EYE-OPENING STUDY: The Cost Of A Healthy Diet

healthy-dietWould you pay an extra $1.50 a day to eat healthier? When you put it like that most people would say yes, but most people also feel it is much more costly to maintain a healthy diet plan. And until now the scientific evidence for this idea had not been systematically evaluated and the actual differences in cost had not been characterized.

So, does it cost a lot more to eat healthier? Not necessarily says new research from the Harvard School of Public Health who say the healthiest diets cost about $1.50 more per day than the least healthy diets. The study, published Dec.5, 2013 in the British Medical Journal Open, is based on the most comprehensive examination to date comparing prices of healthy foods and diet patterns versus least healthy ones.

The researchers analyzed 27 existing studies from 10 high-income countries that included price data for individual foods found in healthier versus less healthy diets. Evaluations included the differences in prices per serving and per 200 calories for particular types of foods as well as prices per day and per 2,000 calories for overall diet patterns. Since prices can vary depending on the unit of comparison they also assessed prices per serving and per calorie.

The Findings

What they discovered was that diets rich in fruits, vegetables, fish and nuts cost significantly more than those rich in processed meats, foods and refined grains. More specifically, a days worth of the most healthy diet patterns cost about $1.50 more per day than the least healthy ones.

They suggest that unhealthy diets may cost less because of food policies focusing on the production of inexpensive, high-volume commodities which lead to a complex network of farming, storage, transportation, processing, manufacturing and marketing that favors the sale of highly-processed food products for maximal industry profit. They added that creating a similar infrastructure to support production of healthier foods might help increase availability and reduce the prices of more healthful diets.

"This research provides the most complete picture to-date on true cost differences of healthy diets," says Dariush Mozaffarian, the study's senior author and associate professor at HSPH and Harvard Medical School. "While healthier diets did cost more, the difference was smaller than many people might have expected. Over the course of a year, $1.50/day more for eating a healthy diet would increase food costs for one person by about $550 per year. This would represent a real burden for some families, and we need policies to help offset these costs. On the other hand, this price difference is very small in comparison to the economic costs of diet-related chronic diseases, which would be dramatically reduced by healthy diets."

New Report

Last month a joint report released by PolicyLink and The Food Trust Access to Healthy Food and Why It Matters: A Review Of The Research - detailed the latest research on how access to healthy foods has improved in recent years. The report also details the impact that limited access continues to have for individuals and communities throughout the United States.

The report covers three main findings:

  • Accessing food remains a significant challenge for many families, particularly those living in low-income neighborhood communities of color and rural areas.

  • Healthy food retail stimulates economic activity.

  • Living closer to healthy food retail is among the factors associated with better eating habits and decreased risk for obesity and diet-related diseases.


The report states that although there has been increased attention to the challenge of healthy food access in recent years, ensuring that communities have access to healthy food options remains a great challenge.

While the implementation of federal programs like the Healthy Food Financing Initiative have stimulated action and interest in communities through the U.S., increasing access to healthy foods is still a challenge that all communities not just low-income should continue to address.

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