chance your body breaks down muscle for energy during your weight-loss period, explains Tzeel. But you don’t have to splurge on grass-fed beef and wild salmon. There are many wallet-friendly options that are high-quality like ground turkey, canned tuna and plant-based options, such as beans. Try making big batches of tuna avocado egg salad or bean-based soups and stews.
EAT WITH THE SEASONS
Rather than spending money on more expensive organic produce at the grocery store, “let your local farmers market inspire your meals,” suggests Tzeel. “When you buy in-season veggies, they’ll also be at the peak of their color, flavor and nutritional value, while being at their lowest cost since they’re readily available,” explains Newgent.
What’s more, for weight loss and maintenance, “filling up half of your mealtime plates or bowls with non-starchy vegetables [like asparagus, cabbage and salad greens] can be a healthy approach, since veggies offer lots of satisfaction for very few calories.” Go for fresh zucchini and tomatoes in the summer, and Brussels sprouts and cauliflower during the colder months, she suggests.
BUY FROZEN AND CANNED PRODUCE
When you’re on a budget, it’s easy to lose money and overeat by buying foods in bulk because you simply can’t eat all of them before they go bad. Contrary to popular belief, research suggests the nutrient profiles of frozen, canned and fresh foods are similar. So, if you often find yourself struggling to avoid food waste, the freezer aisle and canned foods sections are worth a visit.
“Frozen fruits and veggies can be a great source of fiber — a nutrient that helps keep you full — and they’re also budget-friendly,” confirms Tzeel. Save money by purchasing frozen bags of fruit for smoothies, parfaits and sorbet, veggies for curries and pastas and canned items for sauces and sides (make sure to rinse your beans before you eat them since they can be high in sodium due to preservation methods).
LEARN HOW TO SAY NO
One of the greatest challenges to staying within your food and calorie budget is often your social life. It’s easy to overspend and overeat when you’re dining out with family and friends. Feel pressured to go to a restaurant where you know there won’t be many healthy options? “It’s OK to politely decline in order to stay on track,” says Tzeel. To save money and cut down on temptations, consider sharing your weight-loss goal with your loved ones, asking for their support, and offering to meet up post-meal for a food-free activity.
HAVE FUN ON THE MOVE
“Getting fitter can help you better manage your weight, and it can absolutely be done without a fancy fitness club membership or personal trainer,” says Newgent. To work out for free, pick gear-free physical activities that you enjoy and add more of them to your schedule. Get moving by hiking local trails, rucking with friends, dancing like no one’s watching, or even walking errands. Bodyweight workouts and walking plans are also effective and free.
Originally published June 2019, updated with additional reporting
Unlock an experience that’s like having a dietitian, trainer and coach — right at your fingertips. Go Premium for expert guidance and exclusive tools that will help you reach your personal health goals.