Harvard Medical School

Healthiest Eating Costs $1.50 a Day Per Person More, Researchers Find

Terri Hansen

Healthy diets, like those that ward off diabetes – rich in fruits, vegetables, fish, and nuts – cost significantly more than unhealthy diets rich in processed foods, meats, and refined grains, according to new research from Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH).

On average, the healthiest diets cost about $1.50 more per day than the least healthy diets.

The finding is based on the most comprehensive examination to date comparing prices of healthy foods and diet patterns vs. less healthy ones. The study was published December 5, 2013 in BMJ Open.

“People often say that healthier foods are more expensive, and that such costs strongly limit better diet habits,” said lead author Mayuree Rao, a junior research fellow in the Department of Epidemiology at HSPH in a statement. “But, until now, the scientific evidence for this idea has not been systematically evaluated, nor have the actual differences in cost been characterized.”

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,” the researchers suggested. Given this reality, they said that creating a similar infrastructure to support production of healthier foods might help increase availability—and reduce the prices—of more healthful diets.

“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,” Dariush Mozaffarian, the study’s senior author and associate professor at HSPH and Harvard Medical School said in a statement. “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.”

How can you still eat healthy on a modest income?

A number of these tips come from the Healthy Eating Plate and the Healthy Eating Pyramid built by faculty members in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, based on the latest science about how our food, drink, and activity choices affect our health, and are unaffected by businesses and organizations with a stake in their messages.

Eating a plant-based diet is healthiest. Make half your plate vegetables and fruits. To save money, grow your own vegetables. Plant fruit and nut trees, encourage your neighbors to do the same, and then share the bounty. Organize community gardens.

Cook with healthy plant oils. If you can’t afford olive oil, use canola oil.

For good health and to save money, skip the red meat. Get your protein from beans, nuts and seeds, tofu, fish or chicken. Avoid processed meat—bacon, cold cuts, hot dogs, and the like—since it strongly raises the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and colon cancer.

Grains are not essential for good health. What is essential is to make any grains you eat whole grains. Over time, eating brown rice, whole wheat bread, whole grain pasta in place of refined grains – white rice, white bread, white pasta – makes it easier to control weight and lowers the risk of heart disease and diabetes. If you receive food boxes containing refined grains, give your supplier a copy of this article.

High dairy intake can increase the risk of some diseases. Limit milk and dairy to one to two servings per day, and go easy on the juice, since it is high in sugar. Water is the best and most economical choice, and coffee and tea also have health benefits. Sugary drinks are the worst choice, because they add empty calories, leading to weight gain, in addition to raising the risk of diabetes and heart disease. Invest what you save on high cost dairy and sugary drinks on a pitcher water filter.

A healthy diet is built on a base of regular physical activity, which keeps calories in balance and weight in check. Read five quick tips for staying active and getting to your healthy weight, and 20 ideas for fitting exercise into your life.