The abundance and cheap cost of unhealthy food has meant that there is a perception that a healthy diet is one that costs more. A systematic review of direct cost comparisons between healthy and unhealthy diets has indeed found that a healthy diet does cost more, but the difference is smaller than you might think.
A healthy diet, loaded with plenty of fruits, vegetables, minimally processed foods and lean sources of protein is the cornerstone of reducing the risk of many chronic diseases. People from an economically disadvantaged background may find it harder to eat healthier if there is a real or perceived higher cost to eating healthier. It is no surprise that the highest density of fast-food outlets cluster in socially disadvantaged areas and on the surface, this type of food may appear to offer ‘value for money’ all other nutritional concerns aside.
Researchers have repeatedly looked at the cost of eating healthy versus unhealthy in real world situations, and overall their conclusion has been that there is a higher cost in following a healthy diet. Yet there can be a large degree of variability in diet cost, as the fluctuating prices of fruits and vegetables show by example.
Because so many studies have tackled the cost of different diets from different angles, then combining all of this research together should give a much clearer picture of the real cost difference.
Collating 27 research studies from 10 different countries, the clear finding was that healthier diets do indeed cost more, but the difference is small at just US $1.50 a day per person which is small change for the health benefits it can give. And this price difference was based on comparing a very healthy dietary pattern of a Mediterranean type diet to a very unhealthy diet pattern. For someone who already is eating well more often than not, then the extra cost of a ‘full time’ healthy diet would be much less.
When diets of similar energy content per serve were compared, then healthy diets were more expensive. But because a healthy diet has a lower energy content per serve thanks to the high amount of fibre, and lower amounts of sugar and fat, then on a per meal basis, the cost difference is much smaller. The added bonus of a less energy dense diet is that it can help control overeating.
What it all means
For people and families on a tight budget, the small additional cost of choosing healthy foods most of the time will give incalculable long-term health benefits.