Does it really cost more to stick to a healthy diet?
The answer is yes, , according to a new study. But this study does not take into consideration many factors that make it hard for the average working class family
The research review combined the results of 27 studies from 10 different countries that compared the cost of healthy and unhealthy diets.
The verdict? A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts and fish costs about a person about $1.50 more per day — or $550 per year — compared to a diet high in processed grains and meats, fat, sugar and convenience foods.
By and large, protein drove the price increases. Researchers found that healthy proteins — think a portion of boneless skinless chicken breast — were 29 cents more expensive per serving compared to less healthy sources, like a fried chicken nugget.
The study was published online Dec. 5 in the journal BMJ Open.
“For many low-income families, this could be a genuine barrier to healthy eating,” said study author Mayuree Rao. She is a junior research fellow in the department of epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, in Boston.
For example, a family of four that is following the USDA’s thrifty eating plan has a weekly food budget of about $128. An extra $1.50 per for each person in the family a day adds up to $42 for the week, or about 30 percent of that family’s total food tab.
Rao says it’s wouldn’t be such a big difference for many middle-class families, though.
She said that “$1.50 is about the price of a cup of coffee and really just a drop in the bucket when you consider the billions of dollars spent every year on diet-related chronic diseases.”
Researchers who weren’t involved in the review had plenty to say about its findings.
“I am thinking that a mean difference in cost of $1.50 per person per day is very substantial,” said Adam Drewnowski, director of the nutritional sciences program at the University of Washington, in Seattle. He has compared the cost of healthy versus unhealthy diets.
Drewnowski said that at an extra $550 per year for 200 million people would outstrip the entire annual budget for food assistance in the United States.
Dr. Hilary Seligman, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, said healthy food can be expensive for families in ways that go beyond its cost at the checkout. For that reason, she said, the strict cost comparison in this review probably underestimates the true burden to a person’s budget.
For example, she pointed out that people in poor neighborhoods that lack big grocery stores may not be able to afford the gas to drive to buy fresh fruits and vegetables. They may work several jobs and not have time to prep foods from scratch.
“To eat a healthy diet on a very low income requires an extraordinary amount of time. It’s doable, but it’s really, really hard work. These studies just don’t take things like that into account,” Seligman said.
Still, Melissa Joy Dobbins, a registered dietitian and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, said the study should reassure many consumers that “eating healthy doesn’t have to cost more.”