Is Eating a Whole-Food Plant-Based Diet Expensive?

It always takes me by surprise when someone says that they can’t afford to eat whole-food plant-based.  Legumes (beans, peas, chickpeas and lentils) and whole grains (wheat, oatmeal, rice (brown, red, black & wild), quinoa, farro, barley, millet, bulgar, whole-wheat flour, whole-wheat bread, whole-wheat pasta) are the foundation of this way of eating and you’d be hard-pressed to find cheaper foods.  Many vegetables and fruits are also low in price compared to the number of calories they provide (for instance, squash, sweet potatoes and carrots).  When you’re not paying the higher costs of animal-based foods (meats, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs) or eating highly processed meat substitutes like Impossible Burgers and Beyond Sausage, even the pricier fruits and vegetables can fit into a less expensive diet.  But speculation is not needed for this topic because scientists have delved into it and 2023 was the year for answers.

A small study completed in December 2023 compared the food costs of a DASH Diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) and a WFPB Diet (Whole Food Plant-Based) in participants with type-2 diabetes. (1)

  • The DASH diet emphasized greater intakes of fruits, vegetables and whole grains with some low-fat dairy, fish, poultry and vegetable oils allowed. Foods higher in saturated fat, including red meats, full-fat dairy and solid fats as well as foods high in sugar and sodium were limited.
  • The WFPB diet consisted of fruits, vegetables, legumes, potatoes, whole grains, nuts and seeds; and excluded all animal products, added oils, and solid fats, including those used in cooking and salad dressings.

The study used a crossover approach so that all fifteen participants started with their usual diet (baseline diet) for 7 days, followed by a DASH diet for 7 days, then a WFPB diet for 7 days, and finally a DASH diet again for 7 days.  Chef-prepared fresh meals and snacks were delivered to participants twice a week, providing 3 meals a day (at approximately 1800 kcal/day).  Participants were also encouraged to add in their own food and to eat until they were comfortably full, as long as their extra food choices matched the dietary plan they were on at the time.  (1)

Participants completed a 3-day food record for each dietary phase. Nutrient content of the food intake was analyzed for each 7-day diet phase, including the baseline diet, using the “Nutrient Data System for Research” (NDSR).  Food cost was determined using “Fillet”, an application developed to manage menu pricing.  Food eaten away from home (which occurred with greatest frequency during the baseline diet phase) was analyzed by approximating ingredients. (1)

Results were as follows (1);

  • Food cost of the baseline diet as consumed was $15.72 per day
  • Food cost of the DASH diet as consumed was $12.74 per day
  • Food cost of the WFPB diet as consumed was $9.78 per day

Food costs were then adjusted to a standardized 1800 kcal/day diet.  Results were as follows (1);

  • Food costs of the baseline diet standardized to 1800 kcal/day were $15.69 per day
  • Food cost of the DASH diet standardized to 1800 kcal/day were $14.92 per day
  • Food costs of the WFPB diet standardized to 1800 kcal/day were $11.96 per day

In addition, both the DASH diet and the WFPB diet resulted in large reductions in daily average blood glucose levels and insulin dosages of the diabetic participants, though the time period in which they were eating these two eating patterns was only three weeks. (2)

  • Compared to baseline, daily insulin usage was 24% lower after the first DASH phase
  • Compared to baseline, daily insulin usage was 39% lower after the WFPB phase
  • Compared to baseline, daily insulin usage was 30% lower after the second DASH phase

Insulin resistance was also 49% lower and the insulin sensitivity index was 38% higher by the end of the WFPB phase.  These benefits regressed towards baseline levels during the second DASH phase. (2)

The researchers concluded that the food cost of plant-predominant diets were less than or similar to baseline food costs in individuals with type-2 diabetes. This is not surprising when taking into account the high prices of meats, poultry and fish and recognizing that a WFPB diet favours simple ingredients and excludes processed foods.  Plant-sourced diets also offer extra value in their substantial advantages to the health of their consumers.  Study authors noted that data from more participants and over a longer term are needed for more generalizable results. (1)

