Eating a healthy, varied diet can be expensive. But for people on a tight budget, a new study in the Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition has some simple advice: Ditch the meat.
The authors compared the costs and nutritional adequacy of two seven-day diets: an economical version of MyPlate (pdf), including meat and fish and designed by the US government to align with its 2010 dietary guidelines, and a plant-based diet used in a program the researchers developed for food pantry recipients, called Raising the Bar on Nutrition (recipes and information available here).
In March 2012, the researchers compiled one-week grocery lists for each based on 2000-calorie-a-day diets and US Department of Agriculture serving sizes. They then calculated the costs using the cheapest brands available at Stop & Shop, a grocery chain in the Northeast US.
Here’s a sample menu from Day 6 of each menu:
Breakfast: French toast (made with two slices of whole-wheat bread, skim milk, egg, margarine, and pancake syrup), half a grapefruit and a glass of skim milk.
Lunch: Three-bean vegetarian chili (made with kidney, navy and black beans, tomato sauce, onion, jalapeno peppers, canola oil, and cheese sauce) on a baked potato.
Snack: Hummus and whole wheat crackers.
Dinner: Two slices of Hawaiian pizza (made with thin crust pizza slices, lean ham, pineapple, mushrooms and canola oil) and mixed greens salad.
Breakfast: Peanut butter oatmeal bars (made with whole wheat flour, oats, olive oil, and peanut butter), a glass of 1% milk and canned pineapple.
Lunch: Hearty vegetable soup (made with olive oil, frozen spinach, frozen broccoli, canned carrots, canned tomatoes, brown rice and cheddar cheese) with a fruit cocktail.
Snack: Peanut butter and carrot sticks.
Dinner: Southwest lasagna (made with olive oil, onion, black beans, canned tomatoes, shredded cheese, part-skim ricotta and whole wheat lasagna noodles).
After calculating the cost and nutritional content of each meal plan, the results tipped unquestionably to the plant-based diet’s favor.
- The MyPlate meal plan cost $14.36 more per week, or $746.46 per year. The meat, poultry and seafood included in that plan represented 21% of the final bill.
- The plant-based diet had approximately 25 more servings of vegetables (not including potatoes), 14 more servings of whole grains, and about eight more servings of fruit per week than the MyPlate plan.
- Although the MyPlate plan had more protein than the plant-based diet—96 grams a day, compared to 60 grams—both had more than the 50 grams suggested per day for people with a body weight of 75 kg (approximately 165 pounds).
- The plant-based diet also provided less calcium, but the researchers noted that both diets provide other nutrients shown to be important for bone health, such as potassium. They also note the research that has found eating meat to be risky for bones. For example, consuming more than 95 grams of protein a day, as the MyPlate plan calls for, has been connected to an increase in forearm fractures.
Besides being vegetarian, there is another difference between the two diets. Unlike the MyPlate diet, the plant-based one relies on olive oil instead of canola oil. Olive oil is more expensive, the authors explain, but a range of studies have connected it to health benefits and similar backing for the canola oil used in MyPlate isn’t out there. And besides, with all the money saved by not buying meat, a nice bottle of extra-virgin olive oil isn’t such a splurge.
Depending on where you live and shop, how many calories you eat in a given day, or if you are an athlete with higher protein needs, the price difference between the two plans may differ. But anyone looking for a little more breathing room in their budget might want to give vegetarianism a shot.