There are nearly twenty countries that border the Mediterranean Sea, from Italy, Spain, and France to Turkey, Syria, Libya, and Egypt. In comparison to American diets, almost all traditional Mediterranean diets include a healthy amount of fish, olive oil, whole grains, nuts, and fresh fruits and vegetables.
Furthermore, before the globalization of readily-available manufactured foods, most Mediterranean cultures ate foods that were seasonal and locally grown, because that was what was most readily available.
Unlike other diet fads, the Mediterranean diet isn’t about deprivation or obsessive calorie counting. Rather, the Mediterranean diet is about a lifestyle change – a change from fast food to slow food, from lots of meats to lots of fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
Some Americans are concerned that a Mediterranean diet lifestyle would take too much time and cost too much money. However, as we’ll see below, it’s possible to eat healthy while sticking to a reasonable budget.
The Mediterranean Diet Grocery List
Fruits and vegetables: The Mediterranean diet typically includes far more fresh fruits and vegetables than the typical American diet. Some of these fruits and vegetables include: Artichokes; greens leafy vegetables, including arugula, kale, lettuce, mustard greens, dandelion greens, and spinach; celery; cucumber; sweet potatoes; okra; onions and garlic; virtually any fresh fruit, from apples and apricots to dates, figs, grapefruits, melons, tomatoes, and olives.
Meats: Unlike the American diet, which includes plenty of red meat, the Mediterranean diet utilizes very little red meat. Instead, Mediterraneans tend to eat fish and poultry.
Fatty fish, such as tuna, contain Omega-3 fatty acids – essential fatty acids that have been shown to reduce the risk of heart problem, while protecting against later degenerative problems such as Alzheimer’s. Poultry contains far less saturated fat than red meat. The Mediterranean diet does include some beef, lamb, pork, and even goat, but these meats are used sparingly.
Grains: The Mediterranean diet includes whole grain breads, pastas, and couscous.
Nuts, Seeds, and Legumes: From hummus to tahini, the Mediterranean diet includes chickpeas, sesame seeds, almonds, pine nuts, and more. These are a great replacement for western snack food.
Additionally, the Mediterranean diet includes cheese and wine in moderate amounts. Mediterraneans are also less likely to use salt, and more likely to season food with fresh herbs, such as basil and oregano.
How Much Does it Cost to Eat a Mediterranean Diet?
Both US News & World Report and ABC News reported that the Mediterranean diet is healthy, but costs more on average than the typical American diet.
Katherine Hobson of US News & World Report estimated the cost of the average American diet at about $10 per day per person for 2,000 calories, while the average Mediterranean diet costs closer to $16 per day per person for the same 2,000 calories.
Likewise, Kristina Fiore of ABC News estimated that the typical western diet costs $0.80 less per 1,000 kilocalories.
Both of these reports fail to consider the potential long-term savings of a Mediterranean diet. The three leading causes of death in the United States – heart problem, cancer, and stroke, respectively – can all be linked to poor diet and exercise habits. The seventh leading cause of death, diabetes, is also very closely linked with the high-fat, high-sugar western diet.
How much do these problems cost Americans annually?
According to a USDA government report, the total cost to Americans is somewhere in the neighborhood of $220 billion per year.
It’s true that it will probably cost you and your family a little extra to eat a Mediterranean diet than a typical American diet. However, if you find you or a family member become hospitalized due to one of the problems mentioned above, you can expect to pay thousands or tens of thousands of dollars for treatment – and that’s after insurance.
These days, it’s not unusual for Americans to face bankruptcy as a result of mounting medical bills. Therefore, look at the few extra dollars you spend in food as an investment in your long-term health, peace of mind, and happiness.
The Mediterranean Diet on a Budget
Just because the Mediterranean diet is more expensive doesn’t mean it has to be out of reach. There are a few easy steps you can take to cut the costs of your Mediterranean diet grocery bill.
Most Americans spend the highest proportion of their weekly grocery bill on meats. When you’re eating a Mediterranean diet, you tend to eat less meat and more fresh fruits and vegetables, therefore eating a Mediterranean diet need not be more expensive than your current budget.
