Conventional wisdom often chalks up poor eating habits to cost. Usually it’s assumed that fresh produce costs more than chips and that lean meats are more expensive than high-fat cuts. Even though the cost of a healthier diet is difficult to quantify, a comprehensive new study puts it at $1.50 per day more than less healthy eating patterns.
“Until now, the scientific evidence for this idea has not been systematically evaluated, nor have the actual differences in cost been characterized,” lead author Mayuree Rao, a medical student at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, said in a statement.
Rao and colleagues at Brown and the Harvard School of Public Health analyzed 27 studies published since 2000 that evaluated prices for individual foods and healthier or less healthy diets. Their analysis, published online today in BMJ Open, included prices in 10 high-income countries and calculated price differences per serving and per 200 calories for a variety of foods and types of diets.
For example, they compared prices for boneless, skinless chicken breasts with chicken drumsticks, which were considered a less healthy option. Other comparisons included whole grain bread with white bread, low-fat or nonfat milk with whole milk, and chocolate with high or low saturated fat levels.
A healthier diet rich in fruits, vegetables, fish, and nuts cost about $1.50 per day more than a poor diet filled with processed foods, fatty meat, and refined grains, the study showed. The cost difference was greatest for meat: 29 cents per serving and 47 cents per 200 calories more for healthy options.
The investigators noted that the daily $1.50 price difference totals $550 per year. “For many low-income families, this additional cost represents a genuine barrier to healthy eating,” they wrote. However, they estimated that annual US health care costs linked with unhealthy eating total $393 billion, or $1200 per person.