Sustainable diet will deliver economic benefits study finds

Academics have said that western economies could be saving more than the planet if they move to a more sustainable diet.

The wide-ranging study by a team at Oxford University research has revealed that, in countries such as the US, the UK, Australia and across Western Europe, adopting a vegan, vegetarian, or flexitarian diet could slash food bills by up to one-third.

The research compared the cost of seven sustainable diets to the current typical diet in 150 countries, using food prices from the World Bank’s International Comparison Program.

The study, The global and regional costs of healthy and sustainable dietary patterns: a modelling study, found that in high-income countries:

  • Vegan diets were the most affordable and reduced food costs by up to one third.
  • Vegetarian diets were a close second.
  • Flexitarian diets with low amounts of meat and dairy reduced costs by 14%.
  • By contrast, pescatarian diets increased costs by up to 2%.

“We think the fact that vegan, vegetarian and flexitarian diets can save you a lot of money is going to surprise people,” explained Dr Marco Springmann, researcher on the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food. “When scientists like me advocate for healthy and environmentally-friendly eating, it’s often said we’re sitting in our ivory towers promoting something financially out of reach for most people. This study shows it’s quite the opposite. These diets could be better for your bank balance as well as for your health and… the planet.”

Miguel Barclay, author of the “One Pound Meals” series of cookbooks, added: “I definitely agree that cutting down your meat, or cutting it out completely, will save you money. I’ve written seven budget cookbooks and have costed up hundreds of recipes, and without doubt vegan and vegetarian meals consistently come in at a much lower price than recipes with meat.”

The study focused on whole foods and did not include highly-processed meat replacements or eating at restaurants or takeaways. It found that in lower income countries, such as on the Indian subcontinent and in sub-Saharan Africa, eating a healthy and sustainable diet would be up to a quarter cheaper than a typical Western diet, but at least a third more expensive than current diets.

To analyse what options could improve affordability and reduce diet costs, the study looked at several policy options. It found that making healthy and sustainable diets affordable everywhere is possible within the next 10 years when economic development, especially in lower income countries, is paired with reductions in food waste and a climate and health-friendly pricing of foods.

“Affording to eat a healthy and sustainable diet is possible everywhere, but requires political will,’ added Springmann. “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. Any of the healthy and sustainable dietary patterns we looked at are a better option for health, the environment, and financially, but development support and progressive food policies are needed to make them both affordable and desirable everywhere.”

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