The Best Diet for Your Budget

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From Michelle Obama to New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg, everyone is talking about how typical American eating habits have made us obese and unhealthy.

The statistics are scary and the message is compelling—as a nation, we must start choosing un-processed, unrefined choices like fruits, vegetables and whole grains instead of foods in packages. We’ve got to trade in our daily dose of Doritos and Coke for fruit salad and sparkling water.

But it’s hard to find a truthful discussion about the costs of healthy eating, because in reality, packaged foods are usually less expensive and simpler to prepare. If you’re serious about a “whole foods” diet, the benefits can be enormous, but so can the price tag and the time commitment.

Putting Three Popular Diets to the Test

That’s why I tried three of the most popular diets out there to assess their effect on my health and my bank balance. I’ve always been a pretty healthy eater, but my recent entry into motherhood has made me hyper-aware of what I put into my body and what I feed my child, and my work with low-income school kids in a challenging neighborhood of San Francisco made me aware that shopping organic at Whole Foods is a luxury in today’s economy.

For three consecutive weeks, I faithfully kept three different diets: one based on traditional Mediterranean cuisine, one that was vegan and one that was “Paleo”—or attempting to mimic the human diet during the Paleolithic era, and have us eat like our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

All three promise similar outcomes–weight loss and decreased risk of chronic disease–but they differ in the amount of recommended meat, dairy and carbohydrates.

And they definitely have very different grocery bills and daily time commitments. Below, see how each panned out for me.

The Paleo Diet

The Plan: This popular nutrition and exercise plan derives from the pre-agricultural habits of hunter-gatherers who ate only meat, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds and exercised in infrequent, intense bursts of activity (like when being chased by pumas … or much like we do in modern-day “interval” training).

The Promise: Purportedly, this diet prevents almost every contemporary diet-related disease, including heart disease, diabetes and cancer, along with the prevention of common colds and the flu. The Paleo plan also promises weight-loss, increased energy and a revved-up sex drive.

Money: I spent at least $50 more than usual on groceries per week, since the diet advocates regular consumption of some of the most expensive foods at high-end grocers, like wild Pacific salmon (which can go for $22/lb), pasture-raised eggs ($7 per carton), macadamia nuts, organic nut butters (at least twice the cost of Skippy), organic grass-fed beef and local organic vegetables.

(We looked into it: Is buying organic groceries really worth the money?)

Time: It took an hour every day to prep my food. And, because I crave variety, I spent a lot of time perusing Paleo-approved recipes and inventing creative snacks (like kale-beef wraps and coconut flour soufflé muffins).

The Verdict: The discipline was intense—once all processed foods, grains, beans and dairy are eliminated, there are very few items that can satisfy a snacking impulse, and only a few grocery stores carry recommended Paleo foods. On this diet, I might save big in the long run by getting sick less and requiring fewer dental procedures, but the Paleo diet was a big investment and a radical lifestyle shift. That said, channeling my inner cavewoman did feel great, and I managed to lose a couple pounds over the week! 

The Mediterranean Diet

The Plan: The Mediterranean diet tries to mimic traditional Greek, Italian, Spanish and Moroccan cuisine. Think of roasted lamb on a bed of rice with broccoli rabe sautéed in olive oil and a salad of tomato and mozzarella. For dessert, fresh berries and a lovely red wine to wash it all down. Totally delicious!

The Promise: There is substantial evidence that eating the Mediterranean way is highly correlated with reduced rates of heart disease and type two diabetes, as well as increased life span. One study has also linked it to a decreased risk of skin cancer. All the fresh produce is good for the waistline, too.

Money: The condiments, protein and wine can really drive up the price of this diet, but if you opt for inexpensive choices for your olive oil, tuna steak and chardonnay, this diet is completely affordable. I didn’t log a single penny over my usual budget during my Mediterranean week.

Time: What’s great about eating Mediterranean is that you can grab this food on the go most of the time. So my food prep hour dwindled down to 20 minutes a day—putting pasta to boil, chopping some veggies and grilling some fish—and this is all much more fun when you’re encouraged to down a health-fueling glass of wine while you cook.

The Verdict: Total eating pleasure. I think I even got a tan that week just from thinking about the Mediterranean. The only downside is that it is quite carb heavy—the pastas and breads (whole grain, nonetheless) kept me feeling slightly bloated, and my weight stayed the same.

The Vegan Diet

The Plan: The vegan diet cuts out all animal products, including cheese, milk, yogurt, meat, poultry, seafood and eggs. Some vegans even go so far as to nix honey, since it is technically meant to be food for bees! Although most vegans do it for ethical reasons, surviving on plants alone is also rumored to have great health benefits.

The Promise: Vegans believe that they are ingesting fewer toxins by eating lower on the food chain, and they say they see the results in higher energy levels and lower instances of chronic disease. The landmark China Study claimed to show that plant-based diets are much better for the prevention of cancer and other chronic diseases than diets with animal products (since the study was published, it has been widely refuted, so the jury’s out). Still, vegans are loud advocates for the health and environmental benefits of eschewing meat and dairy, and have created a compelling culinary subculture.

Money: Most vegan processed or prepared foods are more expensive; you might pay $7.99 for a frozen vegan pizza, but you could take home a Tombstone for less than $4. However, if you’re cooking for yourself from whole foods, the vegan diet is a steal! While lean ground beef costs over $4 a pound, high quality tofu is under $2 per pound. After a week as a vegan, I noted that my food budget was just $20 over my usual total. This was mostly because I splurged on $3 vegan cupcakes and fancy $6 marinated tofus.

Time: The real time issue with being vegan is that you have to plan ahead every day to make sure there will be food available that you can eat. I never left the house without a tote bag of acceptable foods, because I didn’t want to be stuck in a gas station choosing between salted peanuts and dry cereal. The other issue is soaking. You’ve gotta eat a lot of beans on this diet, and I found it hard to remember to prep my bulk-purchased legumes properly.

The Verdict: Eating vegan was more convenient than going paleo, and less expensive because I didn’t buy any top-shelf protein. Because I live in San Francisco, vegan treats are ridiculously abundant–the closest bakery to my house only sells vegan pastries. The major downside was that socializing with animal-eaters (read: most of my family and friends) became strained. And to be honest, I missed cheese too much to keep it up for longer. But the righteous buzz from living exclusively off the plant kingdom did feel good.

In the end, the Mediterranean whole foods diet won my week-long trial test. The foods were tasty, inexpensive and easy to prepare, and I didn’t feel like I had to sacrifice treats or remain rigidly disciplined.

And hey, the fabled allure of an azure coast dappled with sunlight makes this diet feel like a vacation on your plate.