Is it Cheaper to Eat a Whole Foods Plant-Based Diet?

Photo credit: GQ Magazine of AMC's hit show Breaking Bad.  Love that show.
Photo credit: GQ Magazine feature of AMC’s hit show Breaking Bad. Love that show.

I have always heard that it is cheaper to eat plant-based, but I doubted that it was true.  People in developing countries where plant foods are more prevalent live off of less than $2 per day, but I know that’s nowhere near the case for my family.  Since we began eating a 100% whole foods plant-based diet more than 1 year ago we started exploring different (and expensive) types of food like flax, chia seed, Thai red curry paste, kombu, and the list goes on.  So I decided to settle the question by conducting an analysis of our family grocery store purchases this week.  Does a plant-based diet break the bank?  You might be surprised by the answer!

Our family shopped at two stores this week: Giant Foods and Food Lion.

Cost

$90.21 Giant

$33.75 Food Lion

$123.96 Total

 First I calculated the calories of all the foods we purchased using the nutrition facts labels.

Grocery List

Grocery List

43,070 Total Calories Purchased

Next I used an online calculator to estimate the daily calorie needs of myself, my husband, and our 1 year old daughter.  The results seemed a little low to me, so I added a “calorie cushion” of 100-200 to our estimated caloric needs.

Calorie Needs per Day

1,000 Baby

3,200 Ryan

2,700 Chelsea

6,900 Total

Based on these figures I found that our grocery trip will feed our family for 6.24 days (I think it’s fair to round up to a full week since, remember, I likely overestimated our daily calorie needs by a little bit).

It costs $2.90 per day to feed our baby girl.  Ryan eats $9.28 worth of food per day, and I eat $7.83 worth of plant-based food daily.  Our total daily food bill is $20 and a penny.  Not too bad!  We could do much worse feeding a family of 3 if we ate much outside of our home, and the food wouldn’t be as packed with nutrition as our whole foods plant-based dishes.

What about the cost per calorie?

I found that the cost of a plant-based calorie was so low that I needed to multiply by 100 to get a number that is easy to visualize.

Cost per Calorie (Whole Foods Plant-Based)

$0.0029 per 1 cal

$0.29 per 100 cal

$2.90 per 1000 cal

$5.80 per 2000 cal

Most people can understand 2000 calories, since it is the FDA’s average recommended number of calories to be consumed by Americans daily.  At less than $6.00 per day for 2000 calories, we are looking pretty good!

Sloppy and oh so yummy!  Lentils are very high in fiber and very low in calories.
Sloppy and oh so yummy! Lentils are very high in fiber and very low in calories.

What meals will we eat?

The above lists of foods might not seem like the ingredients for an exciting week of delicious whole, plant-based meals.  Our menu this week includes: home-made potato gnocchi, grain & bean salad, pasta marinara, lentil sloppy joes, coconut curried chickpeas, Thai noodle stir “fry” with pineapple, pita pockets with lettuce and hummus, home-made tortillas and “refried” beans, steamed napa cabbage & other veggies with rice wine vinegar, penne with butternut squash, slow cooker chili, split pea soup, curried yellow split peas, and baby lima bean soup.  Breakfast is creamy oatmeal with raisins, cinnamon, and a splash of soy, and the fruit on our grocery list is for eating anytime.  Could you enjoy a week of eating these meals?  We sure can!

Other Analysis

The top 3 categories of purchased food contribute 72% of total food calories.  The top 5 categories account for about 90% of our calories.

Top 5 Categories of Food Contributing Calories

13,520 all beans

9,900 rice

7,800 oatmeal

4,000 pasta and noodles

3,300 potatoes

Our family gets less than 5% of our daily calories from fresh food (excluding potatoes).  How is this possible?  Fresh foods like leafy greens, carrots, spring onions, garlic, bell peppers, and other fruit and vegetables are very low in calorie density.  That’s why we eat them freely on a whole foods plant-based diet!

Leafy greens are packed with nutrients, antioxidants, and other phytochemicals.
Leafy greens are packed with nutrients, antioxidants, and other phytochemicals.

You may have noticed though that there are no leafy greens on our grocery list.  We get many of our low-calorie veggies from a local organic farm CSA.  A large ½ bushel box of produce costs only $17 per week.  This is why it might seem like plant-based foods are more expensive than other foods; a box full of greens might contribute only 200 calories per week to our diet, but at a cost of almost $0.09 per single calorie—three thousand percent more than non-fresh plant-based foods like beans, rice, and pasta!

This is the result of many factors, not least of which is government agricultural subsidies for non-fresh foods—a topic for another post!

Conclusion

A whole foods plant-based diet is very inexpensive, but like most lifestyle changes it requires an investment in capital that can make it seem costly.  Setting up your plant-based kitchen with yummy spices, seeds, flours, and condiments that are appropriate to eat will increase your grocery bill.  Once established though, the diet more than pays for itself with a low cost per calorie–not to mention the health and vitality experienced with plant-based living.

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