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Healthy Diet Is Affordable, Study Shows

Healthy Diet Is Affordable, Study Shows

Consumers are firmly convinced that healthy food is more expensive than junk food. A new study published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service says that might be because we are making the wrong comparisons.

Andrew Carlson and Elizabeth Fraz„o turned to the USDA’s online guide, ChooseMyPlate, as a template for modeling a healthy diet. Using three different data sets, they estimated the cost of 4,439 food items.

The results are encouraging. “Are Healthy Foods Really More Expensive? It Depends on How You Measure the Price” shows that just looking at calorie costs, as earlier studies did, is too simplistic. For example, a bag of potato chips might be cheaper than a baked potato, compared calorie for calorie. But you might need to eat two portions of chips to equal the nutrition in a potato, and the chips would deliver more of what we don’t need, such as saturated fat and sodium.

To give a more accurate picture, Carlson and Fraz„o used three different metrics: price per calorie, per edible gram, and per average portion. When they overlaid the three, they discovered that grains, fruits and vegetables actually deliver more value for less money than less healthy foods.

The authors conclude:

When making food choices, consumers may need to consider the entire cost of their diets. Cheap food that provides few nutrients may actually be “expensive” for the consumer from a nutritional economy perspective, whereas a food with a higher retail price that provides large amounts of nutrients may actually be quite cheap.

That’s important. As I pointed out in We Are Killing the Kids, the cost of a diet heavy in what the authors of this study call “moderation foods” (processed foods with high levels of salt, sugar or fat) is a tsunami of added health care costs that threatens to swamp our health care systems.

Just what constitutes a healthy diet is the subject of ongoing and vigorous debates. A lot of other factors are part of the equation as well, such as environmental pollutants, access to fresh foods, cooking skills and time.

Specifics and disagreements aside, what this study adds to the conversation is reassurance that a healthy diet is within most people’s budgets.

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37 comments

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12:38AM PST on Dec 3, 2012

Interesting. Thanks.

12:18AM PDT on Oct 8, 2012

It depends on whether you are calculating cost for food that will satisfy your hunger, or for food that will satisfy your nutritional needs. The latter may be the "better buy," saving health care costs over the long run, but it definitely will cost more per month to buy.

11:28AM PDT on Oct 7, 2012

Agree with eat food in season and reduce what you can re processed food, one small change can be beneficial

7:52AM PDT on Aug 25, 2012

Whatever tastes good is unhealthy and all healthy foods taste disgusting. :-(

6:44AM PDT on Aug 25, 2012

Grazie delle informazioni.

1:01PM PDT on May 22, 2012

Thanks! An even better reason to eat healthy.

9:57PM PDT on May 21, 2012

I can't afford it one I have no car to get it there is nothing healthy in walking distance Healthy products are higher priced like sugar free

7:46PM PDT on May 21, 2012

a healthful diet may not be inexpensive but it is definitely affordable. there are ways to make it happen, you have to be deliberate and want to, though. it takes planning and effort.

7:15PM PDT on May 21, 2012

I see no mention of whether the study addressed the factors of geography and time. For me, it's definitely cheaper to buy healthy food. But consider parents who work multiple jobs and lack the transportation to travel easily to the nearest market with fresh produce. Unless you deliver and prepare the food for them, good luck convincing them it's more "affordable."

Furthermore, I recently heard a radio interview regarding this study in which they speak to a shopper at the market. He is eventually convinced to buy a pound of 99% fat-free ground turkey for $6.00 instead of the 93% for $4.50, because meat reduces as the fat cooks out. The principle is sound, but sadly the math is wrong. The first choice comes to 38 cents per ounce of actual meat, while the second is only 30 cents. I'm not saying that the whole argument falls apart just because of one bad calculation, but it does hint that they need to do further calculations and add more factors.

9:03PM PDT on May 20, 2012

No, it is NOT cheap or cheaper to eat a healthier diet. I don't care what studies have been done. We do it now because we can afford it and have decided to live that way. But fruits and vegies aren't cheap. Neither are other things.

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