Study Indicates That Healthy Eating Costs an Extra $1.50 Per Day

It is conventional wisdom that eating healthy is good for you. But can everyone afford to eat healthy? A recent study showed that it costs approximately $1.50 per person per day to eat healthy.

“Before now, we’ve seen studies looking at prices of one or a few foods or diets, in one city and from one store,” said  Mayuree Rao, a junior research fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health. “And the results have been mixed, with some studies finding that the healthier options cost more and some studies finding they don’t.”  and a medical student at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island led the study which was recently published in BMJ Open.

The study looked at 27 previous studies from 10 countries that met its own criteria and reviewed each of them. 12 of these studies evaluated the cost of foods. 15 of these studies were dietary surveys.

Researchers compared the costs of the healthiest eating patterns with the least healthful and found that the healthiest diets cost on average $1.47 more per day based on actual food intake, or about $1.54 more per day for every 2,000 calories consumed.  The researchers also compared price differences in food groups. Healthier meats and proteins had the largest difference between healthy and unhealthy choices— about 29 cents more per serving.

$1.50 per pay per person can be cost prohibitive for families on a tight budget. For a family of four, the annual cost of eating healthy can add $2,190 to their grocery budget. On the other hand, for those with more disposable income, this is approximately the equivalent of a cup of coffee, and the health benefits could be exponential.

The leader of the study suggests that more research should be done to explain why eating healthier is more expensive. Adam Drewnowski, director of the Center for Public Health Nutrition at the University of Washington’s School of Public Health, was not involved in the study, but some of his work was included in the review. He notes that the annual cost of eating healthy is approximately the same as the cost of treating obesity in America. As Drewnowski points out, empty calories have become extremely cheap. “Sugar, refined cereals and vegetable oils have made the food supply relatively inexpensive. However, those foods provide calories and (sometimes) few nutrients – so that obesity and hidden hunger can coexist,” he said.

“Subsidizing healthy foods and taxing unhealthy foods are evidence-based ways to address the price imbalance and nudge people towards a healthier diet. These are strategies that policymakers in many countries should be looking at,” Rao says. This may be easier said than done, however, based on the amount of money the junk food lobby is spending. Reuters noted PepsiCo, for example, which spent $40 million in 2009 to head off a federal soda tax (a figure that “was more than eight times the $4.8 million they spent the previous year.”)

Food is one of the basic needs on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but, when faced with competing needs and limited resources, will a family choose to spend the extra money to eat healthy?