Time magazine’s Alexandra Sifferlin published an article, entitled, “Eating Healthy Is Cheaper than You Think.”  In the article, Sifferlin compares the cost of an unhealthy diet to a healthy diet.  In order to make the comparison, Sifferlin cites a study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH).  After crunching the numbers, the HSPH makes it official:  The healthiest diets cost just $1.50 more per day than unhealthy diets.

“While healthier diets did cost more, the difference was smaller than many people might have expected. 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 Dariush Mozaffarian, associate professor, HSPH and Harvard Medical School.

How did the HSPH team arrive at this conclusion?  They conducted a meta-analysis of 27 studies from 10 higher income countries that compared price points for healthy and less healthy diets. Specifically, the team studied the price differences per serving and per 200 calories for a variety of specific foods, as well as prices per day and per 2,000 calories, which is the average daily recommended caloric intake for U.S. adults.

Demand vs. Supply

So what’s driving the price difference?  It all goes back to simple economics:  Americans consume unhealthy food (processed foods high in sugar, salt, and calories) at a higher rate than healthy food (fresh produce, seafood, and whole grains). Food manufacturers supply what is in demand. The result is relatively cheap food low in nutrients and satiety.

Straight Healthprovides a perfect example in an article, entitled, “Why Are Healthy Foods Expensive?”  A can of soda and an apple have roughly the same number of calories (~120). While a large apple costs about $1, a can of soda sells for $0.50 to $0.75. If you compare these two using a price/calorie ratio, the can of soda looks cheaper. Unfortunately, the can of soda has no nutrients. An apple is loaded with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber. If you look at the price/nutrient ratio, the apple is a much better value.

Changing Eating Patterns

Changing this demand versus supply equation won’t be easy.  It will require thoughtful consideration around what we eat, what we put into our body.

Start with buying fruits and vegetables in season: winter (bananas, grapefruit, and Brussels sprouts), spring(apricots, broccoli, and cabbage), summer(blueberries, cherries, and zucchini), and fall (apples, carrots, and cranberries).  Another way to save on produce is to buy frozen rather than fresh.  Frozen products allow you to buy in or out of season produce at much lower prices.  Remember to add lean protein, fat-free milk, and water to your overall eating pattern to ensure it truly is a healthy diet.

Improving Access for All Citizens

While an extra $1.50 per day may be within reach for most, people with lower incomes may not be able to afford the added cost.  Mozaffarian acknowledges the small price difference may put more nutritious foods within reach of most people.

However, he and the other HSPH researchers suggest production systems that make healthy foods more economical to produce, and therefore are more in line with processed food prices, are necessary. That way, healthier foods may become more accessible, health care costs for chronic diseases related to poor diets may also start to drop.

Healthy Kingsport is working to ensure good nutrition is within reach for all those living in our community.  Our Live Sugarfreedcampaign, which encourages water instead of sugary beverages, is just the start.  Through our strong collaborative, we are making progress by focusing on a strategic framework that involves education, engagement, evaluation, and sustainability around nutrition, physical activity, and tobacco cessation.

We encourage you to join us.  Begin today—think differently about healthy versus unhealthy choices.  Select fresh produce over high-calorie, low-nutrient snacks; order a salad instead of French fries; and leave that soda behind and choose water instead.  Lastly, put some thought into that next trip to the grocery store.  Plan, prepare, and enjoy those healthy choices you bring home.

Kandy Childress is the executive director of Healthy Kingsport.  She can be reached at kchildress@healthykingsport.org.

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