What visitor to Whole Foods (aka "Whole Paycheck") hasn't stared in slack-jawed wonder at bluefoot mushrooms imported from Europe ($39.99 per pound), off-season organic grapefruit from Texas ($2.49 per softball-size fruit), organic almond butter ($14.99 a pound) or pine nuts ($13.99 a pound)?
In a world of $1 double cheeseburgers, it's no wonder that many people suspect that a vegetarian diet is more expensive than one that includes meat.
But that's generally not true. And though it's difficult to tally the savings of illnesses or diseases avoided with a plant-based diet, the financial worth of good health is unquestionable.
Vegetarianism could extend your life by several years, as well as lower your risk of heart disease, cancer and dementia. It's better for the planet, reducing water usage and global-warming gases. And it certainly improves the health of the cow or pig you would have devoured.
The cost depends largely on what course of vegetarianism you choose to follow:
Many people keep a diet that's known as mostly vegetarian -- a typical American diet minus the red meat. Vegetarians drop poultry and seafood.
A lacto-vegetarian eats dairy products.
An ovo-vegetarian eats eggs.
A pescetarian eats fish.
A vegan eats no animal products at all.
A fruitarian eats only fruit.
Basics are easy on the wallet
Most of the staples of a vegetarian diet are cheap. In fact, most of the world's people eat a mostly vegetarian diet made up of inexpensive commodities such as beans, rice and corn.
If you drop red meat, poultry and fish from your diet, you'll find plant proteins cheaper than the equivalent amount of animal protein. The cheapest cuts of beef, such as ground round, average $3 per pound in U.S. cities (lean and extra lean); boneless chicken breasts cost $3.40 a pound; and canned tuna is about $2 per pound.
Contrast that with dried beans and lentils at less than $1 a pound and rice well below $1 per pound. (Although Whole Foods offers expensive wild rice at $6.99 a pound, it also has basic brown rice for 69 cents per pound. And though pine nuts are exorbitant, you can get sunflower seeds, with nearly the same amount of protein, at a fraction of the price.)
Even tofu, the chicken of the vegetarian world, is usually well under $2 a pound.
But when you try to dress up plants as meat, costs skyrocket. Soy hot dogs, for example, cost $5 a pound; turkey hot dogs are less than half that.
Fresh, canned, frozen or organic
Produce is little trickier to compare, largely because vegetarians consume a much greater volume. (Most Americans now eat only three servings a day, on average, compared with the seven to nine servings recommended for optimum health.)
The prices of fruits and vegetables vary widely with the season and source. Locally grown fruits and vegetables are sometimes cheaper than those imported from far away and can be much cheaper in summer when there's an abundance. Of course, canned and frozen varieties are available year-round.
If you take the plunge into organics, the price may double or triple compared with nonorganic produce. Why does organic produce cost so much more? The answer is that organic fruits and veggies are usually not grown on an industrial scale, so efficiencies aren't as great. There are also significant costs involved in switching farmland from nonorganic to organic status. And there's a lot more manual labor involved, such as weeding by hand.
A payoff in better health
In the long run, no matter how much you spend on a vegetarian or semivegetarian diet, you'll likely see a payoff in better health, lower risk of chronic disease and reduced health-care costs compared with someone who eats a typical American diet.
"Years of poor nutrition habits can lead to chronic disease," said Ryan Andrews, a dietitian and exercise physiologist with the Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center in Baltimore. "These chronic diseases can have tremendous costs leading into old age. A bypass surgery or angioplasty procedure can cost nearly $60,000."
Health insurance carriers have begun urging lifestyle changes to reduce the risk of chronic disease -- and, not incidentally, soaring health-care costs. Those are estimated to be climbing 6% a year, an "unsustainable level," said Scott Forslund, the communications director for Premera Blue Cross, which serves Washington state and Alaska.
Heart disease is the major target of this effort, so Premera is starting a program to educate the people it insures about the importance of controlling blood pressure, cholesterol, body mass index and blood sugar. Research shows that a more plant-based diet improves all of these key health indicators.
"The connection between a vegetarian diet and reducing the costs of these high-impact health conditions is clear as a bell," Forslund said.