Last week, two federal agencies decided that sustainability concerns didn’t have a place in the government’s determination of what makes a healthy diet, rejecting an advisory panel’s recommendation that the government consider the environmental cost of agriculture in nutrition programs and limit the consumption of meat. But if environmentalists want to sell a plant-based diet to the masses, they may be better off talking about grocery bills instead of animal agriculture’s contribution to climate change: A new study published in the Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition found that eating a vegetarian diet is cheaper.
According to the research, by eating a plant-based diet that uses olive oil—instead of lean animal protein—as a healthy source of fat, you could save nearly $750 a year compared with the average cost of a 2,000-calorie diet that follows the federal MyPlate nutrition guidelines. Not only was the meatless diet cheaper than eating meat, but it provided more of the fruits, vegetables, and whole grains that are generally considered to be integral to a healthy diet.
The one discrepancy between the two diets, which both met minimum nutrition standards, is that the plant-based diet contained less protein—60 grams, compared with the 96 grams in the MyPlate meal plan. However, plenty of research suggests that despite our obsession with adding more protein to absolutely everything, there’s no need to pack more into our diet.
For a seven-day meal plan, the MyPlate diet cost $53.11, with 21 percent of that money spent on meat—a number that would surely rise if you sought out meat from animals that are free range, antibiotic-free, or reflect any other concerns about meat production you might have. The plant-based diet would increase in cost, too, if you were to buy organic ingredients.
Still, the point of the research has less to do with what the upper end of spending is and more with showing that the vegetarian diet’s financial barrier to entry is rather low. “Healthy diets are perceived to be expensive due to vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and low-fat animal protein,” the authors write, but as this study suggests, cost is not a good argument against eating meals centered on plant foods instead of meat.