Reduce the amount of meats you are buying, and spend what you save on high-quality olive oil, fresh herbs, fresh greens, and fruits. Spend less on olive oil by buying it in bulk or online.
Meats should be more like a garnish than a main dish. In America, we tend to eat 6 – 8 ounces of meat per day; in most countries, people only eat about 3 ounces of meat per day. Instead of centering your meal around the meat, center it around a pasta dish, a salad, or a stew, and add the meat into this dish for flavor and accent. This one paradigm shift will save you quite a bit of money.
Fresh leafy greens are inexpensive and very healthy. Collards, kale, turnip greens, and spinach are great when sauteed in olive oil, with garlic, onion, and some red pepper flakes. Add in some mushrooms and you’ll quickly have a healthy, inexpensive, and tasty side dish!
A Low-cost Mediterranean Recipe
One low-cost Mediterranean recipe you might like to try from Prevention.com is the Greek Eggplant Feta Casserole.
The eggplants, tomatoes, and other ingredients in this recipe are all fairly cheap; although the casserole contains lamb, you could leave out the lamb for a vegetarian version, or save by substituting ground turkey instead.
- 1 large eggplant, peeled and cubed
- 1 teaspoon olive oil
- 8 ounces lean ground lamb add to shopping list
- 2 onions, chopped
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- 1 sweet red pepper, diced
- 2 teaspoons dried oregano
- 1 can (15 ounces) peeled whole tomatoes (with juice), chopped
- 1 cup uncooked orzo
- 1 1/2 cups defatted chicken broth
- 1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
- 1/3 cup minced fresh parsley
- Place the eggplant in a medium bowl; sprinkle it generously with salt. Let it sit at room temperature for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Meanwhile, coat a large Dutch oven or a large ovenproof saucepan with no-stick cooking spray; set it over medium-high heat. Add the oil; when the oil is hot, add the lamb and onions. Cook and stir for 3 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic, peppers and oregano; cook and stir for 3 minutes.
- Preheat the oven to 375°F. Rinse the eggplant well; squeeze it dry. Add the eggplant, tomatoes (with juice), orzo, broth and 1/4 cup of the feta to the pot; bring to a boil.
- Cover the pot and transfer it to the oven; bake for 20 minutes, or until the orzo is tender and all the liquid has been absorbed. Sprinkle the parsley and the remaining 1/4 cup feta over the top. Cover and cook for 5 minutes, or until the cheese melts.
Buying Mediterranean Food Online
Another way to save money is to find non-traditional sources for your groceries, such as buying in bulk online. Get together with a friend and split the cost of bulk almonds, extra virgin olive oil, wild rice, and more. Here are a few websites to get you started:
- Dayna’s Market: Just $6 will get you 10 pounds of food in terms of shipping, ranging from olive oils to raw pistachios.
- Ethnic Foods Co.: Ethnic Foods Co. allows you to shop by country, so you can go straight to those hard-to find Greek, Persian, or Turkish foods you can’t find anywhere else.
- eFood Depot: When your total bill exceeds $75, as long as you live in the lower 48, you qualify for free shipping. eFood Depot has tons of foods from virtually all regions of the world.
- Ahlberg, Amy. “The Budget Guide to a Mediterranean Diet.” Rodale.
- Fiore, Kristina. “Mediterranean Diet Healthier, Not Cheaper.” ABC News, September 19, 2009.
- Frazao, Elizabeth. “The American Diet: A Costly Health Problem.” USDA Report.
- “Greek Eggplant Feta Casserole.” Prevention.com.
- Hobson, Katherine. “The Mediterranean Diet: Too Bad it Costs More to Eat Well.” US News & World Report, September 25, 2009.
- “Mediterranean Diet.” The American Heart Association.
- “Meditteranean Diet: Choose This Heart-Healthy Diet Option.” The Mayo Clinic.
- Stamos Kovacs, Jenny. “Popular Diets of the World: The Meditteranean Diet.” WebMD.