The Dollars and “Sense” of Plant-Based Eating


Some think that healthy eating costs more. I disagree.

On the surface, it might appear that healthy eating might cost a lot more than our standard meat, dairy and egg diet. And since most people never get beneath the surface, the perceived high cost of plant-based eating just gives them one more reason not to give up their typical Western diet.

But for me, a 66-year old man enjoying vibrant health, I see things much differently. For a person who prepares his own food up until 6 p.m. and goes out to eat almost every night, I have actually saved money. Since I made the switch to plant-based eating nine years ago, I figure that I have saved around $300 per month — adding up to a total of over $30,000 saved during the past nine years. More on my own experience later, but first, let’s hear from Linda Dale on this topic. Last week, she wrote:

Until the subsidies given to meat manufacturers end or are greatly reduced,  getting more people to eat whole food plant foods is going to be very difficult indeed.  Most people aren’t interested in changing the way they eat because they can’t imagine not having cooked flesh every day, and the cost of eating nothing but whole plant foods gives them another excuse.

Because of subsidies, beef sells for an average of around $4.00 per pound and turkey this year averaged 45 CENTS per pound!   Meanwhile, I’m paying $4.99 per pound for mushrooms, $5.99 per pound for red peppers and $7.00 a pound for kale and collard greens. Linda.

The cost per calorie varies widely among plant-based foods, but fortunately there are some real bargains out there.

First, I will respond to Linda’s concerns; then, following my remarks, is a recent 2-minute video on this subject from Dr. John McDougall.

Linda is absolutely right, on a pound for pound basis; bacon and turkey costs much less than mushrooms, red peppers, kale, collards and spinach. And if she compared those same foods on a cost/calorie basis, the difference would have been even greater. She’s also right about those subsidies for meat and dairy that are not likely to end anytime soon. What to do?

Let’s take a look at the big picture. In her note above, Linda was comparing vegetables that are among the lowest in caloric density; therefore, fresh greens don’t look like much of a bargain when compared to bacon and eggs. For example, fresh spinach in my local market costs about ten times as much per calorie as bacon or chicken. So, how did I save that $30,000? Read on…

Animal-based foods include many items at almost every price that you can imagine — and some are priced lower because of government subsidies.

In preparation for this blog, I visited my online grocer at PeaPod.com, where you can find the price, calories, percent fat, and fiber for every food that you can imagine. So, I took a few minutes and analyzed fourteen common foods; then ranked them from least expensive to most expensive on a cost/100 calories basis:

            Food                   $ Cost      %Fat     Fiber?

  1. Brown Rice            .08           7%         A
  2. Black Beans           .21            3%        A+
  3. Eggs                           .28            57%      None
  4. Cream Cheese          .30            80%     None
  5. Wieners                    .38            85%     None
  6. Bacon                        .38             75%     None
  7. Chicken breast         .55             17%     None 
  8. Apples                        .62            3%         A
  9. Cantaloupe               .69             5%         A
  10. Oranges                     .69            2%         A
  11. Broccoli, frozen         .83           10%        A
  12. Frozen Spinach         .93            10%        A
  13. Broccoli, fresh         2.42           10%        A
  14. Fresh Spinach         4.33            10%        A

My 4-Leaf Sailors Super Lunch with 500 to 700 calories for less than $5

Also, a Big Mac costs over four times as much per calorie as an order of rice and beans. It derives over half its calories from fat and has hardly any fiber from whole plants. Not a bargain at any price.

What do we see here? The first thing I see are my two plant-based heroes at the top of the chart — my daily staple of almost every lunch and dinner that I prepare for myself — my trusty combination of beans and rice. At an average of just fifteen cents per 100 calories, I can have an extra large serving (200 calories) for just thirty cents. See my Sailors Super Lunch for the recipe. What else do we see?

  1. Fresh spinach is not the best place to get the bulk of your calories; in fact, it would be impossible to consume all of your calories from just spinach.
  2. Frozen spinach is a much better bargain than fresh and still delivers a nutrient-rich product.
  3. The five animal-based foods average close to 80% fat — compared to an average of less than 5% for the plant-based. Americans average nearly 40% of their calories from fat; less than half that amount is optimal.
  4. All five of the animal-based foods have ZERO fiber. We need fiber — and we need much more of it than most of us are getting. The so-called experts recommend 25 to 35 grams per day, the average American gets less than ten from whole plants, and a near-optimal plant-based diet will deliver more than 50 grams/day.

My son’s version of the Sailors Super Oatmeal; he calls it the Hikers Oatmeal — a hearty meal for less than $4.

