What is the Price of a Healthy Diet?

January 22, 2014 Edited by  
Filed under Consumer awareness, Dietary Patterns

You may have heard or might predict that it costs more to consume healthier foods each and every day.  Twinkies and a soda from the corner convenience store are cheap and loaded with calories (and not much else!). How much more would it cost to purchase nuts, fruits and vegetables from the grocery store with equal energy content as in the convenience foods? Good question. This is exactly what researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health wanted to know when they performed a recent meta-analysis of 27 existing scientific studies from 10 high-income countries that analyzed the cost of healthier versus less healthy dietary patterns. A meta-analysis is a quantitative statistical analysis of several separate but similar experiments or studies. This research was recently published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ Food Cost Article).

The studies analyzed in this meta-analysis included price data for individual foods and for healthier versus less healthy diets. The investigators at Harvard evaluated the price differences per serving and per 200 calories for particular foods, and prices per day and per 2000 calories (the USDA recommended average daily calorie intake for adults). Diets high in fruits, vegetables, fish and nuts were considered to be healthier, while those high in processed foods, meats and refined grains were considered less healthy.

The results of the study confirmed what you may have predicted: healthier dietary patterns cost more, about $1.50 per day per person. This might not sound like much, but multiply that amount by 365 days in a year and times 4 for an average sized family, and you come to a yearly price increase of $2200! That is a number that may be out of reach of many, particularly given the difficult times. One might also predict that healthier diets require more effort to obtain and prepare for consumption. After all, processed foods and many refined grain products are ready to eat right out of the packaging, and fruits and vegetable are less available at convenience stores and fast food restaurants.

This issue raises a number of pertinent questions. Why are healthier foods more expensive and less healthy foods cheaper? The Harvard researchers suggested that the price differential results from US government food policies which have focused on the production of “inexpensive, high volume” commodities, leading to an emphasis by food manufacturers on highly processed foods that maximize profits. What changes could be made to existing food policies to make healthier, less processed foods more readily available and cheaper? Does this situation exacerbate health disparities among Americans, whereby individuals of lower socioeconomic status are relegated to consuming less healthy foods on a daily basis that increase risk of chronic disease (e.g. diabetes, heart disease, metabolic syndrome)? It certainly costs substantially more to treat chronic disease after it has developed, than to focus on healthy dietary patterns throughout life. What would you do to change this situation and provide all Americans equal access to healthy foods?

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