• Robert Cheeke

Save Money. Eat Plants.

When you think of a plant-based diet, you probably think of improved health first, right? More vitamins, more minerals, less saturated fat, no trans fats, and vibrant, colorful fruits and vegetables, likely come to mind. That certainly wasn’t the case decades ago, when a lack of nutrition seemed to be the stigma that plants carried with them. But we’re much smarter now, and we’ve learned a thing or two along the way, licking our wounds from bad nutritional habits, seeking redemption and a second chance to get it right before common degenerative diseases set in. In the process, we also experienced either first hand or in our environment, what a Standard American Diet (ironically, SAD) has done to our health. We've seen how a plant-based diet has been able to course correct, and lead us down a path to better well being.

Today, a plant-based diet is often associated with lower cholesterol, less obesity, reduced risk of heart disease and cancer, improved overall health, and greater vitality. Hippocrates’ hopeful message, “Let food be thy medicine” from 400 BC, seems relevant now more than ever. If we let pills be thy medicine, we're likely already in bad shape, and pills can only sustain us for so long. But what if we didn’t really need “thy medicine,” from a pharmaceutical standpoint, in the first place? Hippocrates said, “let medicine be thy food,” and it works wonders for people around the globe who keep a western diet off their plates. The concept of eating real, affordable, accessible plant foods as the foundation of a diet to promote health is tried and true. Still, it seems out of practice for many. It’s an idealistic goal worth pursuing, but not a perfect end game. We all have different bodies and our own unique biology when it comes to nutrition and how we respond to the nutritional environment around us. Perfect health often eludes us, but an improved state of health and wellness is always within sight, so long as we can see the forest for the trees and reach for it. Since perfect health is hard to achieve, though worth the investment to try to attain, let's look at another benefit of a plant-based diet outside of health. Surprisingly, I'm not referring to the exercise and fitness benefits provided by the power of plants. No. Not today. Instead, I want to address the plant-based elephant in the room, pun intended, and acknowledge the amazing money-saving opportunity that a plant-based diet can deliver when planned appropriately. At a time when economic relief is at the forefront of many families' concerns, along with a desire for improved personal health and wellness, an affordable, plant-based diet can be a lifesaver. How can a plant-based diet actually save money and improve health without government subsidies and with a plate void of any animal protein? That is what I aim to reveal in this assessment and evaluation of the best foods, for the best prices, that provide the best nutrition for sustained economic and physical wellness.

In 2013, according to the Economic Research Service (ERS) at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), it was possible for a person on a 2,000-calorie diet to eat a sufficient quantity and variety of fruits and vegetables for about $2.10-$2.60 per day. Who says a plant-based diet is elitist and expensive, now? The USDA has data to prove otherwise, and costs of produce have only risen moderately, typically less than one percent each year since 2013, with some slightly larger month-by-month and annual increases on certain foods, making this affordability consistent in today’s market. Maybe today’s cost would be a whopping $2.49-$2.99 a day to reach a 2,000-calorie diet on ample fruits and vegetables. Too bad we haven’t seen wages increase to meet this demand. Of course, we all eat more variety than just fruits and vegetables, so we’ll analyze a number of common plant-based foods when we compare cost effectiveness and health benefits of the items that appear most often on our plates.

Beyond just saving money by buying the cheapest fruits and vegetables, bags of dried beans and split peas, and scooping grains, nuts, and seeds out of the bulk bin (not recommended during the age of COVID-19 Coronavirus, by the way), there are other, often overlooked and underappreciated cost-saving benefits of a plant-based diet. Consider the following topics we'll take a deep dive into:

  • Nutritional Return On Investment (ROI)

  • Nutrient to calorie density ratio

  • Diversification of calories

  • Shelf stability

  • Allergen-friendly foods

  • Quality calorie per dollar return without subsidies

Nutritional Return On Investment

At first glance, some obvious foods are top of mind when you think about grocery cart savings, right? You know the staples: rice, beans, oats, pasta, frozen fruits and vegetables, canned goods, and buying items in bulk, either from the literal bulk bin or in a supersized package often found at places like Costco and Sam's Club. Those are some smart strategies for sure, but won't some of those foods be better than others? Would the same amount of calories from pasta provide the equal nutritional value to a similar serving (and calorie) size of steamed broccoli from one of those giant frozen broccoli bags purchased in bulk for pennies on the dollar? Not according to Dr. Joel Fuhrman's ANDI (Aggregate Nutrient Density Index) scorecard, which rates broccoli with a score of 340 out of 1000, and white pasta as a measly 11 out of 1000. For the record, kale and a few other leafy greens score a perfect 1000. White pasta ranks ahead of cheddar cheese, and below French fries on this nutritional scale, which uses 34 nutritional evaluation factors such as vitamins, minerals, fiber, angiogenesis inhibitors (cancer fighting agents), resistant starch (resistant to digestion in the small intestine, acting like fiber as a prebiotic that feeds good gut bacteria), resveratrol plus ORAC score (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity, which is the measure of antioxidants in food), and others, to determine a health score for a given food. What if it is whole wheat pasta we’re comparing to broccoli in the same calorie serving? While whole-wheat pasta wasn't referenced on the ANDI scorecard, whole wheat bread scored 30, and brown rice, another semi-common version of pasta, scored 28. So, for the same amount of calories, broccoli provides a much better nutritional return than pasta, but what about price?

Since I’m not shopping at stores very often at the moment, and certainly not touching and picking up items I’m not buying during this current COVID-19 Coronavirus outbreak, I’m deferring to a trusty Google search to tell me the cost of broccoli vs. pasta per serving. After digging around for a bit, including on the USDA website, I found the following average numbers, which vary from source to source and from website to website, though maintaining similar overall ranges: Broccoli = $.84 per serving. Pasta = $.77 per serving. The difference is a matter of pennies, but the nutrient index of each food has a strong discrepancy with broccoli being 31 times more nutrient-dense (nutrient to calorie ratio) than pasta. If we're judging the foods based on price alone, pasta could save you a few cents with every bowl. But if we're looking at nutrition as a priority, and the costs are similar, the nod would go to broccoli. It doesn't mean to only eat broccoli and avoid pasta at all costs but illustrates that two affordable foods under a dollar per serving, can provide a totally different nutritional return on investment.

Nutrient to Calorie Ratio

Looking at Dr. Fuhrman’s ANDI scorecard, the foods that provide the best overall nutrient to calorie ratio are leafy green and cruciferous vegetables, fruits, other vegetables, seeds, and legumes. If we can buy those foods in cost-effective ways, they not only save us money but also help us efficiently reach our nutritional needs. Cost-effective foods with the highest ANDI score to consider adding to your shopping cart are the following:

Kale = 1,000

Mustard greens = 1,000

Collard greens = 1,000

Spinach = 707

Romaine lettuce = 510

Brussels sprouts = 490

Carrots = 458

Cauliflower = 315

Mushrooms = 238