The Real Cost of Eating Healthier, Literally.


Ever wonder how much a healthier diet actually costs in comparison to an unhealthier one? Only about $1.50 extra per day, according to a study performed by the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH). This new finding is corroborated by leaders in the field using the most comprehensive examination to date; comparing the prices of healthy foods and diet patterns to less healthy ones.

“People often say that healthier foods are more expensive, and that such costs strongly limit better diet habits,” says lead project author Mayuree Rao, a junior researcher at HSPH. “But, until now, the scientific evidence for this idea has not been systematically evaluated, nor the actual differences in cost been characterized.”

The HSPH team held a meta- analysis of 27 existing studies from 10 high-income countries which included price data for individual foods and for healthier vs. less healthy diets. For example, lean beef vs. fatter cuts, or low sodium products vs. their regular counterparts. Even comparing prices of fruit and vegetables verses a non-produce diet.

The food prices were converted into international currency and adjusted for inflation.

Then, the team went over prices based on price per recommended serving size, as well as the general price per 200 calories of that food. And researched food prices per 2,000 calories a day (the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recommended average daily calorie intake for adults) for a wide view of diet patterns. All Prices were assessed in many different forms through these comparisons, as well as per calorie, because prices can vary depending on the unit of comparison.

Certain food groups definitely showed a larger difference in price than others. Meats had the highest price difference; healthier versions cost 29 cents more per serving than the average less healthy option. Snacks, grains, and dairy on the other hand showed minimal price differences.

They found that healthier diet patterns – for example, diets with fruits, vegetables, fish, and nuts – cost significantly more than an unhealthy diet filled with processed meats, foods, and refined grains. On average, a day’s worth of the healthiest diet patterns cost about $1.50 more per day than an unhealthy diet pattern.

“This research provides the most complete picture to date on true cost differences of healthy diets,” said Dariush Mozaffarian, the study’s senior author and an associate professor at HSPH and Harvard Medical School. “While healthier diets did cost more, the difference was smaller than many people might have expected. Over the course of a year, $1.50/day more for eating a healthy diet would increase food costs for one person by about $550 per year. This would represent a real burden for some families, and we need policies to help offset these costs. 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.”


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