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Mediterranean Diet is Healthy, but Expensive: 7 Ways to Afford It

Mediterranean Diet

The Mediterranean Diet has been promoted as one of the healthiest styles of eating in the world, associated with a decrease in cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and some forms of cancer. However, many studies find that the principle reason for people not following the plan is economic-based. Lower income families simply cannot afford the foods suggested. But there is a way to incorporate the Mediterranean Diet into your family meal plans – it simply takes a little bit of planning and fortitude.

Italian Scientists with the Catholic University of Campobasso published a study recently based on the survey results of 13,000 subjects. Those with lower income had a less healthy diet, consisting of prepackaged or convenience foods rather than fresh foods such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. The lower-income group also had a higher prevalence of obesity.

"Obviously we have considered all the possible confounding factors which may bias the observed effects,” say the researchers which include Marialaura Bonaccio, first author of the study. “The educational level, for instance, has a huge role in determining health status, as showed by previous studies. That is why we have further divided our population according to educational level but in this case too income appears to influence people's food choices."

This study corroborates results of other research into the diets of lower income people. A study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health found that those who followed the Mediterranean diet spent about a dollar more per 1,000 calories than those who consumed a more “Western” style diet.

However, look closely – spending a dollar more per day (assuming one person eating a 2,000 calorie diet) is well worth the extra expenditure considering the healthcare costs associated with a less healthy diet. But with a little bit of planning, you can eat a Mediterranean style diet without spending extra cash. You may even save in the long run by spending less on medical expenses.

The first step, obviously, is to take a look at your current grocery spending. Where can you cut back? Skip the snack aisle, for example – cut out the potato chips, cheese puffs, and cookies. Stop buying sodas, juice drinks, and energy drinks. Take a look at the foods you purchase prepackaged, such as frozen entrees, boxed rice dishes, and refrigerated “Lunchables.” Many of these can be made fresh, even on a budget.

The second step is to plan your meals each week. Taking an extra hour or two to plan out a week’s worth of breakfasts, lunches, and dinners can be a major cost savings. There are many websites that can help with this including MoneySavingMom.com, the USDA’s SNAP-Ed Connection (SNAP is the new name for the former food stamps program), Frugal Living at About.com.

Start by assessing what you already have in your pantry that you can incorporate into a meal. Then use grocery store circulars to see what is on sale that week. Take advantage of store reward programs and coupons (there are many offered online).

Tip – include your family in the meal planning so everyone has a say. A family that is working together as a team is one most likely to succeed in eating more healthfully on a low budget.

Tips for Adding Foods from the Mediterranean Diet without Breaking the Bank

Olive Oil
One of the first ingredients you think of with the Mediterranean diet is olive oil. It is a monounsaturated fat which is healthier for your heart, but it can also be quite pricy. It is perfectly acceptable to use canola oil instead for cooking. It is offered in nearly every grocery store and is can be used with just about any food, eliminating the need to buy many different products, thus spending a lot of money on items you would otherwise use rarely. The goal here is to use an unsaturated fat rather than one that is saturated, such as lard.

Another tip – when cooking, use the least amount needed for a recipe. Cutting back can save both calories and money.

Fish and Seafood
Fish typically replaces red meat in the Mediterranean diet as a lean protein source, but, in general, fish costs more per pound than red meat or poultry. Try some frozen selections such as frozen shrimp or tilapia. Often, these go on sale a few times a year and can be bought in bulk and stored in the freezer. Purchase canned fish, such as tuna or salmon that is packed in water or heart-healthy olive oil – both of these can be purchased with SNAP or with WIC assistance.

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Honoring the fact that most people would likely not want to eat fish at every meal, there is still a way to eat red meat and poultry without breaking the bank. Most nutrition experts would prefer you to choose leaner cuts of red meat and boneless, skinless chicken breasts; however, these are typically more expensive than 70/30 ground beef and chicken drumsticks.

To reduce fat and cholesterol intake without spending more - simply eat less meat overall. Assess your current portion sizes, remembering that a portion of meat or poultry should be about the size of your palm. Trim whole meats to remove fat and skin and bake or sauté rather than fry.

