The Best Diet for Your Budget

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From Michelle Obama to New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg, everyone is talking about how typical American eating habits have made us obese and unhealthy.

The statistics are scary and the message is compelling—as a nation, we must start choosing un-processed, unrefined choices like fruits, vegetables and whole grains instead of foods in packages. We’ve got to trade in our daily dose of Doritos and Coke for fruit salad and sparkling water.

But it’s hard to find a truthful discussion about the costs of healthy eating, because in reality, packaged foods are usually less expensive and simpler to prepare. If you’re serious about a “whole foods” diet, the benefits can be enormous, but so can the price tag and the time commitment.

Putting Three Popular Diets to the Test

That’s why I tried three of the most popular diets out there to assess their effect on my health and my bank balance. I’ve always been a pretty healthy eater, but my recent entry into motherhood has made me hyper-aware of what I put into my body and what I feed my child, and my work with low-income school kids in a challenging neighborhood of San Francisco made me aware that shopping organic at Whole Foods is a luxury in today’s economy.

For three consecutive weeks, I faithfully kept three different diets: one based on traditional Mediterranean cuisine, one that was vegan and one that was “Paleo”—or attempting to mimic the human diet during the Paleolithic era, and have us eat like our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

All three promise similar outcomes–weight loss and decreased risk of chronic disease–but they differ in the amount of recommended meat, dairy and carbohydrates.

And they definitely have very different grocery bills and daily time commitments. Below, see how each panned out for me.

The Paleo Diet

The Plan: This popular nutrition and exercise plan derives from the pre-agricultural habits of hunter-gatherers who ate only meat, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds and exercised in infrequent, intense bursts of activity (like when being chased by pumas … or much like we do in modern-day “interval” training).

The Promise: Purportedly, this diet prevents almost every contemporary diet-related disease, including heart disease, diabetes and cancer, along with the prevention of common colds and the flu. The Paleo plan also promises weight-loss, increased energy and a revved-up sex drive.

Money: I spent at least $50 more than usual on groceries per week, since the diet advocates regular consumption of some of the most expensive foods at high-end grocers, like wild Pacific salmon (which can go for $22/lb), pasture-raised eggs ($7 per carton), macadamia nuts, organic nut butters (at least twice the cost of Skippy), organic grass-fed beef and local organic vegetables.

(We looked into it: Is buying organic groceries really worth the money?)

Time: It took an hour every day to prep my food. And, because I crave variety, I spent a lot of time perusing Paleo-approved recipes and inventing creative snacks (like kale-beef wraps and coconut flour soufflé muffins).

The Verdict: The discipline was intense—once all processed foods, grains, beans and dairy are eliminated, there are very few items that can satisfy a snacking impulse, and only a few grocery stores carry recommended Paleo foods. On this diet, I might save big in the long run by getting sick less and requiring fewer dental procedures, but the Paleo diet was a big investment and a radical lifestyle shift. That said, channeling my inner cavewoman did feel great, and I managed to lose a couple pounds over the week! 

The Mediterranean Diet

The Plan: The Mediterranean diet tries to mimic traditional Greek, Italian, Spanish and Moroccan cuisine. Think of roasted lamb on a bed of rice with broccoli rabe sautéed in olive oil and a salad of tomato and mozzarella. For dessert, fresh berries and a lovely red wine to wash it all down. Totally delicious!

The Promise: There is substantial evidence that eating the Mediterranean way is highly correlated with reduced rates of heart disease and type two diabetes, as well as increased life span. One study has also linked it to a decreased risk of skin cancer. All the fresh produce is good for the waistline, too.

Money: The condiments, protein and wine can really drive up the price of this diet, but if you opt for inexpensive choices for your olive oil, tuna steak and chardonnay, this diet is completely affordable. I didn’t log a single penny over my usual budget during my Mediterranean week.

Time: What’s great about eating Mediterranean is that you can grab this food on the go most of the time. So my food prep hour dwindled down to 20 minutes a day—putting pasta to boil, chopping some veggies and grilling some fish—and this is all much more fun when you’re encouraged to down a health-fueling glass of wine while you cook.

