Money Talks, So Should You

Which popular lifestyle diet will save you the most money?

Jessica Vozel
by Jessica Vozel , Dimespring contributor (@JessicaVozel)

Curious about revamping your diet with a new way of eating, like vegan, gluten-free, or Paleo, but aren’t sure how it’ll affect your grocery bill?

It probably won’t surprise you that the key to a healthy body and bank balance is to avoid the “convenience costs” associated with pre-packaged foods, and instead cook your meals from scratch at home, regardless of whether you choose to forgo meat or wheat.

READ: 10 tips to losing weight while keeping your wallet fat

But all things being equal, there may be some cost differences between various dietary lifestyles.  

Here’s a breakdown of the cost of a one meal, pound for pound, on some of today’s most popular lifestyle diets, and how to trim some extra costs with each plan:

Omnivorous

For a baseline, we’ll start with the standard American diet: non-organic omnivorous (a.k.a., a diet without any food-group exclusions). According to a Gallup poll, the average American spent $150 dollars a week eating omnivorously in 2012, while the USDA estimated a more modest $38 to $74 a week for that same year.  

Protein:
Boneless pork chop, not organic, $4/lb.

Carbohydrate:
Pasta, regular, $1.30/lb.

Vegetable:
Broccoli, non-organic, $1.57/lb.

Total per-pound average: $2.29/lb.

READ: Does buying food in bulk save you money?

Vegetarian/Vegan

“In general, the protein component of our foods is the most expensive,” says Melissa Joy Dobbins, a registered dietician nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. So, it follows that meatless diets can be quite cost-effective, because its protein comes from cheaper sources like eggs and dairy. And vegans can save even more, because the bulk of their proteins come from even cheaper sources like grains, nuts, and beans.

“Lentils are most often a cheaper form of protein (per pound) to have for dinner than beef or pork, so the vegans and vegetarians should come out ahead on this one,” says Kristine Duncan, a dietician who focuses on vegetarian and vegan nutrition.

“But,” she adds, “a vegetarian who relies on a lot of processed foods or frozen meals will likely end up spending more at the grocery store because of a desire for convenience.”

Take a pass on the processed soy chicken, soy cheese, and packaged veggie burgers, though, and veganism and vegetarianism can work out to be solid, wallet-friendly diets.  

Vegetarian

Carbohydrate:
Pasta, regular, $1.30/lb.

Protein:
Eggs, regular, $1.60/lb.

Vegetable:
Broccoli, regular, $1.57/lb.

Total per-pound average: $1.49/lb.

READ: 5 budget-friendly summer recipes

Vegan

Carbohydrate:
Pasta, regular, $1.30/lb.

Protein:
Beans, dried, $1.45/lb.

Vegetable:
Broccoli, regular, $1.57/lb.  

Total per-pound average: $1.44/lb.

Paleo diet

The popular “paleo diet” assumes our agriculture evolved faster than our bodies, and encourages that we return to a way of eating that’s similar to that of our Paleolithic ancestors. That means a diet made up of animal protein and plants, and one that forgoes modern agricultural products like wheat, dairy and soy.

Another core tenet of paleo is to eat pasture-raised meat and organic produce whenever possible, though some of the more casual adherents will pull their food from regular supermarket shelves. Those who do go all the way with paleo may find their bank account taking a pretty big hit, but according to paleo-centered dietician Stephanie Greunke, there are definitely ways to save.  

READ: Paleo diet? Some of us are trying paleo retirement planning

“Often times, chicken thighs or drumsticks are going to be cheaper than chicken breasts, so be flexible. Same goes for beef. You don't need to choose the fanciest cut. Grass-fed beef can range from $4-5/lb for ground beef to $20/lb or more for better cuts like filet mignon,” Greunke says.  

Plus, she adds, you can buy your chickens whole and “use the carcass to make your own stock to use in recipes.”  

Another suggestion is to do a “cow share” with friends. Simply put, everyone pools their money, buys an entire, grass-fed cow, and feasts. Our ancestors would be proud.  

Protein:
Pasture-raised chicken breast, boneless, $6.99 lb.

Vegetable:
Broccoli, organic, $2.45 lb.

Carb:
Sweet potato, organic, $1.55 lb.

Total per-pound average: $3.67/lb.

READ: Why your breakfast is now a key economic indicator

All-organic

The all-organic label can be applied to any of the diets covered here, and, not surprisingly, it’ll add cost, too.

“The bottom line is that producing organic foods costs a lot more, and the cost is passed on to the consumer, so it’s a challenge,” says Dobbins.

But, she adds, once you get the food home, you can make up some of the difference with smart habits. “If your fruits and veggies go rotten, that’s a waste of money that we don’t always think about,” she says. “If you plan well, buy only the amount of fresh fruits and veggies that you need, and don’t hide them away in the crisper drawer until they go bad, that can make a difference.”  

Another way to save, according to Greunke, is to purchase organic produce from the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” list—the produce that is most likely to have a high level of pesticide residue—and purchase regular, non- organic produce from the “Clean 15” list of fruits and veggies that don’t absorb as many pesticides.

Protein:
Organic, antibiotic-free chicken, boneless, $5.35/lb.

Carb:
Organic pasta, $2.70/lb.

Vegetable:
Organic broccoli, $2.45/lb.

Total per-pound average: $3.50/lb.

READ: Three financial habits to develop in your 20s

Gluten-free

It seems everyone is trying gluten-free diets, even those who don’t have Celiac disease (which triggers an immune response when the sufferer consumes gluten products like wheat, rye and barley).

This trend is a double-edged sword for those who are Celiac or have a real gluten intolerance — they have trouble being taken seriously by those who think their legitimate condition is “just another diet,” but on the other hand, they also have wider access to gluten-free baked goods, pastas, and flours, which are popping up everywhere.

As Dobbins warns, though, buying specialty products (especially if it’s not a dietary necessity) will mean paying more. A box of gluten-free pasta costs about $3 on average, while regular pasta is roughly $1.30.   

One way to save on a gluten-free diet is to skip pasta and bread altogether, and replace these with different families of foods like beans and rice, which are naturally gluten-free. Also consider couponing and comparison-shopping online and in stores.  

And once again, making your own gluten-free breads and other gluten-free baked goods from scratch will save money in the long run.    

READ: What's the best $20 you've ever spent?

Said Dobbins, “Regardless of what your diet style is, if you keep it basic and simple with your ingredients, and cook at home, that’s really when you’re going to see the cost savings.”

Protein:
Chicken breast, regular, boneless, $3.28/lb.

Carbohydrate:
Pasta, gluten-free, $3/lb.

Vegetable:
Broccoli, regular, $1.57/lb.

Total per-pound average: $2.61/lb.

 

Jessica Vozel holds an MFA in fiction writing from Bowling Green State University, and left the academic track to be a full-time freelance journalist and copywriter. She currently lives in and promotes the Pittsburgh area, where assignments have taken her ghost hunting, grape stomping, and to some fantastic restaurants, among other adventures.