Which popular diet is the most affordable?
Fad diets rose to popularity decades ago, and though the regimens themselves have shifted with passing years, they are still prominent in American culture's collective consciousness. Because we love the idea of a "quick fix" that will help us instantly drop pounds and get into shape. And why wouldn't we?
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, following a fad diet meant you had to pay to be part of a special program (like Weight Watchers) or buy specific, branded food (like Adkins, SlimFast, or South Beach); these days, however, trending diets are a bit different.
You've heard about plant-based, keto, paleo, Whole30, and Mediterranean diets. Intermittent fasting is another big one. Rather than being dietary programs you subscribe to or buy into, these are plans that prescribe parameters for what (or when) to eat, meaning you can more or less decide how much you do or don't spend.
But, as each of these diets is different, I figured there had to be a difference in overall affordability. So I researched them over the span of weeks, taking a look at the handful of trendy diets I've tried myself, talking to other people who subscribe to one of the various plans, and taking a look at average price data.
Here's what I found: A plant-based diet can be the most affordable if you aren't filling your fridge with specialty products like Impossible Burgers and cashew cheeses. This is especially true if you follow an eating plan like Plant-Based on a Budget.
Based on my personal experiences eating plant-based, going paleo, and trying intermittent fasting -- and after interviewing people who eat Whole30, keto, or follow the Mediterranean diet -- I found grocery bills are generally lower for those who minimize their intake of meat, fish, and animal products.
Further, according to Johnathan Safran Foer's 2019 book, We Are the Weather, it's about $750 cheaper per year to eat a healthy plant-based diet than to eat a healthy meat-based diet (like keto or paleo). This is corroborated by a study published in the Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition, and it also means that it's actually about $200 cheaper per year to eat a healthy plant-based diet than to eat an unhealthy traditional diet.
While each of these diets move toward the same end -- to help people look better, get healthier, and increase energy levels -- they aren't at all the same in execution. It's possible to follow any eating plan on a budget, assuming you have access to affordable and suitable food options (although eating a healthier diet tends to be more expensive than an unhealthy diet, it's worth it for what you'll save on healthcare and for how much better you'll feel).
How to follow the most popular diets while on a budget
In general, skip the fancy, packaged foods that are diet-specific (like keto bars, vegan cheeses, and paleo breads) and opt for simple whole foods. Look for sales on proteins and oils, and shop for seasonal or frozen vegetables and fruits.
Here's how to follow the most popular diets without overspending, along with the requisite appliance that will make each a breeze.
This is a diet that limits or eliminates animal products, like meat, dairy, and eggs. Fill your diet with beans, lentils, and simple whole grains (bought in bulk when possible); and replace meat or costly meat substitutes with soy curls and pea protein.
Instant Pot Duo Nova: A pressure cooker is a must-have for an affordable and convenient plant-based diet because you'll be able to quickly and easily prepare dried beans and lentils, which are much cheaper than when they are pre-made, saving you money over time.
Cuisinart Elemental 8-Cup Food Processor: Cheese is allowed on the keto diet, but bread is not -- which is where a food processor comes in: You'll be able to rice cauliflower and create your own cauli-crust pizza to satisfy your cravings and save money on specialty pre-made products.
The paleo diet aims to mimic that of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, meaning a focus on whole foods like vegetables, meats, eggs, and nuts. No dairy or grains. While meat will be the most expensive component of a paleo diet, opt for more affordable cuts to reduce your grocery bill.
Anova Culinary Sous Vide Precision Cooker: You can make any cut of meat or type of fish taste tender and delicious when you prepare it with a sous vide, meaning you might not even miss those expensive filet mignons.
This is the most popular elimination diet around, and it's also temporary -- the idea is one month of "clean" eating. It cuts out sugar, alcohol (which will save you big bucks), grains, dairy, and legumes. Don't replace booze with expensive non-alcoholic spirits; instead, stick to sparkling water.
GoWISE 5.8-QT Digital Air Fryer: Just because you're on an elimination diet doesn't mean you can't indulge. An air fryer will help you stay on track while also removing the need to buy expensive Whole30 approved snacks to satisfy your cravings.
Mediterranean: The idea of this diet is to eat like people who live in countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, where people tend to have generally good health and long lifespans. Eat a lot of legumes, buy olive oil in bulk, and don't overdo it on fish and meat.
Lodge Seasoned Cast Iron 5 Piece Bundle: While oil (especially olive oil) is central to the Mediterranean diet, it tends to be a more costly pantry staple. Cut down on your oil usage without negatively impacting the taste by switching to cast iron cookware.
Intermittent fasting: This eating strategy doesn't actually dictate what you can eat; instead, it focuses on when you eat (and don't eat). This doesn't necessarily mean you eat less food, it just means you eat within a certain window of time, so take a look at your current grocery spending and see where you can cut back.
Chemex Classic Series Pour-Over Coffee Maker: Because one of the only things you can consume during fasting hours is black coffee, it's fundamental to make coffee that tastes good so you can actually enjoy the hours you spend without food.
Sarah Pitts is a writer for BestReviews. BestReviews is a product review company with a singular mission: to help simplify your purchasing decisions and save you time and money. BestReviews never accepts free products from manufacturers and purchases every product it reviews with its own funds.
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