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A Food Bank Proves A Healthy Mediterranean Diet Is Cheaper Than A Junky American One

Hold the hamburger and pass the olive oil and veggies.

A diet based on fresh fruit and vegetables is perceived as an expensive option, but the reverse is true.

Photo: Two Red Bowls/Getty Images

If you’re holding off switching to a healthy Mediterranean diet because it’s too expensive, then think again, before you drop that hunk of hamburger meat into your shopping cart. A new study out of the Miriam Hospital and the Rhode Island Community Food Bank says that fresh veggies and fancy olive oil are cheaper than even the cheapest USDA-recommended diet.

A diet based on fresh fruit and vegetables, along with extra-virgin olive oil, is perceived by consumers as an expensive option, but the reverse is true: a Mediterranean-style diet costs around $750 per person less per year than the USDA’s cheapest healthy recommendations.

"Extra-virgin olive oil is also thought to be expensive," says lead author Mary Flynn, "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."

Boiarkina Marina via Shutterstock

The study showed almost miraculous results, although none of them will be surprising for a native of countries like Spain and Italy, where such diets are still typical. Recipes were developed by Flynn at the Miriam Hospital, in collaboration with the Rhode Island Community Food Bank. These were based on "plant-based olive oil diet recipes," and clients of the Food Bank were asked to use these recipes three times a week (they actually averaged 2.8 times a week).

Three quarters of participants reported that the recipes were both easier and faster to prepare than their regular meals. The overall result was that they spent less on groceries, got thinner, and experienced "a decrease in their food insecurity." The recipes themselves are simple and look pretty tasty, although they are rather heavy on carbs like pasta, potatoes, and rice. The biggest difference between Flynn’s diet and the USDA’s diet is the use of frozen and canned goods—canned legumes, for example. This also reflects the reality of a real modern-day Mediterranean diet, where bottled beans and chickpeas are common, and—in Spain at least—canned fish is popular and widely-used by people from all economic backgrounds. Using canned and frozen goods accounts for the cost difference: $53.11 per week for the USDA diet vs. $38.75 for Flynn’s plan.

The main factors, though, are meat and olive oil. Olive oil might be considered a boutique product in the U.S., and is pretty expensive compared to other plant oils, but the health benefits are huge, and you don’t need to use much of it. The Rhode Island Community Food Bank plan contains four tablespoons per day, which is "9% or $3.61 of the weekly cost for the diet," according to Lifespan. Meat, on the other hand, costs a lot more than this. The real, challenge, then, might be convincing people that they don’t need to eat meat every day.

The idea that junky diets, full of prepared foods and meat, are cheaper than eating healthily is pervasive. This study shows that this just isn’t true. More importantly, it’s targeting the people who really can’t afford to eat healthy food otherwise.

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