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Can You Eat Healthy at Dollar General? We Investigate


Article edited for scientific accuracy by Illuminate Labs Blog Editor Taylor Graber MD

With the U.S. economy staggering and inflation rising, dollar stores are booming. More Americans are shopping at dollar stores every year, and 1 in 3 new stores opening in the U.S. is a Dollar General.

Many people have the conception that all food from dollar stores is unhealthy, but we wanted to investigate this and see if it’s possible to eat a healthy, home-cooked diet using only foods sourced from Dollar General.

In this article we’ll review some of the healthiest options at Dollar General from various food categories.

What is Healthy Eating?

The term “healthy eating” itself is of course subjective, but we define it as a nutrient-dense diet high in produce and free of harmful additives like preservatives and added sugars.

A comprehensive research paper published in 2020 in the Nutrients journal investigated what makes a diet healthy and concluded that a diet similar to the Mediterranean diet is optimal for most humans.

This diet is higher in plant-based foods than the Standard American Diet, including fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, seeds and nuts. The diet is lower in animal-based foods and in particular processed meats.

Everyone has an individual response to food and should talk with their doctor before making substantial dietary changes, but we will use this diet model to inform our investigation of whether you can eat a healthy diet at Dollar General.

Please note that the pricing used in this article is an example from one store in our region (Western Massachusetts), and pricing will vary nationally.

Produce

Dollar General produce live store image

Dollar General has relatively limited produce options, but it definitely has enough for a basic healthy diet.

There are canned and frozen produce items.

Some of the canned items contain added sugar which we don’t recommend, but here are some healthy canned options without harmful additives which we do recommend:

Green beans 14.5 ounces (oz): $0.65

Spinach (13.5 oz): $1

Whole kernel corn (15.25 oz): $1

Here are the frozen produce items available for sale:

Mixed berries (10 oz): $2.50

Whole strawberries (10 oz): $2.50

Mixed vegetables (10 oz): $1

Broccoli & cauliflower (10.8 oz): $2

Green beans (10 oz): $1

There’s a misconception in health circles that fresh produce is always healthier than frozen. This is false and it may even be the opposite. Frozen produce has been proven in medical research to be higher in nutrients than equivalent fresh produce, because it’s flash-frozen at the time of harvest which retains nutrients. Vitamins and minerals in fresh produce degrade over time during transport, storage and while sitting on retail shelves.

We generally recommend frozen over canned produce. Canned produce often has added salt, so for the equivalent item (e.g. green beans frozen vs. canned) we believe the frozen option is healthier. There is also some concern over chemical leaching from liners into canned foods as evidenced in medical studies, but we still believe that canned produce is superior to consuming no produce if it’s the only option available.

These prices are a lot cheaper than what you might find at a regular supermarket. A large serving of strawberries for $1.25 (5 oz) and $0.50 for a serving of green beans are amazing options for consumers on a budget.

Animal Products

Dollar General animal products live store image

Fish is your best bet when it comes to healthy protein options at Dollar General.

Here are the animal products we recommend:

Canned pink salmon (14.7 oz): $4.25

Canned oysters (3.75 oz): $2

Canned sardines (3.75 oz): $1

Fish are a great source of DHA and EPA, the omega-3 fatty acids associated with positive health outcomes. Since all of these products are canned, and since overconsumption of fish can potentially lead to high mercury levels, we recommend consuming this type of fish 2-4 times weekly in line with research-based recommendations from the American Heart Association (AHA). At this intake level the benefits of fish consumption almost certainly outweigh any risks for adults.

It’s also worth noting that all of Dollar General’s fish options mentioned above are sourced from wild-caught fish, which we believe to be healthier than farmed fish.

For those on a budget, the sardines are clearly the best option. Four servings weekly would only cost you $4 total.

We don’t recommend any of Dollar General’s meat options, as most are processed and sourced from conventionally-raised animals, which is less healthy than animal products sourced from grass-fed animals.

They do sell eggs for $1.95/dozen which can be a decent option to add in here and there, but these are also sourced from conventionally-raised animals. 

Staples

Dollar General staples live store image

If you’re shopping for a week’s worth of food at Dollar General, we recommend that you use dried beans and rice as the base for most of your meals. This combination is super cheap, very nutritious and used across the world as a low-cost healthy option.

Here are the prices:

White rice 5 pounds (lb): $3

Pinto beans 64 oz: $3.50

Great Northern beans 32 oz: $2.75

One cup of cooked rice would cost about $0.08 and one cup of cooked pinto beans would cost around $0.15 at these prices. That’s $0.23 for a healthy base for your meals for the week.

