Sustainable eating is CHEAPER as well as healthier, reveals new study

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Global study by Oxford University shows vegan and vegetarian diets are the cheapest in high-income countries. ‘£1 Chef’ Miguel Barclay agrees, based on his experience costing 100s of recipes.

Choosing to go vegan, vegetarian, or flexitarian is still seen as a preserve of the privileged middle class or ‘woke’ Hollywood actors. But Oxford University research has today revealed that in countries like America, the UK, Australia and across Western Europe adopting one of these diets could slash your food bill by up to one-third!

The study, which compared the cost of seven sustainable diets to the current typical diet in 150 countries, using food prices from the World Bank’s International Comparison Program, was published in The Lancet Planetary Health today. It found that in high-income countries:

  • Vegan diets were the most affordable and reduced food costs by up to one third (21-34% reductions, depending on the composition). 
  • Vegetarian diets were a close second with similar reductions (27-31%).
  • Flexitarian diets with low amounts of meat and dairy reduced costs by 14%. 
  • In contrast, pescatarian diets increased costs by up to 2%. 

Each of these more plant-based diets is recognised as much better for heart health, cancer risk and other diet-related health impacts as well as having significantly lower carbon footprints than typical western diets. 

“We think the fact that vegan, vegetarian and flexitarian diets can save you a lot of money is going to surprise people,” says Dr Marco Springmann, researcher on the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food. “When scientists like me advocate for healthy and environmentally-friendly eating it’s often said that we’re sitting in our ivory towers promoting something that is financially out of reach for most people. This study shows that it’s quite the opposite. These diets could be better for your bank balance as well as your health and the health of the planet.”

Miguel Barclay, author of the bestselling 'One Pound Meals' series of cookbooks, says, "I definitely agree that cutting down your meat, or cutting it out completely, will save you money. I've written seven budget cookbooks and have costed up hundreds of recipes, and without doubt vegan and vegetarian meals consistently come in at a much lower price than recipes with meat." 

The study focussed on whole foods and did not include highly-processed meat replacements or eating at restaurants or takeaways.
The flexitarian diet used was based on the EAT-Lancet Planetary Health Diet which is developed to be healthy enough to avert up to 11 million preventable deaths per year, while being sustainable enough to allow us to produce enough food for 10 billion people within environmental limits. It comprises less than one portion of red meat per week, less than two servings of poultry per week, less than two servings of fish per week, and less than one serving of dairy per day. In the vegetarian and vegan diets, animal products were replaced by a mix of either legumes and fruits and vegetables, or a mix of legumes and whole grains. 

The study also found that in lower income countries such as on the Indian subcontinent and in sub-Saharan Africa, eating a healthy and sustainable diet would be up to a quarter cheaper than a typical Western diet, but at least a third more expensive than current diets. 

To analyse what options could improve affordability and reduce diet costs, the study looked at several policy options. It found that making healthy and sustainable diets affordable everywhere is possible within the next ten years when economic development, especially in lower income countries, is paired with reductions in food waste and a climate and health-friendly pricing of foods. 

“Affording to eat a healthy and sustainable diet is possible everywhere, but requires political will,” said Dr Springmann. “Current low-income diets tend to contain large amounts of starchy foods and not enough of the foods we know are healthy. And the western-style diets, often seen as aspirational, are not only unhealthy, but also vastly unsustainable and unaffordable in low-income countries. Any of the healthy and sustainable dietary patterns we looked at are a better option for health, the environment, and financially, but development support and progressive food policies are needed to make them both affordable and desirable everywhere.”

The global and regional costs of healthy and sustainable dietary patterns: a modelling study, is published in The Lancet Planetary Health on 10th November 2021. Country-level results are available here.