The Verdict: Total eating pleasure. I think I even got a tan that week just from thinking about the Mediterranean. The only downside is that it is quite carb heavy—the pastas and breads (whole grain, nonetheless) kept me feeling slightly bloated, and my weight stayed the same.

The Vegan Diet

The Plan: The vegan diet cuts out all animal products, including cheese, milk, yogurt, meat, poultry, seafood and eggs. Some vegans even go so far as to nix honey, since it is technically meant to be food for bees! Although most vegans do it for ethical reasons, surviving on plants alone is also rumored to have great health benefits.

The Promise: Vegans believe that they are ingesting fewer toxins by eating lower on the food chain, and they say they see the results in higher energy levels and lower instances of chronic disease. The landmark China Study claimed to show that plant-based diets are much better for the prevention of cancer and other chronic diseases than diets with animal products (since the study was published, it has been widely refuted, so the jury’s out). Still, vegans are loud advocates for the health and environmental benefits of eschewing meat and dairy, and have created a compelling culinary subculture.

Money: Most vegan processed or prepared foods are more expensive; you might pay $7.99 for a frozen vegan pizza, but you could take home a Tombstone for less than $4. However, if you’re cooking for yourself from whole foods, the vegan diet is a steal! While lean ground beef costs over $4 a pound, high quality tofu is under $2 per pound. After a week as a vegan, I noted that my food budget was just $20 over my usual total. This was mostly because I splurged on $3 vegan cupcakes and fancy $6 marinated tofus.

Time: The real time issue with being vegan is that you have to plan ahead every day to make sure there will be food available that you can eat. I never left the house without a tote bag of acceptable foods, because I didn’t want to be stuck in a gas station choosing between salted peanuts and dry cereal. The other issue is soaking. You’ve gotta eat a lot of beans on this diet, and I found it hard to remember to prep my bulk-purchased legumes properly.

The Verdict: Eating vegan was more convenient than going paleo, and less expensive because I didn’t buy any top-shelf protein. Because I live in San Francisco, vegan treats are ridiculously abundant–the closest bakery to my house only sells vegan pastries. The major downside was that socializing with animal-eaters (read: most of my family and friends) became strained. And to be honest, I missed cheese too much to keep it up for longer. But the righteous buzz from living exclusively off the plant kingdom did feel good.

In the end, the Mediterranean whole foods diet won my week-long trial test. The foods were tasty, inexpensive and easy to prepare, and I didn’t feel like I had to sacrifice treats or remain rigidly disciplined.

And hey, the fabled allure of an azure coast dappled with sunlight makes this diet feel like a vacation on your plate.

Jessica Carew Kraft is an independent journalist in San Francisco and a recovering anthropologist. She has written about cultural trends for the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, the San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.

  • http://www.50by25.com/ Laura

    This article doesn’t make any sense. You’re not going to lose “a few pounds in a week” from any diet; you’ll lose water weight that is gained right back. For this to be a true test, each diet ought to be tried for at least one month, preferably two.

    Furthermore, saying that the Mediterranean diet could be done with cheap ingredients pretty much goes against the whole spirit of the Mediterranean diet – which is to eat small quantities of high quality foods/ingredients. The Mediterranean diet emphasizes quality just as much, if not more, than the Paleo diet, and I would think it would come in around the same cost.

  • Meredith

    I’d prefer three separate posts about each diet. This article seems like “link bait” … all promise of an interesting perspective and information but no substance. I agree with commenter ‘Laura’ — this is a really odd way to present these three diets.

  • Joandecker789

    I enjoyed the article & appreciated knowing the relative costs. I plan to try the Meditteranean diet as it seems the most doable.

  • sarahy

    Agree with Laura and Meredith. The reason most of us would go on a diet is at least largely to lose weight, and the writer didn’t try each diet long enough to find out if it worked, or even really address that in the article. She also didn’t discover anything that one couldn’t just assume as far as how much each diet costs.

