Is it cheaper to be vegan?

by L Matthews on October 24, 2010

I’m sure everyone’s heard at some time or other that it is too expensive to eat ‘healthfoods’, or that veganism is only ‘for the white elite’, or those privileged enough to have the money to spend on expensive chic vegan restaurants. Not so! Veganism may be difficult for people to adhere to for a number of reasons, but cost is rarely one of them.

A recent, somewhat sketchy, assessment of the cost of a vegan diet compared to vegetarian, pescetarian, and omnivorous diets by LearnVest Living showed that being vegan could save you a lot of pennies. Unfortunately LV Living’s tally does seem to have a fairly major discrepancy between the amount the example vegan eats and the other diets in terms of calories and nutrients. I think it’s a pretty fair point that eating less costs less! Even so, the fact remains that a vegan diet will cost less than a diet that includes flesh, fowl, fish, dairy, and eggs.

So why do people persist in thinking that a vegan diet must be expensive? The most likely reasoning is that an assumption is made that the ‘meat’ component of a diet necessarily needs replacing by something similar such as vegan sausages, a big meaty non-meaty pie, or fake cow-style burgers. It goes without saying that eating a diet full of processed and overpackaged foods, whether vegan or not, will mean that you spend more than buying basic foods and cooking from scratch. Whilst reiterating that most people actually eat too much protein and that vegans tend to eat the right amount, it is important to ensure that simple things such as beans, legumes, and pulses are included in the diet to keep a good balance of amino acids. Oatmeal, nuts, seeds, rice, and quinoa are all great protein sources with lots of added extras; cow flesh is pretty much just protein, no carbs, no fibre, no good.

Eating at restaurants as a vegan need not be expensive either. If a tofu scramble, aubergine strudel, vegetable roulade, or spicy lentil curry is costing a fortune you have to wonder why… these ingredients are not pricey, so are you paying for the privilege of the dish being squeezed onto a meaty menu? Simple take-out options exist. How about a tofu fajita, a pitta with rosted veg and houmous, flaxseed rolls, dhal, rice and beans, vegetable curry, etc etc.

