costThe Cost Of Eating Healthy

When the idea of eating a diet that is full of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein is suggested, many people immediately dismiss it with the thought that eating this way is simply too expensive. The general assumption is that eating processed meals, frozen dinners, and fast food is much less expensive than eating fresh food. Where does this idea come from? Has the average American that stands behind this claim actually priced out these types of foods versus highly processed foods and been kept out financially? Is it possible that the food industry perpetuates these ideas in order to keep the public purchasing processed foods and coming through the drive in? These are all things to consider and are worth taking a look at when purchasing food.

Harvard Study

Although it may be impossible to put an exact number on the difference in price between “eating healthy” and not, there has been one recent study by the Harvard School of Public Health that has tried to do so. The findings of this particular study suggest that it costs on average, $1.50 more per day for an individual to eat an extremely healthy diet versus what they consider to be the least healthy1. In this case, they are comparing diets that are high in fresh vegetables, fruits, nuts, and fish against those that include highly processed foods and refined grains. While this number my fluctuate depending on season, geographical location, weather, and other factors, it can be used to, if nothing else, start a discussion about the reality of the cost of food.

Affordability

There is a percentage of the population in which spending an extra $1.50 a day may be unfeasible. It is important to recognize individuals and families that receive government assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or other arrangement may not have as much flexibility in their budget. Even with cases like these, it should be pointed out that in this study, the researchers were reporting on extremes in diet. While the full amount may not be possible in this situation, it may be possible to spend a portion of that in order to improve one’s diet slowly. This is a different topic altogether, and the topic of welfare and the amount of government assistance a person is eligible for continues to be debated.
For this discussion, the demographic is a different one, and targets individuals that do have an extra dollar and a half per day, if their budget was managed differently. It is very common for a person to suggest that it is simply impossible to eat healthier due to budget constraints. Quite often, these are the same individuals that spend upwards of five dollars on a sugary coffee drink from their favorite drive through. If we are considering a total of $45 per month to drastically improve a person’s diet, it is important to take a closer look at where many people frivolously spend in other areas.
Consider the following common areas that are not only working against a person’s health but also very expensive.
1. Tobacco
2. Energy drinks
3. Eating out at restaurants
4. Fast food drive thrus
5. Fancy coffee drinks
6. Alcohol
These are just a few popular areas that the average American spends large amounts of money on. If many people were to take an honest look at the money that they spend each month in these categories, they would most likely find that it is much greater than the $1.50 per day suggested in the Harvard study.

The Bigger Picture

It is hard for people to look far into the future and consider costs that may occur down the road, but it is important to take a look at these things when comparing spending. What may happen to a person’s physical health if they are to introduce a healthier diet? Would an individual get sick less? If so, that would surly impact their budget with the money spent on a doctor visit, prescriptions, and possible days missed from work.
How would a healthier diet impact a person’s mental health? It is well documented that a diet filled with unprocessed foods, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and quality protein has a direct impact on brain health. If you are one of the millions of Americans that suffer from conditions such as anxiety and depression, this could be a major breakthrough in regard to dollars spent on medication and therapy.
To look even further down the road, there are many healthcare costs that are almost unavoidable for individuals that choose to eat a diet that is high in sugar, salt, fat, and processed foods. Heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, and some types of cancer may be avoidable through an improved diet. These are all certainly more expensive than a dollar a day to treat.

Tips For Success

A great way to save money and improve diet at the same time is to cook in bulk. Throughout the month, grocery stores will rotate through the stock of fruits and vegetables that they carry, offering sales on different items. As a savvy shopper, certain items can be picked up while priced low and turned into meals for an entire week. Not only can this help to save money, but it will help to ensure a variety of items and diversify a person’s diet.
Another tip for making some changes is to create a record of how much is being spent on frivolous food items like mentioned above. It can really be eye opening and help a person to recognize how much money is actually going to these areas. This isn’t meant to shame or point the finger, but can actually be empowering as an individual starts to make changes.
Finally, it is important to recognize that everything does not need to happen overnight. In fact, it is recommended that changes in diet happen slower over a period of time, and not all at once. This can help an individual to become more accustomed to the new foods that they are starting to include, and there is a better chance that they will stick with it over the long term.
No step towards eating healthier and changing a life for the better is too small. If this means on average spending 5 cents a day more to start, that is wonderful! An individual that puts many small steps together can end up walking a great distance.
Don’t ask how much the price of eating healthy is, as what the cost of NOT eating healthy is.
References:
1. Feldscher, K. (2013, December 5). Pinpointing the higher cost of a healthy diet. Retrieved October 10, 2015, from http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2013/12/pinpointing-the-higher-cost-of-a-healthy-diet/

Dr. David Wiss became a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) in 2013 and founded Nutrition in Recovery, a group practice of RDNs specializing in treating eating and substance use disorders. In 2017, David received the “Excellence in Practice” award at the National Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo. The California Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics awarded him the “Emerging Dietetic Leader Award” in 2020. He earned his Ph.D. from UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health in the Community Health Sciences department (with a minor in Health Psychology) by investigating the links between adverse childhood experiences and various mental health outcomes among socially disadvantaged men. His treatment philosophy is based on a biopsychosocial model which incorporates an understanding of biological mechanisms, psychological underpinnings, and contextual factors that integrate the social determinants of health. Wise Mind Nutrition is an app-based interactive treatment program available for download now - https://wisemindnutrition.com/download.

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