Remember when the oh-so-continental Gwyneth Paltrow failed Mario Batali's #FoodBankNYCChallenge—living for a week on a food stamp budget of $1.38 per meal—after only four seemingly horrendous, chicken-craving, licorice-free days? She and many others wanted to make a presumably well-intentioned point: eating healthy does not come cheap.
But while you certainly wouldn't choose to live on a budget of $1.38 a meal—as the 45 million or so Americans subsisting on SNAP must do—a new study says that eating healthy just might not cost as much as we all think.
The study, conducted by the Rhode Island Community Food Bank and The Miriam Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island and published in the Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition, compared the cost over seven days of a plant-based diet that includes olive oil to the lowest-cost version of the USDA's MyPlate diet.
Mary Flynn, a research dietitian at The Miriam Hospital and the lead researcher on the study, had been wondering about the veracity of the received wisdom that a plant-based diet is more expensive than a meat-heavy diet. Sure, she says, "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." The bottom line turned out to be this: "Our plant-based diet was substantially cheaper, and featured a lot more fruits and vegetables and whole grains," Flynn says.
The USDA's MyPlate diet, to which Flynn's plant-based, olive-oil diet was compared, features 50 percent fruits and vegetables, one quarter plate of grains, and protein—i.e., chicken, meat, or fish—making up the remainder.
The researchers found that including meat in a diet really ratchets up the cost of a meal. By turning to a less meat-intensive diet, people can save money and avoid the nasty diseases—type 2 diabetes, heart disease, breast cancer, prostate cancer, colon cancer—that heavy meat consumption is related to. These are reasons enough, says Flynn, to favor a plant-and-olive-oil based diet.
Low-income households have bought into the myth of healthy food being expensive, spending their grocery money—or SNAP proceeds—first on meat, eggs, cereals, and baked goods, the researchers say. Flynn points out that frozen and canned produce can be a way to minimize cost while still maintaining nutrient content. In fact, Flynn says, studies show frozen and canned produce have a higher content of some of the cancer-fighting components found in fresh produce.
Andrew Schiff, CEO of Rhode Island Community Food Bank and a researcher on the study, said "Our findings with this study run counter to the general belief that a healthy diet must be expensive. Even using extra-virgin olive oil, a plant-based diet is far less expensive and features so many more fruits, vegetables and whole grains. This is really good news for individuals served by the Food Bank—showing that wholesome eating on a tight budget is possible for everyone."