Other research, from September 2023, performed a secondary analysis of a 16-week-long randomized clinical trial to investigate the effects of a vegan diet on total food costs per day. Participants were randomly assigned to a vegan or a control group.  Both groups had 122 participants.  The vegan group was instructed to eat freely of fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes while the control group was told to make no dietary changes.  Food intake was not limited for either group.  Three-day dietary records were completed by each participant at baseline and at the end of the sixteen weeks experiment.  These were analyzed by a registered dietitian certified in the “Nutrition Data System for Research” (NDSR).  Results showed that a low-fat vegan diet was associated with a 16% decrease in total food costs.  This amounts to a savings of more than $500 per year when compared to a diet that includes animal products. (3)

In 2021 research results from Oxford University illustrated that adopting a vegan, vegetarian or flexitarian diet could slash food bills substantially.  This research compared the cost of seven sustainable diets to the typical diet in 150 countries, focusing on whole foods and not including highly-processed meat replacements.  Results showed that, in high-income countries, vegan diets were the most affordable, reducing food costs by up to one-third.  Vegetarian diets also lowered food costs but not by as much as the vegan diets.  Flexitarian diets that include low amounts of meat and dairy reduced food costs by 14%.  Pescatarian diets (vegetarian diets that include fish) increased food costs by up to 2%.  In lower income countries, like India and sub-Saharan Africa, eating a healthy, sustainable diet would be 25% cheaper than a Standard Western Diet but about a third more expensive than current diets eaten in these areas. (4)

Myths surrounding plant-based eating abound and one of them is that it is expensive.  Contrary to what many people believe however, eating a diet based on unprocessed plant foods is actually less expensive than other patterns of eating, including the Standard Western Diet and even the DASH diet.  Furthermore, saving money is not the only benefit to be found in eating plant-based.  Plants provide a plethora of essential nutrients including fiber, bioactive compounds like antioxidants and phytochemicals, vitamins, minerals, healthy fats and more than enough protein; are very low in saturated fat; and contain no cholesterol.  When you base your diet on plants, you’re not only providing your body with the nutrients it needs, you’ll also be saving yourself some money.



1  Campbell, E.K., Taillie, L., Blanchard, L.M., et al. Post hoc analysis of food costs associated with dietary approaches to stop hypertension (DASH) diet, whole food, plant-based diet, and typical baseline diet of individuals with insulin-treated type 2 diabetes mellitus in a non-randomized crossover trial with meals provided. Am J Clin Nutr. 2023: S0002-9165;(23)66356-7. Doi:10.1016/j.ajcnut.2023.12.023.

2 Campbell, T.M., Campbell, E.K., Attia, J., Ventura, K., Mathews, T., Chhabra, K.H. et al.  The acute effects of a DASH diet and whole food, plant-based diet on insulin requirements and related cardiometabolic markers in individuals with insulin-treated type 2 diabetes. Diabetes Res Clin Pract. 2023 Aug;202:110814. Doi: 10.1016/j.diabres.2023.110814. PMID: 37419391; PMCID: PMC10528443.

3  Kahleova, H., Sutton, M., Maracine, C., et al. Vegan diet and food costs among adults with overweight: a secondary analysis of a randomized clinical trial. JAMA Netw Open. 2023;6(9):e2332106. Doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2023.32106

4  Springmann, M., Clark, M.A., Rayner, M., Scarborough, P., Webb, P.  The global and regional costs of healthy and sustainable dietary patterns: a modelling study.  The Lancet – Planetary Health; 5(11): E797-E807.  Nov, 2021.  Doi:




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Promoting a healthy adventurous lifestyle powered by plants and the strength of scientific evidence.

My name is Debra Harley (BScPhm) and I welcome you to my retirement project, this website. Over the course of a life many lessons are learned, altering deeply-rooted ideas and creating new passions.

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