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Going vegan doesn't have to mean going broke, with new research finding that steering clear of meat and dairy can lower food costs by about 16%.
“A vegan diet based on fruits, vegetables, grains and beans has always been a more affordable diet than one that includes meat, dairy and other animal products,” said study author Dr. Hana Kahleova, director of clinical research for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington, D.C.
“Like any diet, the cost of a vegan diet can vary based on the foods you are purchasing," Kahleova added. "But as our research shows, a vegan diet will actually save you money, when compared to one that includes animal products.”
That conclusion follows four months spent tracking 244 overweight study participants at some point between 2017 and 2019.
Though none had been vegan prior to the study, investigators randomly assigned half to make the switch to a vegan diet, while the remaining half made no changes to their diet.
An earlier analysis of the data determined that making the switch triggered a variety of health benefits. For example, those who embarked on a vegan diet tended to lose significant weight. A vegan diet was also linked to improved metabolism, along with a drop in fat accumulation in liver and muscle cells. The latter development meant improvements in the way those in the vegan group regulated insulin, which in turn lowered their risk for developing diabetes.
The latest analysis of the same data expanded on those findings by focusing on the costs linked to making the dietary change.
To do that, the team reviewed dietary records kept by about 90% of the study participants, and then stacked the foods they ate up against a database of food prices compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The result: the average cost of a daily vegan diet was lower than average food costs observed among the non-vegan group.
Why? Largely because any increased spending on meat or dairy alternatives, vegetables, fruits, legumes, and/or whole grains was more than offset by the savings vegan participants realized after dropping meat and dairy from their grocery lists.
All of which means that “a vegan diet is not only better for your health, but for your wallet, too,” Kahleova explained.
“The good news is that when you base your meals on fruits, vegetables, grains and beans you can go to local grocery stores and find affordable vegan options, and you don't need to do any special research," she added. "Many people may already be eating vegan staples, such as oatmeal, pasta with meatless marinara sauce, beans and rice or bean burgers, or a veggie stir-fry. There are also countless vegan recipes available online and in cookbooks that use these ingredients to meet anyone's taste.”
The findings, published online Sept. 5 in JAMA Network Open, go a long way towards addressing some entrenched misperceptions the general public tends to have when considering a vegan diet, said Connie Diekman, a food and nutrition consultant and former president of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
“The first [misperception] is that you must purchase special alternative meat options, which do run a bit higher in cost than meat options,” noted Diekman, who was not part of the study.
“The second is that people believe boosting intake of produce and whole grains means an increase in cost,” she said. “But the reality with both perceptions is that when armed with some tips on how to meet nutrient needs economically, eating vegan can be very reasonable, or as this study seems to indicate, less expensive.”
Diekman's advice: When considering a switch, “a good first step would be to meet with a registered dietitian,” to learn exactly what eating vegan means and how best to meet all nutritional needs in the absence of animal foods.
Sometimes that will mean taking supplements, particularly to cover B12, calcium and vitamin D requirements, she noted, “which can be harder to consume on a vegan diet.” Supplement usage and expense was not tracked in this study.
Diekman also advises those making the switch “to take it one step at a time.”
“Maybe lower meat intake by adding beans to dishes,” she suggested. “Then slowly remove all meat. Or maybe you combine alternative milks with dairy and then do the same slow removal of dairy. Allow your palate to make the switch.”
Another tip: recognize the value of beans as a good source of protein. Diekman said she prefers canned beans, which are cheap and can be served in a variety of ways, including mashed or as a spread.
The bottom line, said Diekman, “is that you do not need to shop in a specialty store to meet your nutrient needs. You might decide you like some products found in specialty stores. But your local grocery store generally provides everything you need."
There's more on vegetarian and vegan meals at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
SOURCES: Hana Kahleova, MD, PhD, director, clinical research, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, Washington, D.C.; Connie Diekman, R.D., food and nutrition consultant, and former president, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics; JAMA Network Open, Sept. 5, 2023, online
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