We’re all told to eat 5 (or more!) servings of fruit & veg per day, to cut down on fatty red meat, eat lean proteins, and whole grains. We’re told to cut down on processed and packaged foods, and refined sugars. These are good things. However, clever marketing schemes have also added fashionable trends like gluten-free products, so-called ‘superfoods’, and organic products into the mix of an essential ‘healthy diet’. But, how much does it actually cost to eat in a truly healthful way? In a world where the food industry dictates the types of food available (or not) to people, where ‘food deserts’ are found impoverished pockets of urban centres, and where Western countries are, on the whole, over-fed and under-nutrified with many developing countries not far behind, you begin to wonder how money plays into the complex dietary landscape.
New research from a nutritional epidemiology group at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom has set out to answer this question (1). The researchers characterised six different types of eating patterns typical in the UK:
1. ‘Monotonous Low Quality Omnivore’: high in white bread, milk, and sugar; moderate in potatoes and meat; low in all other foods – low diet diversity and nutrient poor
2. ‘Traditional Meat, Chips, and Pudding Eater’: high in white bread, chips, meat, sugar, high-fat and creamy food, biscuits, cakes; low in wholemeal food, soya, vegetables, salad, and fruit – energy dense and nutrient poor
3. ‘Conservative Omnivore’: no foods eaten in high quantity; moderate quantities of a range of foods; low in cereals, chips, wholemeal foods, chocolates, biscuits, lower in red meat than the above two groups – a more diverse diet but has lower quantities of nutritious foods than recommended
4. ‘Low Diversity Vegetarian’: high in wholemeal bread, soya products, pulses, fruit, vegetables; low in butter, eggs, meat, and fish – close to dietary guidelines, but does not meet recommended nutrient intakes
5. ‘Higher Diversity Traditional Omnivore’: high in chips, white pasta and rice, high-fat and creamy food, eggs, meat, fish, chocolate, more diversity than the ‘Traditional Meat, Chips, and Pudding Eater’; moderate in vegetables, fruit, and alcohol; low in cakes and pudding – good dietary diversity and nutrient content, but still has fatty and refined foods
6. ‘High Diversity Vegetarian’: high in wholemeal bread, cereals, wholemeal pasta and rice, soya products, nuts, pulses, vegetables, fruit, herbal tea; low in white bread, meat, and fish – meets daily nutrient intake recommendations
Going down the list, the diets increase in healthiness according to the ‘Eatwell’ plate.
The researchers then used a food cost database to estimate the daily price of each type of diet. The findings were striking: the cost of each type of eating pattern steadily increased with how healthy it was. The ‘Monotonous Low Quality Omnivore’ diet – the most nutrient poor – was estimated to cost £3.29 (approx. $5.56 USD) per day, while the ‘Health Conscious’ diet cost over double that, at £6.63 (approx. $11.21 USD) per day (1). Over the course of a year, that’s a difference of £1219.10, or $2061.50, for just one person. This difference has huge implications: it highlights the disparity between the rich and poor in accessing nutrient-rich and high-quality foods, even within wealthy countries. A difference of £3.34 or $5.65 per day might not mean much a good proportion of the UK’s or America’s population, but it means a lot to the most vulnerable groups who can’t afford it.
Access to healthy food is a major source of social inequality, even in wealthy countries.
Another, larger investigation from the Harvard School of Public Health came out with similar figures using data from 10 countries, where they adjusted for inflation, World Bank purchasing power parity, and standardised prices to the international dollar ($1 USD) (2). For individual food items, they found the biggest price differences between healthy and unhealthy meats/proteins (e.g. lean vs. high-fat ground beef), at $0.29 per serving, or $0.47 per 200 kcal (2). The price differences per serving of healthy vs. unhealthy grains, dairy products, snacks/sweets, and fats/oils were smaller, but still statistically significant. Overall, having a more healthy diet (at 2000 kcal per day) was estimated to cost about $1.50 more per day than an unhealthy diet. Overall, that’s a difference of $547.50 in one year. Harvard Magazine interviewed the senior study author, Dariush Mozaffarian, stating,
‘The research shows that a healthy diet is affordable for most people, Mozaffarian says, given that “for 60 percent to 70 percent of Americans, $1.50 per day is not a big deal.” Nevertheless, he adds, it is a “big barrier” for the remaining 30 percent to 40 percent of the population – even though the economic costs of chronic diseases related to poor diet vastly exceed the higher price of healthy food.’ (2)
As long as food remains a consumer product, with many companies aiming to produce flavourful, nutrient-poor, and cheap-to-produce foods for profit, this problem is not going to go away. It’s not realistic. However, it isn’t necessary to exhaust your finances in order to eat well. For one thing, ‘superfoods’ are not essential, and the nutrients they provide can be found for much cheaper in other produce options. For example, broccoli contains chlorophyll, vitamins A, C, and E, iron, and calcium. Moreover, it is easy to find and it is cheap. I say this in almost every post, but educating yourself goes a long way in understanding the political/social/economic context in which you live your life, and how to best make even small daily decisions for yourself based on that context.
On a broad scale, one would hope that results from studies like these would help further investigations to understand why the price gap exists (a complex issue for another blog post!), and to push strategies to reduce the price gap between healthy and unhealthy foods. Do you think this is possible?
1. Morris MA, Hulme C, Clarke GP, Edwards KL, Cade JE. What is the cost of a healthy diet? Using diet data from the UK Women’s Cohort Study. J Epidemiol Community Health 2014 Published Online First on 22 July 2014. doi: 10.1136/jech-2014-204039.
2. Rao M, Afshi A, Singh G, Mozaffarian D. Do healthier foods and diet patterns cost more than less healthy options? A systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ Open 2013;3: e004277. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2013-004277
Image 1: Newcastle University