  • Mostlywentzel

    I have to agree that this article was a disappointment. First, if you are comparing costs, what is the budget and actual foods? Saying you spend $20 more in a week means something different if your usual budget is $80 or $200.

    Second, I’m not even sure of the point of comparing pre-packaged diets plans. A healthy diet does not have to mean following a “diet” and when health is painted as having such a limited menu, I think the cost almost becomes irrelevant, as most people will rebel over these subscribed menus at some point.

    The better argument is that it is possible to feed a family of 4 healthily on about $100/wk. how about a budget and menu breakdown of how that works? I know that I can do it, so why not show those who are struggling how to? My secrets are buying meats and fish only when they are on sale and using coupons when possible (yes, you can buy prepackaged, healthy foods), and having vegan meals, like portabella mushrooms, at least once a week. Making some things from scratch and in bulk helps too, like breads, cakes and cookies and even peanut butter.

    I feel like I have the healthy eating down pretty well, but am always looking for better ideas. I think a lot of people are in the same boat, or are really just looking for a way to make it work on a budget.

    • GeorgiaJoa

      Sounds like an opportunity for you to try your hand at writing this article.

      Also, it would be nice to see how the answer to your question differs from region to region. I know that my grocery budget stretches differently than it did in my last location, four states and eight hundred miles away.

  • Jacki

    My only complaint is that there are no links to the Mediterrenean diet info! :)

  • Katy

    I was on the Paleo diet, which my doctor called the “Hunter Gatherer Meal Plan,” for several months. The weight loss is rather quick, but the commitment is extensive. The idea is that you can only consume foods which woul have been available to cave men and women. I had the most trouble remembering not to eat bread or dairy products. Eating out was nearly impossible. Each morning was spent planning my food for the day down to the last detail.

  • Rmlittle

    This article didn’t make any sense. Why would the Mediterranean diet be the best choice for a diet when you didn’t lose weight and felt bloated all the time? Isn’t the point of a diet to lose weight, or at the very least feel better/ healthier? Eating ramen noodles and snickers are also a cheap “diet” that will make you feel like crap too. I don’t understand why this was the obvious choice from the three. From your analysis, it seemed like the Paleo diet was the best of the three.

  • PallaviB

    I agree with the most of you here. I am an Indian (Hindu) vegetarian myself and cook no meat at home. Just lentils/beans/legumes are the source of protein for my husband and me. Then too we have a tough time losing our belly weight(s). Switching on and off of the diets over a short span does not sound logical (also scientific) enough to convince me.  

  • Caitlin

    I’m glad to see people are talking about the Paleo diet more & more these days but I wish this article would go into more depth.  The author mentions but skims over the fact of food cost vs doctor costs.  Is it really more expensive to eat paleo to stay healthy & happy than to visit your doctor & subscribe to medications you could cure with high quality food & exercise?  I’m going to guess with the rising costs of healthcare in our country, no.  
    There are also great books out like ‘Paleo Slow Cooking’ & ‘Everyday Paleo’ that show how to manage that lifestyle with a hectic schedule.And if the mediterranean diet makes someone feel bloated with no weight loss, why stick with it?  I hate feeling bloated and don’t understand why, after becoming in tune with one’s body, why one would choose to continue eating that way.  

    Thank you for writing this article though because no matter what & no matter what diet people may choose – it is definitely obvious that as a country, Americans need to cut out refined sugars & processed foods from their diets.  It’s killing us.  One major things these lifestyles have in common are good food to fuel our bodies.  Hopefully a few people try these out!!

  • Colleen

    I think she meant “diet” as in what we eat everyday. So a Mediterranean diet as opposed to a stereotypical American diet, If what you normally eat is beef and potatoes and lots of delicious bread and cheese, then that is your diet.  Obviously many people could benefit from altering their diet to one of these extreme options, but most likely it would be more agreeable for most people to simply tweak their diets.  Observe your current meals and try to cut things you get too much of such as ‘bad’ sources of sugar and protein and add in things you might be lacking in such as vegetables or dairy. 

