I already knew that eating like a Greek may be good for your health. But, if done right, it could save you money, too. A new study I read about found that eating a plant-based, Mediterranean-style diet costs less than buying specially made diet foods or lean cuts of meat. In fact, the study’s participants slashed their food bills by more than 50 percent.
That’s especially good news for low-income people who lack easy access to nutritional foods. The study was published in the March issue of the Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition. It’s based on dietitian Mary Flynn’s research into a plant-based diet she developed that emphasizes cooking with olive oil and follows a Mediterranean diet pattern.
The study comes on the heels of new research suggesting a Mediterranean diet – particularly one rich with extra virgin olive oil and nuts – lowers the risk of stroke and other heart problems by 30 percent among high-risk individuals.
Researchers from The Miriam Hospital, in Providence, R.I., teamed with the Rhode Island Community Food Bank to create a Mediterranean-style diet using foods available at the food bank, including olive oil, vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.
“I had a number of people – mainly women from my breast cancer weight loss study – say how inexpensive a Mediterranean-style diet was, so I approached the food bank about designing a study using food pantry items for the recipes,” Flynn, the study’s lead author and a research dietitian at The Miriam Hospital, said. (Click here to see a news release about the study.)
She noted that meat, poultry and seafood are the priciest items in a household’s food budget, especially the recommended lower-fat versions. Typical low-income homes spend grocery money on these items first, allocating far less to vegetables and fruits. But Flynn said a healthy diet can be very economical if you change the focus to eliminating foods not needed to improve health – like meat, snacks, desserts and carbonated beverages.
Flynn recruited 83 clients from emergency food pantries and low-income housing sites for the 34-week study; 63 completed the program. The participants attended six weeks of cooking classes, where instructors prepared quick and easy plant-based recipes that used ingredients like olive oil, whole grain pasta, brown rice, fruits and vegetables.
After class, they received a bag of groceries with most of the ingredients to make three of the provided recipes for their family. The participants were then tracked for six months after the cooking program ended.
Grocery receipts were collected throughout the study and researchers observed significant drops in purchases of meat, carbonated beverages, desserts and snacks. At the same time, there was a rise in the number of different vegetables and fruits consumed each month.
“Not only did study participants cut their food spending by more than half, saving nearly $40 per week, we also found that the reliance on a food pantry decreased as well, from 68 percent at the start of the study to 54 percent, demonstrating a clear decline in food insecurity,” Flynn said.
Following a plant-based diet also produced some unexpected health benefits, according to Flynn. About half the participants lost weight, which was not a study objective, and there was an overall drop in body mass index, or BMI.
“Our results also suggest that including a few plant-based meals per week is an attainable goal that will not only improve their health and diet, but also lower their food costs,” Flynn said.