Healthier Diets May Not Break the Bank

Healthier versus unhealthier diets found to differ in cost by less than two dollars per day on average

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) It’s been said time and time again, “I don’t eat healthier because it’s too expensive.” But according to a new study, eating healthier may not be all that costly.

A recent review found that overall, the healthiest diets cost about $1.50 more per day on average than the least healthy diets.

The researchers found that the greatest difference in cost between healthy and unhealthy food items was found in meats and protein, while the smallest difference was found in dairy products.

"Add more fruits and vegetables to your diet when possible."

This research study was led by Mayuree Rao in the Department of Epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health. The research team conducted a review of studies that compared the prices of healthier foods to the prices of unhealthier foods.

The researchers reviewed one research database to identify studies of interest that were published between 2000-2011. A total of 27 studies were included in their review.

The researchers looked at the differences in cost per serving and differences in cost for 200 calories for healthier foods compared to less healthy foods. Researchers also looked at differences in cost per day and differences in cost per 2,000 calories (based on standard recommendation for daily calorie intake). Healthfulness of food items was determined in each study.

The researchers looked at price differences between healthier and less healthy food items in six major food groups — meats/protein, grains, dairy, snacks/sweets, fats/oils, and soda/juice.

Of the six food groups, meats/protein had the largest price differences. Healthier options cost 29 cents more per serving and 47 cents more per 200 calories than less healthy options.

The price differences per serving for healthier versus less healthy food items were smaller for grains (a price difference of 3 cents), snacks/sweets (a price difference of 12 cents), and fats/oils (a price difference of 2 cents). Healthier dairy items were actually found to be slightly less expensive than less healthy dairy items while price differences for soda/juice were not found to be significant.

The researchers also compared the cost of unhealthy diets (e.g Western diet — high in saturated fats and red meats) to healthier diets (e.g. Mediterranean diet — high in fruits and vegetables). They found that healthier diets cost $1.54 more per 2,000 calories when compared to less healthy diets.

The study authors noted that while, $1.50 may not seem like a big difference, for lower income families, this can act as a significant barrier to eating healthier foods. They concluded that public health efforts should be focused on eliminating the difference in price between healthy and unhealthy food options.

dailyRx News spoke with Deborah Gordon, MD, nutrition and preventive medicine expert and integrative physician at Madrona Homeopathy in Ashland, Oregon, about this study.

Dr. Gordon said, "Wonderful news from Mauree Rao and her team regarding the affordability of healthier food choices. I often discuss this issue with my patients and make a few more recommendations which include eliminating high priced, low nutrient foods such as soda, juice, and most processed and packaged foods. "

Dr. Gordon continued, "I encourage my patients to focus on vegetables over fruit, opt for organic when they purchase dairy, and to look for means to buy meat in bulk (half a cow is in my freezer currently!) or from increasingly conscientious Costco, where lamb and beef (and butter, by the way) are both available in organic options."

This study was published on December 5 in BMJ Open.

The study authors reported no competing interests.

Review Date: 
December 6, 2013
Last Updated:
December 12, 2013