Eating Healthy is Expensive - Fact or Fiction?

“Is eating a plant-based diet expensive?” I get this question or some variation of it often. “How much does it cost?”  “Is it more expensive?”  “Where do you shop?”  “Fresh fruits and vegetable are so expensive and those plant based meat alternatives are way beyond my budget!”  You get the idea.  So, below, I’ll do my best to bust some of these myths.

Is Eating a Plant-Based Diet Expensive?

If you buy seasonal fruits and veggies and whole grains and beans you may save money on a plant-based diet. If you buy faux meat, packaged foods, and produce that is flown in from half way around the world it is gonna cost you. Remember many of the poorer people in the world subsist on things like rice, beans, grains such as quinoa, millet, barley, potatoes, etc.  These are all whole food plants, are not expensive and are  nourishing and filling.

The Standard American Diet

Most people I know eat the Standard American Diet (SAD) consisting of lots of meat, dairy, processed foods, and let’s not forget soda. They may even have all of those at every meal. Not only do those highly processed foods cost them at the checkout, they will continue to pay the high cost to their health for years to come.  One reason that Americans are so into carb-filled confections glazed with tons of sugar comes down to simple economics. Junk food is cheaper, we all know that, but why? As it turns out, the same government that urges you to eat healthily and classifies a granola bar as a dessert also subsidizes the growth and production of ingredients that make “cheat day foods” more and more readily available. The money from those subsidies comes from tax dollars that we pay every year. So, if you want to tease the logic out a little further, you could say, “We’re paying to finance our obesity.” The crops and foods that the government subsidizes — “corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, sorghum, milk, and meat” — may not seem so bad. Soybeans can be good for you! Corn is healthy, right?

Unfortunately, many of these raw products get funneled straight into snack food production.  

From the New York Times: Between 1995 and 2010, the US government doled out $170 billion in agricultural subsidies to finance the production of these foods, the latter two in part through subsidies on feed grains. While many of these foods are not inherently unhealthy, only a small percentage of them are eaten as is. Most are used as feed for livestock, turned into biofuels or converted to cheap products and additives like corn sweeteners, industrial oils, processed meats and refined carbohydrates.

Seasonal Produce and Consistently Priced Food

Where I live, produce typically costs more during the winter. I counter that by using more whole grains and beans and using frozen veggies more often. In the summer I shift my meal plans to contain more fresh fruit and veggies. I may spend more on special occasions but for everyday meals I try to stick to the less expensive, seasonal veggies.

Here are a few examples: Blueberries are typically harvested in the warmer months, if you try to buy them in the winter it may cost up to $5 for a pint. If you must have them in the winter opt for frozen berries that cost the same year round (thanks Costco). When asparagus season is underway my local supermarket has asparagus for 89 cents per pound. At other times a year I see it for $2 to $5 per pound. I never buy watermelon during the winter but in the summer when they are 10 cents per pound I buy one a week.

Here is the thing, our diet doesn’t really depend on these (sometimes) more expensive foods; I have built my dietary base around foods that are consistently priced most of the time. Beans, grains, lettuces, bananas, potatoes, carrots, and eat a lot of apples all year round.  In the summer I hit the farmer’s markets for the seasonal plant foods. Many plant-based foods are among the most affordable. Shop the bulk section or find deals online for lentils, beans, grains, and nuts. Even buying the nut pieces versus whole ones saves some cash. Buying fresh produce that is in season can help your wallet too. For example, I’m sticking with frozen strawberries in the winter when the fresh ones are $6 a pack.

Food Waste

One of the best ways to save money/spend less is to cut down on food waste. Every time you throw food away you may as well be throwing away dollars. I am guilty of this. If you buy a giant bag of organic spinach and only use a portion of it before it gets slimy, then that’s not good. You then throw the rest away and make a trip to the store for a new bag where I end up buying extra items I may or may not eat. It is a vicious cycle. You can combat food waste by crafting a meal plan based on food you already have or by only purchasing food you have a plan to use. Or use the food scraps to make your own homemade veggie broth. The internet is full of easy recipes to do this.

A Whole Food, Plant-Based Diet is Less Expensive

Yes, buying raw/sprouted/activated/magic-dusted almond butter is expensive. But so is caviar. If it’s in your budget to buy the specialty stuff, go for it. If not, save those items for special occasions. Eating plant-based doesn’t have to break the bank if you shop smart and plan a little (the same way you would if you weren’t eating plant-based). For me eating a plant-based diet is less expensive. I save money by not buying meat and dairy and I also eat less processed food. Even better, many people are able to reduce or get off costly medications. In addition I’m much more likely to make my own food now than to spend money eating out at restaurants.  In fact, going out to eat is now only for special occasions.

Conclusion: Don’t let the idea that eating healthy is expensive. It truly isn’t. 

Justine Divett