Dried beans such as kidney beans, black beans, and pinto beans are great vegetarian protein sources and contain fiber and iron. They are the ultimate budget-friendly food; a bag of dried lima beans for example can feed a family of four for less than $3. Purchase dried beans that do not contain added sodium and cook them during the day in a slow-cooker for a very easy side dish or main entrée.

Whole Grains
The typical Western diet is heavy in refined flour and sugar, while the Mediterranean diet includes whole grains such as brown rice, barley, and whole wheat. Purchasing brown rice and wheat flours do not have to add considerable cost to the grocery bill.

One source found that a 32-ounce bag of white rice cost $2.50, while a 16-ounce bag of brown rice cost $2.75 – a price difference of only about 7 cents per serving. Again, portion size is key to spending less. Try adding a can of inexpensive mixed vegetables to rice to make a larger side dish without adding a lot of extra calories.

Whole grains also have the benefit of added fiber, which can keep you full longer than refined grains – thus spending less on snacks and other foods.

Fruits and Vegetables
Fresh fruits and vegetables are usually the foods that are missing from the table of a family eating on a budget. Fresh produce can be expensive, but there are ways to incorporate more plant foods into your meals without racking up a large grocery bill.

Buy fruits and vegetables fresh while in season and they will be less expensive. Remember to check your grocery store for special sales and plan meals and snacks using those foods. If you are very resourceful, you can freeze or can produce for use when those foods are out of season.

It is perfectly acceptable to choose frozen fruits and vegetables, as these are typically packaged very soon after picking, and retain nutrient quality.

Canned fruits and vegetables are better than none at all. As fruits packed in juice and low-sodium vegetables do often cost more, an alternative solution is to drain the produce and rinsing it before eating, thus getting the benefits of the food without added sodium or sugar.

Nuts provide unsaturated fats and protein, as well as nutrients such as calcium and fiber. The amount recommended for good health is very small, as nuts also pack a lot of calories. Use nuts as snacks in place of less healthier options such as potato chips and the cost difference will be minor. Also, mix nuts into a trail mix with whole grain cereal, and you’ve tackled two components of a healthy Mediterranean diet.

Other Tips:
Remember that the Mediterranean “diet” isn’t only food based – it is a lifestyle. Other healthful habits of the Mediterranean people are family meals (sit down with your family, without the television on, and discuss your day while enjoying a home-cooked meal) and daily exercise. Tackling stress and getting adequate sleep is another component of good health – and these do not have to cost a thing.

Journal Reference:
M. Bonaccio, A. E. Bonanni, A. Di Castelnuovo, F. De Lucia, M. B. Donati, G. de Gaetano, L. Iacoviello. Low income is associated with poor adherence to a Mediterranean diet and a higher prevalence of obesity: cross-sectional results from the Moli-sani study. BMJ Open, 2012; 2 (6): e001685 DOI:10.1136/bmjopen-2012-001685



Hi Denise, I mentioned elsewhere in the comments section of eMaxhealth that those who can least afford it practically live on takeaways and soft drinks, both expensive and detrimental to health. We eat the Mediterranean diet, including black and green olives, sundried tomatoes, pickles, home made couscous, and hummus. We eat a non dairy vegetarian diet, and steam extra vegetables to have the next day for lunch. Cold on a hot day, and hot on a cold one. Lots of lettuce out of our own garden, our own tomatoes, cucumbers and such. We do not smoke, and do not use alcohol or other mind altering drugs. It is amazing how cheap we live! We also live 100 km from the nearest town (Bairnsdale, Vic.) and only shop once every three weeks or so. Petrol cost are $25 to $30 for the round trip (3 hours) which translate to about $8 a week. We are pensioners and able to save for our annual holiday to Qld. We are also extremely healthy and haven't seen a doctor for at least 25 years. Cost wise and health wise I recommend our diet to everyone
We love the Mediterranean diet and particularly the vegan part of it.