While a healthy diet is now factually proven to cost more than an unhealthy one, the gap between the two is not as great as you might think. In fact, a study published online December 5 in BMJ Open shows that the healthiest diets cost about $1.50 more per day than the least healthy diets.
Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) researchers conducted a meta-analysis of 27 existing studies from 10 high-income countries. The studies included price data for individual foods and for healthier vs. less healthy diets. Scientists evaluated differences in prices per serving and per 200 calories for particular types of foods, and in prices per day and per 2,000 calories (the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recommended average daily calorie intake for adults) for overall diet patterns. Both per-serving and per-calorie costs were assessed because prices can vary depending on the unit of comparison.
The researchers found that healthier diet patterns—for example, diets rich in fruits, vegetables, fish and nuts—cost significantly more than unhealthy diets (for example, those rich in processed foods, meats and refined grains). On average, a day’s worth of the most healthy diet patterns cost about $1.50 more per day than the least healthy ones.
The study authors 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.” Given this reality, they said, creating a similar infrastructure to support production of healthier foods might help increase their availability—and reduce their prices.
“This research provides the most complete picture to-date on true cost differences of healthy diets,” said Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, MPH, DrPH, the study’s senior author and associate professor at HSPH and Harvard approved 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.”