Healthy and sustainable diets are generally cheaper than current diets, with vegetarian and vegan diets the most affordable, according to a study published in the journal Lancet Planet Health by researchers at the University of Oxford and Tufts University, USA.
The study used food price data from 150 countries across the world to compare the cost of current diets with those of seven nutritionally balanced dietary patterns associated with reductions in premature mortality and environmental resource demand, namely flexitarian, pescatarian, vegetarian, and vegan diets, with the last three each subdivided into ‘high-veg’ and ‘high-grain’ variants. Countries were grouped into ‘high-income’, ‘upper-middle-income’, ‘lower-middle-income’ and ‘low-income’ categories.
The average cost of current diets in 2017 was $5.7 per person per day, ranging from $3.7 in low-income countries to $7.5 in upper-middle-income countries, with meat accounting for the greatest proportion of costs (around one-third) in high- and upper-middle-income countries. In high-income and upper-middle-income countries, all dietary patterns, except for the high-veg pescatarian diet, were less expensive than current diets, with the greatest cost reductions for the high-grain vegetarian and vegan diets (22–34% cheaper across the two regions), followed by the high-veg vegetarian and vegan diets (17–27% cheaper).
By contrast, in lower-middle-income and low-income countries, where staple crops account for the greatest proportion of food costs, all of the dietary patterns were more expensive than current diets (by 18–45%). However, combining a halving in food waste, favourable socioeconomic development, and a fuller cost accounting model that included the diet-related costs of climate change and health care increased the affordability of the dietary patterns, making them cheaper than benchmark diets in all country groups by 2050, with overall cost reductions ranging from 22% (high-veg pescatarian) to 39% (high-grain vegan) under a medium socioeconomic development scenario.
High-grain vegan diets produced the greatest (or equal greatest) savings in each country group under the same scenario, with cost reductions of 59%, 46%, 25% and 17% in high-income, upper-middle-income, lower-middle-income and low-income countries, respectively. High-grain vegetarian diets produced the next greatest savings, with cost reductions of 55%, 45%, 23% and 17%, respectively, in the four country groups, and 37% overall.
The study authors concluded that in high-income and upper-middle-income countries, the adoption of healthy and sustainable diets can help consumers reduce costs while contributing to fulfilling national climate change commitments and reducing public health spending. In low-income and lower-middle-income countries, healthy and sustainable diets are substantially less costly than western diets and can also be cost-competitive in the medium-to-long term, subject to beneficial socioeconomic development and reductions in food waste.
Paul Appleby is a Fellow of the UK Vegetarian Society and a former trustee of the Society and the UK Vegan Society. He was secretary of Oxford Vegetarians (the forerunner of OxVeg) for 25 years from 1983 to 2008. Until he retired in 2020, Paul was a Senior Statistician at the Cancer Epidemiology Unit, University of Oxford, working mainly on long-term studies of the health of vegetarians and vegans, including the EPIC-Oxford study.