The Budget Guide to a Mediterranean Diet

Your Mediterranean diet plan needn't cost a fortune. Read on for our guide to pinching pennies while treating your body to one of the world’s healthiest diets.

October 2, 2009

Oil's well: Healthy olive oil is a key component of a Mediterranean diet plan.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—A new study by researchers in Spain, published recently in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, found that the über-healthy Mediterranean diet, rich in olive oil, fruit, vegetables, legumes and fish, is more expensive than a conventional western diet. We could argue that a Mediterranean diet plan is only more expensive if you don't factor in the costs of health care incurred when you live on the high-fat, high-sugar, high-calorie fare that seems so cheap. But everybody's paying closer attention to their budgets these days, so what can you do if you want to eat healthier without a spike in your grocery bill?


Lead researcher in the study, Maira Bes-Rastrollo, PharmD, PhD, from the department of preventative medicine and public health at the University of Navarra’s School of Medicine, admits that eating a Western diet, especially fast food, tends to be cheaper than adhering to a Mediterranean dietary plan. Her advice? "One option to make it more affordable is to purchase seasonal products. Another is to buy food, when possible, directly from producers." So that's one more reason to visit farmer's markets and sign up for a CSA program. How else can you cut costs while eating healthy? Follow these tips from Laura Pensiero, nutritionist/chef and author of Hudson Valley Mediterranean: The Gigi Good Food Cookbook (HarperCollins, 2009).

#1: Bargain-hunt elsewhere, but splurge on extra-virgin olive oil.
According to Pensiero, one main reason the Mediterranean diet plan is more expensive than the conventional Western diet is the difference in price when comparing a flavorful, antioxidant-rich extra-virgin olive oil to a flavorless, refined vegetable oil. Yes, there’s a cost difference here. But in this case it’s definitely worth it, for both taste and nutritional reasons. To get the most flavor bang for your buck, reserve extra-virgin oil for recipes that don't require cooking, such as salads. Use lower-grade olive oil for sautéing or other hot cooking techniques, since the heat will eliminate the subtle flavor of the extra-virgin oil.

#2: Seek out nutty, flavorful, and inexpensive whole grains.
What varieties does Pensiero like cooking with the most? She loves barley, wheat, and rye berries, and whole grain mixes. "Use them to thicken and add texture, flavor, and heartiness to stews, soups and casseroles; as stuffings or fillings (for example, for peppers); and in place of Arborio rice for risotto." More tips? Use whole grain polenta to replace mashed potatoes in stews and braises, and try wild rice (this one’s officially a “grass”) mixed into pilafs and added to soups.

#3: Don’t worry too much about buying pricey fish.
The cost of fish also comes into play in a Mediterranean diet plan. Pensiero asserts that in the Mediterranean, a limited but very fresh selection of fish can be accessed with better availability, quality, and market price. But according to another study published in the British Medical Journal, fish intake isn’t one of the crucial elements in the healthy, longevity-boosting Mediterranean diet. So buy what fish you can afford, and focus on adding fruits, vegetables, grains and nuts to your meal plans.

#4: Use meat as an accent.
Think Mediterranean, and use fish and meat as a complement to meals, rather than featuring them at the center of the plate. Think casseroles, risotto, pasta dishes, stews, and braises as the main dish instead. Spending less money on meat means you can afford more olive oil and fish!

#5: Load up on leafy greens.
Cooked dark leafy greens, a staple of the much-lauded traditional Cretan diet, pack quite the nutritional punch and can be bought relatively inexpensively (especially when they’re available at a farmer's market). According to Pensiero, collards, kale, chard, turnip greens, and spinach, all great sources of vitamins A and C, can basically all be cooked the same way. The only difference is that greens with thicker stems, such as kale, need more cooking time. Pensiero sautés greens in olive oil along with onion, garlic, red pepper flakes, salt, and pepper, adding a bit of stock or water near the end until it’s absorbed. And make a lot; any leftovers can be added to a next-day frittata. One of the chef’s favorite varieties? Cavolo nero (a.k.a. black-leaf kale or Lacinato kale), which is tangy and sweet.