Let’s summarize. I need to eat 2200 calories a day, I need fiber and I need to keep my percent of calories from fat below 20%. As Dr. McDougall has always said, “people have eaten a starch-based diet for thousands of years;” deriving the bulk of their calories from grains, legumes and potatoes while eating as many fresh fruits and vegetables as they could find. So, we need to feature some of those starches in most of our meals; otherwise, we’ll be starving within a few hours after eating a plate of just fruits or just vegetables.

My own $ scorecard looks something like this:

  • 0800 — Fresh fruit, 300 calories; $1.80
  • 1100 — Sailors Daily Oatmeal, 500 calories; $2.50
  • 1430 — Sailors Super Lunch, 700 calories; $4.20
  • Evening dinner out: 700 calories; $15 (savings of $7 to $10 per meal)
  • Monthly food bill: $300 groceries + $450 dinner = $750

So, this is how plant-based eating has saved me money. In the old days, I used to eat out more for both breakfast & lunch and I consumed more take-out food. Nowadays, when I do eat out (almost every night) and occasionally for breakfast or lunch, I find that my “creative” meal ends up costing about half the price of the entrees on the menu that I may have had in my prior life. At 30 or 40 meals outside the home per month, I easily save $300 or $3600 per year. Nine years = $32,400.

As a 66-year old man, I am probably in the less than 5% of my age group that takes ZERO drugs.

The Hidden Costs of Animal Foods. In addition to that 30 grand, I have also saved lots of money on medical bills, prescription drugs, vitamins, lost work and income due to illness, and so much more. If we add up all the factors involved, eating a whole foods, plant-based diet is one of the best bargains that we will experience for our entire lives. Then, when you consider the many benefits of “vibrant health,” there is simply no comparison.

According to Crown Financial, the suggested percentage of disposable income for a family of four to spend on food is 12%. That’s much less than we’re spending on our cost of health care in this country as a percent of GDP (17%). That would suggest that in the long run, by eating a health-promoting diet, you will save more in medical bills than your entire food budget.

Establishing your routine. Everyone is different and must establish a healthy eating regimen that is right for them. But, regardless of income level, number of people involved, or size of our food budget; we should plan our meals around the calorically-dense starches recommended by Dr. McDougall. Then add in all the fresh fruits and vegetables that we can afford.

Throw in some great seasoning along with bit of culinary skill in the kitchen and this way of eating becomes far more enjoyable than what we thought was great eating  in our past. Here is a 4-minute video featuring Ellen Jaffe Jones, who talks about her book, “Eat Vegan On $4 A Day.”

Let’s assume a hypothetical family of four that requires a combined total of 8,000 calories a day. If all meals were eaten at home, I am confident that we could feed everyone a VERY healthy diet of whole, plant-based foods for an average of forty cents per/100 calories. Food budget = $32/day or around $1,000 per month.

The Tarahumara are famous for their long-distance running, their superb health and their longevity.

I always like to remind myself of the Tarahumara peoples of northern Mexico; they survive and thrive on nothing but beans, corn and squash — frequently living 100 years with near zero incidence of ALL of our chronic diseases. My estimate of their family food budget is much less than half that $1,000 a month.

Two final points. When you eat mostly whole plants, you will automatically be eating less calories than you have eaten in the past. Even if you eat all you want at every meal, you will still eat far less calories. That’s because you will fill up long before you reach your previous daily total — that’s how you lose weight effortlessly. Finally, there is one area that will cost you more money. You will probably need to buy some new (smaller) clothes in about six months — but of course, that will be a one-time-only expense and one that is welcomed with open arms.

So please consider all of the above when contemplating the move away from the harmful, wasteful, cruel and grossly unsustainable typical Western diet. Not only will you spend far less money in the long run, but you’ll be doing some wonderful things for your heath, your planet and all living beings that follow you in this world.

The Bottom Line. I agree with Linda that most people will not switch to plant-based eating until they are forced to do so because of high prices. Those high prices will be driven by a combination of  more expensive fuel, less subsidies, and more food scarcity. Meanwhile, the thinking people of the world will start making better choices now — saving money and promoting their health at the same time.

Handy 4-piece take-charge-of-your-health kit—from Amazon.com

Want to find out how healthy your family is eating? Take our free 4Leaf Diagnostic Survey. It takes less than five minutes and you can score it yourself. After taking the survey, please give me your feedback as it will be helpful in the development of our future 4Leaf app for smartphones. Send feedback to jmorrishicks@me.com

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J. Morris Hicks, working daily to promote health, hope and harmony on planet Earth.

