By Larissa Ham
Trying to squeeze yourself into that old pair of jeans and squeeze every cent out of your food budget?
If you’re trying to drop a few kilos by following a specific meal plan, it’s likely to be hitting your hip-pocket harder than ever amid ever-rising grocery prices.
Recently released research from the University of South Australia, based on price data from 2019, has found that some of Australia’s most popular diets were already eye-wateringly expensive (and that was before COVID-19 pressures, floods and inflation).
The research compared the cost of seven diets or eating guidelines: the keto and paleo diets, 8 Weeks to Wow, intermittent fasting, Optifast, the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating (AGHE) and the Mediterranean diet.
Eight Weeks to Wow was the most expensive at $192 a week for one person (based on exact grams used, not the total cost of buying each product). The most affordable was the AGHE, at $93 per week, followed by keto and the Mediterranean diet at $112 apiece.
Lead researcher Associate Professor Karen Murphy says that when choosing to attempt a specific diet, people often don’t consider the cost.
“It’s not until they actually start getting into the diet and think ‘wow this is actually quite expensive because I have to buy specialised products like high-protein branded products, and I have to buy chia seeds and all these different kinds of nuts and seeds and things’,” she says.
“And some diets might be quite high in protein and red meat and that actually adds quite a lot to the budget.”
Milly Smith, of Dietitians Australia, says diets that require people to buy very specific ingredients, including so-called ‘superfoods’, can blow the budget.
“I think the issue with some of those diets is often you’re buying ingredients that you may not regularly use.”
And as inflation starts to bite, Smith says the cost of healthy eating is increasing.
“Previously I was always a huge advocate that healthy eating shouldn’t necessarily be more expensive than a poorer quality diet, but unfortunately when a lettuce is $12 it can be a lot more challenging to eat a healthy balanced diet at an achievable cost.”
Smith is not a fan of restrictive diets, favouring more flexible styles such as the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating (AGHE) and the Mediterranean diet.
“Putting yourself on something that restricts certain foods, or wants you to eat in a really specific, rigid way, tends to lead to it being quite unsustainable and leads to poorer behaviours or patterns of eating, and a poorer relationship with food.”
When you inevitably stop following it, you may be deflated by the money and effort you’ve wasted, she says.
The good news? There are plenty of tricks to save money and eat healthily.
For instance, if you’re taking a paleo approach, Smith suggests looking at cheaper meat options such as kangaroo or wallaby meat. “It’s really lean and so it’s super nutritious.”
Associate Professor Murphy says there are also many ways to save on fruit and vegetables, including buying canned or frozen products. “They’re just as good and sometimes can be cheaper.”
Buying seasonal where you can, joining a food co-op, growing your own herbs, buying in bulk and shopping at local markets are other ways to bring down costs.
Dietitian Dr Anika Rouf says fruit and vegetables seem to have been more affected price-wise than other food groups, which will impact healthy eating principles such as the Mediterranean diet.
Like Smith, she cautions against highly restrictive diets, which usually only work in the short-term.
“In general, that’s why we say that the best diet that you can actually stick to, and it’s the one that doesn’t seem like torture – it’s actually quite flexible.”
Other tips for saving money on healthy food
- Use apps such as Frugl or WiseList
- Grow your own fruit and veggies
- Choose home-brand products
- Fresh fish too expensive? Try canned options
- Swap chia seeds for ground flaxseeds
- Shop with community food projects such as Feed Me Surf Coast
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