New research out of Harvard School of Public Health says that eating a healthy diet can be more costly than eating one which is not so healthy. Specifically, they calculated that it costs about $1.50 more per day if a person wants to consume healthier foods. The study was the largest, most comprehensive one conducted thus far in this area.
While it has often been said that eating more healthily is difficult for poor people because it tends to be more expensive, up until now, no one has actually done the scientific analysis to back this assertion up.
In order to answer the question of whether this is really true, Mayuree Rao, a junior research fellow in the Department of Epidemiology, conducted a meta-analysis of 27 previous studies from 10 high-income countries. Data was included for individual food prices as well as for healthier vs. less healthy diets. The purpose of conducting a meta-analysis is to take data from several smaller, but related, studies in order to create a larger sample size. A meta-analysis allows for a statistically stronger conclusion to be drawn about the topic in question.
The researchers examined the differences in price per serving as well as per 200 calories for certain types of food. They looked at prices per day and per 2,000 calories as well, since this is considered by the United States Department of Agriculture to be the average recommended amount of calories per day for adults. These factors were considered for both a healthy diet and an unhealthy diet. They decided to look at both prices per serving and per calorie since prices can be variable, depending upon what units are being compared.
For the purposes of the study, the researchers considered a healthier diet to be one which included mostly healthier food options, such as vegetables, fruit, nuts and fish. Unhealthy diets, on the other hand, were considered to be those heavy on processed foods, refined grains and meat.
What the research team found in their comparisons was that healthier diets tended to cost on the average about $1.50 more on a daily basis than did the unhealthy diets.
They believe that this disparity in prices may be due to the fact that government food policies have tried to promote the production of a larger amount of cheaper commodities, which, in turn, leads to highly processed, but less healthy, foods being available at relatively cheaper prices to the consumer. The researchers further suggest that such means could be used to promote the production of healthier foods as well, leading to more healthy foods being available at lower prices.
According to Dariush Mozaffarian, the lead author of the study, even though the healthier diet did cost more, it was actually a smaller difference than some might expect at only $1.50 per day; however, he notes that over a year this could add up to $550 per person, which could be a real burden for those with lower incomes and larger families. He believes that there should be governmental policies put in place to mitigate these costs.
The study was published online on December 5, 2013 in BMJ Open.
By Nancy Schimelpfening
Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 – USDA