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Are Healthy Diets Cost-Effective & Sustainable? It's Complicated

Eliza Sullivan
Food Writer By Eliza Sullivan
Food Writer
Eliza Sullivan is a food writer and SEO editor at mindbodygreen. She writes about food, recipes, and nutrition—among other things. She studied journalism at Boston University.
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A new report published in the Lancet: Planetary Health has estimated the costs of healthy and sustainable diets around the world—and the affordability aspect largely hinges on where you live.

How affordable is it to eat healthily and sustainably?

The study, which was conducted by researchers at Oxford University, drew one major conclusion: that in the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom, and much of Western Europe, adopting some version of a vegetarian or plant-based diet can reduce the price of food and grocery bills by as much as 34%, and at least 22%.

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According to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, "Plant-based diets in comparison to diets rich in animal products are more sustainable because they use many fewer natural resources and are less taxing on the environment." In addition, versions of plant-focused eating are known to be more heart-healthy and better for blood sugar balance.

That said, while the study found in "upper-middle-income to high-income countries" (the ones above) making healthier and more sustainable food choices could decrease cost, there's a flip side: In "lower-middle-income to low-income countries," they found that eating a healthier and more sustainable diet would increase food costs by as much as 29%.

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Closing the gap in accessibility to healthy, sustainable food.

The truth of healthy eating is that it might not always be accessible, even in "upper-middle-income to high-income countries" like the United States. Here, food insecurity is a major issue, especially in the sense of access to fresh, healthy food options. According to the USDA, millions of people in the U.S., particularly BIPOC communities, lack access to healthy options in their area. But as this study demonstrates, food security isn't just a problem in the U.S.

The researchers on this study did work to find options for improving accessibility. The big lever, according to the team, is a combination of broader economic development in those areas, combined with more effective means for reducing food waste, and more "health-friendly" pricing of food.

"Affording to eat a healthy and sustainable diet is possible everywhere but requires political will," explained lead researcher Marco Springmann, Ph.D. "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."

The bottom line.

If you live in the United States or other "Western" nations, switching to a more plant-focused diet may be a more affordable way to support your health and the health of the planet—a win-win. But it's important to recognize that the model only works in some places. Systemic change might make it a solution for more and more folks, but other changes need to take place first.

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