For help in your own quest to take charge of your health, you might find some useful information at our 4Leaf page or some great recipes at Lisa’s 4Leaf Kitchen.

Got a question? Let me hear from you at jmorrishicks@me.com. Or give me a call on my cell at 917-399-9700.

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Blogging daily at hpjmh.com…from the seaside village of Stonington, Connecticut – Be well and have a great day.

—J. Morris Hicks, board member, T. Colin Campbell Foundation

About J. Morris Hicks

A former strategic management consultant and senior corporate executive with Ralph Lauren in New York, J. Morris Hicks has always focused on the "big picture" when analyzing any issue. In 2002, after becoming curious about our "optimal diet," he began a study of what we eat from a global perspective ---- discovering many startling issues and opportunities along the way. In addition to an MBA and a BS in Industrial Engineering, he holds a certificate in plant-based nutrition from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies, where he has also been a member of the board of directors since 2012. Having concluded that our food choices hold the key to the sustainability of our civilization, he has made this his #1 priority---exploring all avenues for influencing humans everywhere to move back to the natural plant-based diet for our species.
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5 Responses to The Dollars and “Sense” of Plant-Based Eating

  1. Nancy A. Law says:

    I do wish we could have a whole foods market in our area….it is not fair ….too many stop & shops Nancy A. Law

  2. I do my own shopping and cooking. I don’t understand Linda’s prices for vegetables? I went shopping yesterday and these are some of my prices:

    Swiss Chard…$0.69/lb
    Broccoli Rabe…$1.99/lb
    White Button Mushrooms…$2.58/lb
    Camari Tomato…$0.99/lb
    Broccoli…$1.29/lb
    Persian Cucumbers..$1.99/lb
    Spinach…$1.39/lb
    Banana…$0.39/lb
    Comice Pears…$0.99/lb
    Romaine Lettuce…$0.98/lb

    These prices were from my local food markets in Queens NYC.

    Sligg (eat more broccoli)

  3. Linda says:

    I eat a nutrient-dense diet, high in cruciferous greens, fresh vegetables, fruit, and beans and legumes (a la Dr. Fuhrman). The immediate cost is worth it to me and I’m very aware that my medical costs in the future will likely be much lower than average. I was just trying to express my frustration with government subsidies (with taxpayer’s money) for producers of the foods that are destroying our collective health and the health of the planet. If meat and dairy prices reflected their true cost of production, people would have no choice but to consume far less of it. And that would be good for humans and the planet.

    Mitzi, thank you for your suggestions. I do plan my meals around bargains when possible, but I always make sure to eat kale or collards on a daily basis and they’re not inexpensive even when “on sale.” I pay a bit more for organic greens because they’re on the dirty dozen list, as are berries and red peppers which I eat frequently.

  4. Mitzi says:

    Dear Jim,
    Sorry to ask, but where is Linda shopping? I do not insist on organic vegetables due to financial strain, and I shop on the poor side of town. We can buy a bunch of greens (roughly 1/2 lb) for 50-69 cents, 25 cents each on sale or around holidays. One local store sells them by the case (with 88-cent-per-pound black-eyed peas) before the New Year holiday. Grocery stores in historically Black neighborhoods have Very Good Greens, very cheap. So do some ethnic markets (bok choy by the huge bag, or a pound of jalapenos, for $1 at the local Asian store). The subsidies help the meat sellers to be sure, but shopping in unusual places can net you savings on plant-based foods as well. I highly recommend Asian stores for bulk rices, unusual mushrooms, greens, beans (if they have a Hispanic aisle or an Indian section) and seasonings.
    For some of us, Whole Foods is a once-or-twice-a-year treat, in which we can only purchase a few items. But a plant-based diet is still feasible, if you’re willing to be creative, even on the poor side of town.

  5. Stan Huff says:

    Jim,

    Really good post. The Bottom ($) Line is still a major consideration for many (most?) folks, though even it is often subordinate to habits. Your showing how 4-Leaf eating can actually save money, if people prepare more of their own meals, will no doubt appeal to many readers.

    I was in WFM recently and noticed (for the first time) their Health Starts Here program and the ANDI system, which apparently is a part of Dr. Fuhrman’s Eat Right America. I was pleased to see it and to realize that the essential message of these and your 4-Leaf Program and the writings of more and more knowledgeable, thinking people must be gaining some little traction. I thank you all for your good works.

    From another one in your 66yr/Zero Meds group.

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