A Healthy Mediterranean-Style Diet Costs Less Than a Junky American Diet

CC BY 2.0. Jeffrey W

An interesting research project has found that swapping out meat for olive oil and more canned legumes and frozen vegetables costs less than the most economical version of the USDA's dietary guidelines.

There is a misconception that eating a healthy Mediterranean-style diet is too expensive for low-income families, but new research dispels that notion. A joint project between the Miriam Hospital and the Rhode Island Community Food Bank has demonstrated that a plant-based diet rich in extra-virgin olive oil is cheaper than the most economical recommendations made by the United States Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate program – a whole $750 cheaper per year!

Dr. Mary Flynn, who works as a dietician at the Miriam Hospital and was a lead author on the study, said that most people think healthy diets are expensive due to the increased amounts of fresh vegetables and fruit, but she suspected it was really the meat that made it pricey. Flynn set out to show that we don’t actually need that much meat, and that replacing with olive oil can not only reduce the cost but also improve health.

"Extra-virgin olive oil is thought to be expensive, but we suspected it was meat that made a diet expensive, and extra-virgin olive oil is cheaper than even small amounts of meat. We expected the two diets to be similar in fruit and vegetable content, but our plant-based diet was substantially cheaper, and featured a lot more fruits and vegetables and whole grains."

Flynn developed recipes that were used by Food Bank clients on an average of 2.8 times per week. The recipes provide price breakdowns per batch and per serving. Clients responded favorably, saying the recipes were easier to prepare than their usual ones and that they lost weight while experiencing improved food security.

The big difference between Flynn’s approach and the one espoused by MyPlate is that Flynn uses greater quantities of frozen and canned products, such as chickpeas, black beans, and vegetables. They are cheaper than their fresh counterparts while still retaining the same nutritional benefits. This accounted for much of the price difference: $53.11 per week for the USDA recommended diet vs. $38.75 for Flynn’s version of a Mediterranean diet. Meat cost $11.20 (or 21 percent) of the USDA diet.

Instead of meat, the plant-based diet includes 4 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil per day. Olive oil is often perceived as luxurious but works out to only $3.61 (or 9 percent) of the weekly food cost. When a household budget is limited, olive oil is a good way to increase one’s intake of healthy fats.

Other studies have shown that low-income families fill their grocery carts first with meat, eggs, cereal, and baked goods, none of which featured prominently in this version of a Mediterranean diet. EurekAlert says that Flynn’s work in educating consumers “to include some weekly meals that do not contain meat, poultry or seafood but do include extra virgin olive oil, vegetables, and a starch will decrease food costs and improve food access and body weight.”

It is an interesting study with hopeful results for the many people who think it is impossible to eat healthily on a shoestring. That’s not the case, as this research team has happily shown, as long as those dollars are spent wisely.