The answer is “yes” according to researchers from The Miriam Hospital and the Rhode Island Community Food Bank (Flynn et al, 2013). It is often thought that fruits and vegetables are the most expensive items in a food budget but actually meat, poultry, and seafood are, particularly the leaner options that are recommended. Diets high in vegetables and fruits have been shown to prevent chronic disease but despite this awareness, consumers have not increased their consumption regardless of income. Even when income is raised, purchases of beef and frozen prepared foods increase rather than fruit and vegetables (Stewart, 2008). This leaves little room for purchasing the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables. Part of the inadequate consumption may also be due to the perceived barrier of the time and skills needed for their preparation.
So these researchers set out to teach individuals recruited from emergency food pantries and low-income housing sites how to prepare easy, plant-based recipes that incorporated olive oil and whole grains. Their objectives: improve food purchases while decreasing food expenditures or in other words, increase vegetable and fruit consumption while improving food security and spending less money. Sixty-three subjects completed the 34-week study, which consisted of a 4-week baseline, 6-week cooking program and 6-month follow-up. For the 6-week cooking program, participants observed 30-minute food preparation demonstrations. Some very basic information was provided while the recipes were being prepared:
Additionally, study participants provided grocery receipts for all foods purchased during the study and they were divided into food purchases during the baseline period, the cooking program, and then for the follow-up period. Height, weight, and waist circumference were also measured during the three periods.
So what exactly did they find? Well first in terms of fruit and vegetable consumption, the number of reported meals per week that were plant-based increased significantly. Sixty percent reported 3 or more plant-based meals per week at the 6-month follow-up compared to only 5% at baseline. Total number of different types of vegetables and fruits increased significantly with 78% of participants eating more vegetables and 44% eating more fruit. In addition to this, there were significant decreases in the purchases of meat, carbonated beverages, desserts and snacks even though participants never received messages targeting this. In terms of food security, at baseline 68% of participants used the food pantry compared to 54% at the 6-month follow-up. And money spent on food purchases each week was reduced by more than half! There were some unexpected (but healthy) results as well—49% of participants lost weight! There was a significant decrease in both BMI and waist circumference as well.
These results show us that while a healthy diet is perceived to be expensive, if certain food purchases are decreased (unhealthy snacks, desserts, carbonated beverages, and some meat, poultry and seafood), a healthy diet high in fruits and vegetables can actually be quite economical not only to your wallet but to your waistline as well all while preventing chronic disease!
Flynn MM, Reinert S, Schiff AR. A Six-Week Cooking Program of Plant-Based Recipes Improves Food Security, Body Weight, and Food Purchases for Food Pantry Clients. Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition, 2013; 8 (1): 73 DOI: 10.1080/19320248.2012.758066
Stewart H, Blisard N. Are Lower Income Households Willing and Able to Budget for Fruits and Vegetables? Washington, DC: US Department of Agriculture; 2008.