    At the beginning of the article she mentioned unhealthy eating habits that make people obese, so any of these diets should in the long run help people who have high carb and sugar diets drop some pounds, especially if they are already overweight.

    That being said, I do think it would be beneficial to have more specific numbers to better understand costs of these diets. Maybe a shopping list or example meals for a day?

  • AKM

    I went paleo 3 1/2 weeks ago and it has changed my health and my life. For the record, not all of us are buying the “top-shelf protein” at $22/pound and we’re still better off for giving up the grains, dairy, sugar, and chemicals. It doesn’t have to be expensive and 100% organic and pure, you know. I do the best I can on my secretary/grad student budget, which doesn’t allow for much, and I’m still reaping so many benefits.

    Caitlin is spot-on: better nutrition in means less doctor’s visits and prescriptions later, which can cost a mint, even with insurance and copays.

    Seriously, where do you live?! Here in the Midwest, I get my cage-free eggs for $2.39 and ALDI has almond butter this week for $3.99. Even I can afford that.

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/Z5ILZ3STTF2OIX3EB4GYJLKQ44 Sherry

      Jessica (the author) lives in San Francisco. She said the $7 eggs were “pastured-raised”; I wonder if that’s different than “free range” which I can get for $3/doz. (Then again, I’m buying mine from small farms in a rural community in VA rather than at Whole Foods – no middleman & less overhead!)

      • AKM

        I’m pretty sure that pasture-raised, free-range, and cage-free mean pretty much the same thing: no cages, roaming free on a farm/ranch, eating bugs and other natural organic things.

        I didn’t realize that she was in SF, which is the most expensive city in the U.S., from what I’ve read. She’s going to have food budget issues no matter what, I would imagine. Yikes! So there’s one plus for the Midwest and the South: food costs.

        • stam487

          Actually, pasture-raised, free-range, and cage-free all have slight different meanings. Cage-free means that there are literally no cages but chickens are still tightly packed into chicken coops/barns. If you are concerned about the way your chicken and its eggs are treated for humane reasons, then cage-free literally doesn’t mean anything of significance. Free-range only means that chickens have access to the outdoors, which can range from free-roaming grazing, to still being cooped up in barns, but with a small door to the outside.Pasture-raised means somewhat the opposite–animals are raised on the pasture, which access to shelter. Generally, if you are interested in quality, humane eggs, the latter is your best option.

          Unfortunately, only the term “free-range” is regulated, and even then, doesn’t mean much. And of course, choosing these higher quality eggs is naturally going to be more expensive since it is more expensive to care for animals properly, as opposed to CAFO operations.

  • LeAnne

    The email I received for this article was entitled “How to Lose Weight and Save Money.”  However, in the article, it was concluded that the author was unable to lose weight and save money.  Definitely NOT a how to.

    • Colleen

       Yes, certainly a poor choice for a title.

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/Z5ILZ3STTF2OIX3EB4GYJLKQ44 Sherry

      Thank you!  I thought the same thing.  She admitted to losing a couple of pounds on the Paleo diet and staying the same on the Mediterranean one, but she didn’t tell us what happened with the vegan diet.  And as you pointed out, the email teased us with saving money, yet none of the 3 plans she tested reduced her budget. In fact, 2 of the 3 made her go OVER budget!!

  • BK

    this article is not helpul in terms of finances and food relationship….

  • Jodyarose

    Amongst the many things the author neglected to mention is that a Paleo-type diet can also be wonderful for those who are gluten-intolerant and/or eating to prevent diabetes.  The author neglected entirely (although some of the commenters touch on) the vital point that an eating plan that enhances long-term health can help us lower medical costs over time.  Even short-term, her points of comparison are a bit lame; we eat a paleo-based diet at home and we’ve found economical sources for wild-caught salmon and free-range eggs.  

  • debjane

    The author took 3 popular diets the general public chooses when they want to shed pounds and compared how expensive/inexpensive it is to eat that way. That’s it. This is Learnvest a financial tips website. Not a diet site. I think y’all are over analyzing this article.

    P.S. I cook 2 pots of beans a week and never soak. It’s not a necessity.