There is the problem of access to consider of course. Not everyone lives right next door to an ace healthfood shop of greengrocer with fresh organic vegetables. Some people unfortunately live in a food 'desert' in impoverished areas with little or no access to fresh food, and a lack of education or skill in how to cook nutritious meals. In addition, a number of food stamp rules for those on welfare can restrict the use of these stamps to products such as meat, dairy, processed foods, and disallow their use for fresh fruit and vegetables. So even those who want to be healthy are, in some cases, forced into buying unhealthy food by government handouts. An interesting discussion of veganism, welfare coupons and stereotypes of poor people spending their dole money on chips and burgers cna be found in the comments section of another article on the vegans of color website explaining why veganism is cheaper than an omnivorous diet. Whilst there are tons of healthy eating initiatives, culinary classes, nutrition talks, and food tours available, they generally occur in gentrified areas where people are indulging their love of food. The lack of access to healthy foods, fresh fruit and veg, and alternatives to dairy and meat as protein sources means that being vegan, or indeed just making healthy choices, can be doubly hard for those living in deprived areas. There is a direct correlation between the prevalence of supermarkets and groceries in an area and the consumption of fresh food, with an interesting explanations of this association and the social factors involved in this issue discussed here. Initiatives to help improve access to healthy fresh food and the knowledge to make nutritious food choices in more deprived areas struggle for funding and rely on the time and dedication of those who recognise this inadequacy in access. There are some amazing groups attempting to do just this, including the People's Grocery in West Oakland (US), Abundance in Manchester (UK), and Literacy for Environmental Justice in San Francisco. If there isn't a group such as this in your area already maybe think about getting a group together, after all care and compassion for animals shouldn't stop at our own food choices, we should be helping the other members of our communities who are less fortunate to have access to good nutrition and the information to make healthy choices. Another option for those living in a food 'desert' who want access to healthy grains, seeds, nuts, pulses, dried fruits, and health-foods is to set up a food co-op. I have no idea if this is common in North America, but in the UK there were a number of groups I knew, only consisting of maybe a half dozen people, who had set up a group account with a distributor of whole and healthfoods, and they submitted an order once a month or so to get a bulk discount and delivery of goodies to someone's house where the other group members would then come to to collect their goodies. This way prices were cheap for everyone, pick up was simplified and avoided the need for people to travel across the city to an out of the way healthfood store, and it got people together to share their love of good simple food. What's not to love?! It's somewhat ironic that the majority of the people eating a vegan diet are not those high-falutin types living in a major metropolis, but those subsisting on rice, lentils, and vegetables in places like India. Here, being vegan is not a lifestyle choice, it's a necessity. Meat and dairy are associated with wealth and remain for most aspirational commodities. A vegan diet is cheap, it feeds millions every day. Clearly the more complicated the food becomes, the more expensive it is too. So your city restaurant's token vegan dish with organically sourced black truffle oil and mushrooms baked in red wine and balsamic marinade is not really the same as the dhal and rice eaten by 'accidental' vegans in the deprived areas of Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan. What we need to remember is that vegan foods are not just tofu, or processed meat alternatives. An apple is a vegan food, bananas are vegan bananas, nuts, well you get the point I'm sure. There is, as with any lifestyle change, most likely an initial investment needed by those converting to a vegan diet from an omnivorous one (or even from vegetarianism), as it is important to stock up that pantry with some basics. Having grains, dried pulses and beans, herbs, spices, vinegars, sauces, dried mushrooms, nutritional yeast, nuts, seeds, flour, soy/almond/hemp/oat/ or rice milk will take a little time and money to acquire in order for you to not have to run to the shops every time you're tackling a new recipe from your shiny new vegan cookbook. I remember how fun it was when I first turned vegan, all those 'new' foods to explore, all the weird experimental dishes I created (and still create!). Ah, I remember asking how to pronounce quinoa, and not knowing what seitan was, and being quite scared when someone first asked me if I'd tried it! This leads me onto another factor in the 'is veganism cheaper' debate. Time. Who amongst us hasn't spent hours poring over recipe books, writing gargantuan shopping lists, trawling around healthfood stores, and working out how to prepare a new food in the pursuit of a healthy and balanced vegan diet? Having just moved to a different country this year, moved cities in the past month, and house four times in three months, I'm pretty familiar with the frustration of not knowing which stores stock rice milk, and where I can track down nutritional yeast, or good organic non-salted or roasted cashews. There is time and effort involved at first. It pays off big time later though, and if you're lucky enough to know some people in the city you're moving to or the new area then maybe they can save you the trouble and whisper to you where they keep the tofu round here. If not, buddy up, there'll be some vegans out there who have gone through all the trials and tribulations you face, and they may be able to save you the time and effort of tracking down some of the key vegan pantry staples.
In comparison to shoving a plastic wrapped ready-meal in the microwave and pressing a button or two, it's quite obvious that spending some time chopping ingredients for a tasty salad, or a big veg and lentil curry will absorb a little more of your evening. There are no differences really though in the time it takes to cook a healthy vegan meal from scratch and the time it takes to make a 'meat and two veg' type dinner. The more complex a recipe gets, the more time it is going to take. Little tricks, like cooking in bulk and freezing portions of casserole, curry, soups, stews, even cookies, muffins, breads, and other baked vegan goods, will save you some time and effort down the road and make sure you still get a healthy meal even when you can't be bothered to make one from scratch after a long day at work. Let's also not forget the costs involved in being ill, too sick to work, or having to pay expensive healthcare costs due to the overconsumption of fatty, processed, toxic animal products. I'm not saying all vegans are inherently healthy, after all there are some pretty weird and unhealthy vegans who subsist (until they get seriously ill) on baked beans and soya milk, but generally a healthy plant-based diet is less likely to lead to cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, and myriad other chronic illnesses. Animal-derived foods are usually high in pro-inflammatory compounds such as arachidonic acid, and contain a build-up of pesticides and hormones which adversely affect our bodies. They are also significantly more likely to produce heterocyclic amines in the cooking process, and lead to putrefying bacteria build-ups in the colon with ramifications for constipation, and eventually cancer. Dairy is associated with rhinitis, sinusitis, and increasingly prevalent coughs, colds and respiratory issues, such as asthma. Going dairy free may mean you don't need that sudafed, tylenol, or ibuprofen any more, or all those cold remedies and hayfever drugs. Think about how much that will save. Is veganism an elitist diet for the privileged middle-class? No. Is it expensive and complicated? No. Does it take a bit more time and effort? Probably, at first at least. Does it pay off in terms of happiness, health, and money in the end? Very definitely. Home Page

