Eating healthy costs a little bit more every day, a new study says. But in the long run, a healthy diet costs very little compared to the lifetime cost of treating diet-related chronic diseases, said the study's authors.
The study, published this week in the journal BMJ Open, analyzed diet and price information from 10 countries. It showed that people who eat a very healthy diet—one that is rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts and fish—would spend about $1.50 more per day than those who eat a less healthy diet comprised of processed foods, meats and refined grains. Over a year, that cost difference would represent about $550.
"This would represent a real burden for some families, and we need policies to help offset these costs," Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, an associate professor at Harvard School of Public Health and senior author of the study, said in a media release. "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."
The researchers conducted a meta-analysis of 27 existing studies from 10 high-income countries that included price data for individual foods and for healthier versus less healthy diets. They evaluated the differences in prices per serving and per 200 calories for particular types of foods, and prices per day and per 2,000 calories. Both prices per serving and per calorie were assessed because prices can vary depending on the unit of comparison.
The researchers suggested that unhealthy diets may cost less because food policies have focused on the production of inexpensive, high volume commodities, which has led to "a complex network of farming, storage, transportation, processing, manufacturing and marketing capabilities that favor sales of highly processed food products for maximal industry profit."
Creating a similar infrastructure to support production of healthier foods might help increase availability—and reduce the prices—of more healthful diets, the researchers said.
"People often say that healthier foods are more expensive and that such costs strongly limit better diet habits," lead author Mayuree Rao, a junior research fellow in the Department of Epidemiology at Harvard, said in the release. "But until now, the scientific evidence for this idea has not been systematically evaluated, nor have the actual differences in cost been characterized."
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