We don’t recommend Dollar General pasta because it is enriched with added synthetic vitamins, and as we’ve discussed in reviews in the past, we don't believe that arbitrarily adding synthetic vitamins to food products has any benefits in countries without widespread malnutrition, and we think that this practice confers some potential harm. Vitamins should be supplemented only to replace deficiencies proven through medical testing.

We don’t recommend their dried instant carbs like instant mashed potatoes because they tend to have additives like sugar and preservatives.

Dollar General also sells canned beans, but they’re more expensive and less healthy than dried beans so we don’t recommend purchasing these.

Rice and beans is the most nutritious staple option available, and comes at a very low cost.

Snacks

Dollar General snacks live store image

The healthiest snack options available at Dollar General are found in their nut section. Nut consumption is associated with lower mortality rates across the board according to medical research.

Here are the prices:

Pistachios 8 oz: $4.25

Almonds 7 oz: $3.35 

Peanuts 16 oz: $3

Sunflower seeds 7.25 oz: $1.65

All of the nuts mentioned above have no harmful additives. Peanuts are almost always the cheapest nut option, and great for consumers on a budget, but those able to afford it may want to vary the nuts they consume because each has their own nutritional profile and benefits.

We don’t recommend any other Dollar General snacks like chips or candies as these are unhealthy.

Beverages

Dollar General beverages live store image

Dollar General has a surprising amount of healthy beverage options. Below are the prices:

Water (32-pack): $3.95

Coffee beans (30.65 oz): $5.50

Black tea (100 teabags): $1.25

Green tea (20 teabags): $1

Pineapple juice (32 oz): $2.25

Orange juice (12 oz): $1.85

Generally we recommend filtered tap water, but for those who live in areas with really poor water quality the bottled water is a safe option.

They also sell bottled black tea and water for around $1.75 each, but that’s far more expensive than buying bulk tea and water.

All of the above-listed beverage options have no added sugars or preservatives. $0.01 for a black tea is an amazing deal, as is $5.50 for enough coffee for more than a month.

We recommend diluting fruit juice in water as it’s quite high in (natural) sugars. Dollar General also occasionally stocks prune juice which has a host of health benefits.

Cooking Oils

Dollar General cooking oils live store image

There’s only one cooking oil we recommend from Dollar General. Below are the prices of the two oils we recommend:

Refined coconut oil (15 oz): $3.50

Extra Virgin olive oil (8.5 oz): $3.25

It makes sense to cook with refined coconut oil over olive oil as it has a higher smoke point. Olive oil is a great addition to salads and other dishes where it’s used unheated. We believe both coconut oil and extra virgin olive oil to be significantly healthier than the standard vegetable oil, which is associated in medical studies with inflammation and atherosclerosis.

15 ounces of coconut oil used for cooking should last several months, so it’s a great price at only $3.50.

Condiments & Spices

Dollar General spices condiments live store image

Adding spices to your food is one of the cheapest and most convenient ways to make your meals healthier. Spices have tons of micronutrients and typically last months. Dollar General has plenty of condiments and spices that we find healthy:

Yellow mustard (14 oz): $0.90

Louisiana hot sauce (6 oz): $1

Parsley flakes: $1

Paprika: $1

Crushed red pepper: $1 

Oregano: $1

Onion: $1

Garlic powder: $1

Cumin: $1

Chili powder: $1

Cinnamon: $1

Example Meals For a Day

Using the healthy options at Dollar General we highlighted above, you could put together a very healthy day’s worth of meals:

Breakfast: Black coffee brewed at home, with a bowl of pistachios and strawberries.

Lunch: Large serving of pinto beans and rice, with cooked pink salmon, spinach and hot sauce all mixed together.

Dinner: Small serving of beans and rice and chili powder, with a side of green beans doused with olive oil. Green tea and water to drink.

This set of meals would be cheaper and healthier than the vast majority of Americans eat daily, and can be done with Dollar General food alone.

Conclusion

To our genuine surprise, you can actually eat healthy even if you’re in a “food desert” and your only option is grocery shopping at Dollar General.

You have to be discerning, because the vast majority of food products there are processed and unhealthy, but using our guide you can make healthy choices for yourself and your family on a budget.

We hope this guide is useful to consumers, and we’re encouraged that even in low-income communities without other options the choice is still there to eat healthy.




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