The Cost of Eating Healthy Versus Eating Unhealthy Revealed

“Do Healthier Foods and Diet Patterns Cost More Than Less Healthy Options?” That’s the title of a new meta-analysis (the crème de la crème of scientific studies) conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health.

The simple answer? Yes, it does cost more to eat healthy than not, according to the study, published in the British Medical Journal. These findings contradict many previous studies that have concluded healthy diets are just as affordable, but meta-analysis/review studies trump those on the scientific study hierarchy.

Now the wealthier, highly educated readers may argue they can purchase and prepare healthy foods and meals that are as cheap, if not cheaper than processed and packaged foods. However, not everyone has the knowledge, skills and/or time to do the same. It’s for this reason that cheaper, ready-made food options are the solution.

Food Costs in Detail

The meta-analysis investigated results of 27 studies in 10 countries, spanning from 2000 to 2011. Researchers found that snacks/sweets, grains and oils cost significantly more for healthier options, at $0.12, $0.03 and $0.02, respectively.

The big difference in food prices however was for meats and proteins, with healthier options costing an average $0.29 more per serving than less healthy options. The price difference per serving for healthier versus unhealthier soda and juices was not significant.

The Cost Difference Adds Up

The actual differences in price seem quite small on paper when broken down, but it adds up to $1.50 per day on average.

“Over the course of a year, $1.50 per day more for eating a healthy diet would increase food costs for one person by about $550 per year,” said Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, the study’s senior author. “This would represent a real burden for some families, and we need policies to help offset these costs.”

It’s worth mentioning that the $1.50 per day conclusion is based on a comparatively extreme contrast. It’s like comparing a very healthy diet — such as one rich in fish, fruits and vegetables — with a diet full of processed foods and meat.

The Role of Big Food and Policy Makers

The researchers feel that unhealthy dietary habits cost less because food policies and practices focus 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.”

Given the likely truth of their theory, the authors believe creating a similar infrastructure that supports production of healthier foods may help increase availability — and decrease subsequent prices — of more healthful diets. This is where Big Food and policy makers can play their part.

What Is the True Cost of Cheaper?

“This research provides the most complete picture to-date on true cost differences of healthy diets,” said Dr. Mozaffarian.

“On the other hand,” Dr. Mozaffarian goes on to say, ”this price difference [$550 per year] is very small in comparison to the economic costs of diet-related chronic diseases, which would be dramatically reduced by healthy diets.”

Considering the average American family’s healthcare costs are now at $19,393, having doubled in the past 9 years, $550 per year on healthier food choices might be a worthwhile investment.

Over to you. Have you managed to craft a healthy shopping list that’s cheaper than the processed, pre-prepared alternative?

Photo Credit: Thinkstock


Jim Ven
Jim Ven1 months ago

thanks for the article.

Panchali Yapa
Panchali Yapa1 years ago

Thank you

Christine W.
Christine W.2 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

Tracy G.
Tracy G.2 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Petalia Green
Petalia Green2 years ago

Totally agree. The cost of basic healthy foodstuffs such as meat, fresh fruit and vegetables, and wholegrains, is shocking.

Connie O.
Connie O.2 years ago


Jacqueline Verweij
Jacqueline V.2 years ago

But if you cut out half the meat I reckon the healthier options would be cheaper. They say the better cuts of meat are more expensive, which they are. We can make do with much less or no meat. Healthier, cheaper win, win.

Kim C.
Kim C.2 years ago

It's a shame they left until the end to say that the cost of being unhealthy far outstrips the cost of eating healthy. Otherwise, good overview.

Michelle R.
2 years ago


Malgorzata Zmuda
Malgorzata Zmuda2 years ago