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Healthy diet costs $1.50 more per day than unhealthy one

Teresa Tanoos's picture
A healthy diet costs more than an unhealthy one, but not much more compared to health benefits of eating healthy.

If you want to eat a healthy diet, you’ll pay an average of $550 more per year than you’d pay for an unhealthy one, according to researchers from Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) in Boston, MA.

That means a healthy diet would cost you roughly $1.50 more per day, but the extra price is worth it if you value the benefits that eating healthy can bring.

The Harvard researchers say their study illustrates "the challenges and opportunities for reducing financial barriers to healthy eating."

Lead author Mayuree Rao, a junior research fellow in the Department of Epidemiology at HSPH, explains that many people believe that healthy foods are cost-prohibitive and therefore “limit better diet habits”, although no scientific evidence has previously “been systematically evaluated, nor have the actual differences in cost been characterized" – that is, until now.

For the study, the Harvard research team conducted a systematic evaluation and meta-analysis of 27 studies that were published between 2000 and 2011. The 27 studies included the cost for individual foods, as well as dietary patterns from 10 wealthy countries.

Individual foods were priced on a per serving basis of 200 calories. For diet patterns across different countries, the price difference was based on the consumption of 2000 calories per day, which is the recommended number of daily calories for American adults.

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As a result, the researchers found that the healthiest foods, such as fruits and vegetables, as well as fish and nuts, were significantly more expensive on average than their unhealthy counterparts, such as processed foods, refined grains and fatty meats.

The biggest differences in cost were found in protein foods, including meat, which cost an extra 29 cents per serving and 47 cents more per 200 calories for healthier options.

However, when comparing the extra cost of healthier foods with the health benefits they provide, the difference in price is small.

Nevertheless, for some families struggling to make ends meet, that small difference may even be too much. For this reason, senior author Dariush Mozaffarian, associate professor at HSPH and Harvard Medical School, said that policies need to be in place in order to offset the additional cost of healthy foods for families that can’t afford them.

By the same token, Mozaffarian pointed out that, compared with the cost of chronic disease related to diet, the extra cost for healthier foods is actually very small since diet-related chronic diseases are “dramatically reduced by healthy diets."

Another recent study found that what you eat in mid-life determines your health in old age, so regardless of your age or financial status, it's never too late to start eating a healthy diet.

If losing weight is a priority, you may also want to consider eating a protein-rich meal in the morning, as a recent study found that eating a high-protein breakfast curbs appetite, while reducing the number of calories consumed later in the day.

SOURCE: Do healthier foods and diet patterns cost more than less healthy options? A systematic review and meta-analysis; Mayuree Rao, Ashkan Afshin, Gitanjali Singh, Dariush Mozaffarian; BMJ Open (published online December 5, 2013); DOI: 10.1136/bmjopen-2013-004277