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A Healthier Diet Costs an Extra .50 Per Day, Study Finds
A healthy diet isn't much more expensive than an unhealthy diet, according to a new study, especially when you factor in the money you save in medical costs.
By Amir Khan
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THURSDAY, Dec. 5, 2013 —The first piece of advice doctors often give to patients trying to live a healthy life is to eat better, but the cost of doing so usually is not mentioned. Eating a healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables and fish can be taxing on the wallet, but according to a new study published in the journal BMJ Open, the cost of eating healthy works out to just an extra .50 per day – a trivial amount when you factor in the potential money saved by preventing expensive medical treatments.
Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health conducted an meta-analysis of 27 studies that looked at food prices and the cost of healthy versus unhealthy diets around the world. They compared the food costs of a 2,000 calorie Mediterranean diet, which focuses on fish, healthy oils, nuts and vegetables, to the food costs of a 2,000 calorie diet high in processed food, meats and refined grains, and found that a day’s worth of a healthy diet is not as expensive as they thought.
“The conventional wisdom has been that healthier foods cost more, but an additional .50 is less than we might have expected,” said study author Mayuree Rao, a junior research fellow in the department of epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health. “The relatively modest size of the price difference is important as we think about the value of a healthy diet and policies to make healthier eating more affordable.”
But while the price might seem modest to some, it’s all about perspective, Rao said.
“For many low-income families, .50 more per day is quite a lot,” she said. “It translates to about 0 more per year for one person, and that could be a genuine barrier to healthier eating.”
However, an unhealthy diet can lead to a multitude of health problems, Rao said, which makes paying the additional cost a no-brainer.
“It’s about the price of a cup of coffee,” she said. “It’s a drop in the bucket when you consider the billions of dollars spent every year on diet-related chronic disease like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.”
But while the .50 figure is likely accurate, the gap between a healthy and unhealthy diet isn’t as small as it seems, said Allan Geliebter, PhD, senior researcher with the New York Obesity Nutrition Research Center In New York City.
“When you start talking about trying to feed a family of four a healthy diet, all of a sudden the .50 per day works out to be a lot more money,” Geliebter said.
Dyan Hes, MD, medical director of Gramercy Pediatrics in New York City agreed, and said for struggling families, every dollar counts.
“If a parent has a choice to buy canned peaches in heavy syrup or one fresh peach, the canned peaches will be more affordable,” Dr. Hes said. “For families who live from paycheck to paycheck or off of food stamps, .50 per day may just be too much for them to spare.”
Bringing down the price of healthy food should be the primary goal for policy makers who want to help curb the obesity rate, which now affects nearly 78 million people in the U.S., Rao said. Unfortunately, government subsidies leave unhealthy, processed food much cheaper than their healthier counterparts.
“The U.S. has developed a complex system of farming, storage, transportation, processing, manufacturing, and marketing that favors a lower cost of highly processed foods,” she said. “We just don't have the same system to support healthier foods like fruits and vegetables.”
The biggest subsidies goes to corn growers, Hes said, which helps drive down the cost of foods that use high fructose corn syrup as a sweetener.
“Anyone who has been to a farmer’s market or local fruit market can attest to the fact that fresh food is much more expensive than buying processed foods,” she said. “Processed foods are often loaded with preservatives, sodium, fillers, and high fructose corn syrup. These foods are cheaper to make and last longer on a shelf.”
Extending those subsidies to other farmers would make a big difference in price, Dr. Geliebter said.
“If you were to reduce the cost of producing fruits and vegetables, it would have an effect all the way down to the consumer,” he said.
Geliebter conducted a study, published in the journal Obesity in October, looking at the effect of fruit and vegetable discounts, finding that slashing prices could lead to larger profits.
“If you discount fruits and vegetables by 50 percent, shoppers will purchase three times as much,” he said. “That means that any money the shoppers save from the discount goes towards buying more fruits and vegetables. They were spending one-and-a-half times as much as they were on the non-discounted fruit.”
“The government needs to promote health and educate the public,” Geliebter added. “But the tide is already turning. Companies in general, even the junk food giants, are adopting a health focus.
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