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Santos Kmet January 12, 2011 at 22:59

Thanks for this post, When I turned vegan I spent so much money on fake meat substitutes which made me feel less healthy than when I ate actual meat! Then I realised that it was stupid when I could jsut make my own tasty vegan food really easily with a bit of planning and care. Pulses and beans and grains and veg are all you need. I get why people go for the tofurky and soy chunks but I see it as a step to something better, or an emergency fallback if you can’t find other stuff to eat. Getting back to basics and learning how to actually cook from scratch always makes things cost less, it’s annoying when people perceive veganism to be an elitist thing. I enjoyed the post, you need to write more!

Santos (10yrs vegan)

BeOne Raw Carbon Frame 2011 January 13, 2011 at 08:13

My dad just sent me a link to this site and I like it very much. Keep up the good work 🙂

Morak January 14, 2011 at 03:27

I totally agree Santos!

It’s so stupid when people think that being vegan means spending loads of $$$s on fake meat stuff… Rice and beans people


What more can I say? Thanks for this article, being vegan is definitely cheaper than eating meat and dead stuff, and it makes your soul richer too.


Steve O January 16, 2011 at 22:02

Ha! I’m actually writing a paper on thsi at school, where I’m the weirdo vegan… it’s great. This was really helpful, thanks. I hadn’t really thought about the availability of fresh foods, I guess most of us take it for granted living round the corner from a store or market.

Good to have you bring up the social equality debate about veganism. Hopefully it will give me extra marks in class! Haha!

kitty cat January 17, 2011 at 20:52

I agree with you totally, being vegan is way cheaper than eating big hunks of dead animal. Those who need their fake meats and can’t cook from scratch will find things more expensive. And foodies, whetehr vegan or omnivore will spend more on food anyway like truffle oil and gourmet mushroom extravaganzas. I’m on a very tight budget with a young family (all vegan of course!) and we eat simple homecooked meals with wholegrains, pulses, legumes, and nuts and seeds when I can afford them. We don’t buy luxury leather jackets or expensive shoes, we don’t go on longhaul polluting flights, and we don’t buy the kids loads of crap plastic they don’t need. Veganism is often part of a wider lifestlye choice to live simply and make less of an impact on your fragile surroundings. Those who see it as a cool option will obviously consume conspicuously, toherwise they’d be toting fur coats or calfhide bags or some such atrocity to gain attention. I wonder how long the men you mention in your other post on the power (v)hegans will stay that way or if they’ll be convinced of the merits of raw meat eating or something else?

queso January 18, 2011 at 00:59

Happy New Year! mine’s a vegan soynog! not cheap, but hey it’s tasty!

Matty January 18, 2011 at 23:16

When I first transitioned into veganism (20yrs ago) it wasn’t considered cool or trendy by any stretch of the imagination, so this current nonsense about ‘power hegans’ and such is all very alarming. As I think you mentioned here, rice and beans are perfectly adequate and very cheap. When you look at first principles of food, farming, and health it’s startlingly clear how cheap and easy it is to be vegan and improve the health of yourself, your family, the planet, and society. I hope that this new fadism about vegan diets doesn’t put people off by making them think veganism is elitist and costly. Living basically and treading lightly over the last two decades has proven to me that veganism works and is sustainable for heart, body, and more.

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