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Eating a healthier diet is tougher on your wallet

Dominika Osmolska Psy.D.'s picture
Healthy Diet

If you want to maintain a healthy diet it will cost you more. A new study out of the School of Public Health at the University of Washington says it will cost you an average of $380 a year more to eat a healthy, whole foods, low fat, potassium-rich, low sodium diet. That price inflation may simply be too much of a burden for some individuals or families living in poverty.

Is $380 an unmanageable expense for some? It can be. Americans spend, on average, $4,000 a year on food, per person, and that $380 price hike covers just getting the recommended amount of potassium in one’s diet. What this means is that keeping up an all-around healthy diet, full of fiber, vitamin D and other essential ingredients, is likely to ramp up the cost even further.

If you want to avoid synthetic hormones, buying organic versions of these foods would increase the price tag still further – threefold, in the case of some foods.

People who spend more on food tend to eat more healthily than those who go a more economical route. This reality brutally translates into an unseen – or perhaps unacknowledged – socioeconomic stratification.

"Given the times we're in, I think we really need to make our health guidance, in particular the dietary guidelines, more relevant to Americans," said Pablo Monsivais, lead author and an assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology at the School of Public Health at the University of Washington. "We know more than ever about the science of nutrition, and yet we have not yet been able to move the needle on healthful eating," Monsivais told reporters.

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"The government should provide help for meeting the nutritional guidelines in an affordable way," he added.

Hmmm. I am not sure how to read the message in that sentence. Should the USDA begin substituting less healthy, more affordable analogues to the healthy foods it recommends now in order to accommodate economic considerations?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture exchanged the iconic Food Pyramid and the short-lived My Pyramid for "My Plate." My Plate encourages eaters to make fruits and vegetables take up half of their plates. Health officials also suggest that at least half of the grains consumed be whole grains.

Food assistance programs are providing coupons to buy fruits and vegetables, one of the researchers said. A Washington state policy made it difficult, however, to buy potatoes with food assistance coupons for women and children. Potatoes are a very good source of potassium, as well as other essential micronutrients.

What no one is willing to come out and say outright, it seems, is that while education can help, it is no match for the tough competition from food that's high in salt, sugar, fat and flavor, and is conveniently dispensed at an affordable price on the street corner. Guess what an average kid faced with the choice between a banana and a bag of potato chips will choose.

Until healthy food is able to compete with those factors, it will be fighting a losing battle. As to how healthy food can effectively do so is anyone’s guess.

The study was recently published in the journal Health Affairs.