One of my biggest public health pet peeves is the idea that healthy eating costs too much money. Despite empirical evidence to the contrary, people persist to insist that whole, nutritious foods are a luxury good.
Sure, Cheetos are cheap and Annie’s organic tofu lasagna kinda pricey. But meat is also kinda pricey—as are cheese, sodas, seafood and many packaged, processed meals and desserts. Even a part-time plant-based diet has serious potential to significantly reduce food costs.
And it did, in a new study from researchers at The Miriam Hospital and the Rhode Island Community Food Bank. In the 34-week study, participants—all clients of local emergency food banks and low-income housing programs—took a six-week cooking class and then proceeded to implement the recipes they learned in their own cooking at home.
The cooking classes and recipes were designed to teach plant-based, Mediterranean-style diet habits. Instructors prepped participants in cooking with olive oil and making quick, easy meals incorporating whole grain pasta, brown rice, fruits and vegetables.
While participants were not required to assist in the preparation during the classes, the staff discussed, in limited detail, the benefits of some of the individual ingredients and encouraged the class to seek out those items in their own food pantry. No additional nutrition or food information was provided to the study participants.
The findings, published in the Journal of Hunger and Environmental Nutrition, show that the more people adhered to this plant-based, Mediterranean diet, the greater their decrease in total food spending.
“I had a number of people … say how inexpensive a Mediterranean-style diet was,” said lead researcher Mary Flynn. “So I approached the food bank about designing a study using food pantry items for the recipes.”
“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 added.
And not only did participants trim their grocery bills, they also trimmed their waistlines—at the end of the study, nearly half of all participants had lost weight, and many saw an overall decrease in body mass index (BMI).