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The True Cost and Benefit of Eating Healthy
Often when I am discussing eating healthy with my patients they'll say that it is difficult for them because healthy foods cost more. It is a common misperception that eating fresh food means a larger grocery bill each week. This topic has been analyzed in research extensively and it is true that there is a slightly higher cost in consuming a healthy diet than eating a traditional western diet.
The long-term consequences of obesity
If you've been reading News Bites or my columns on the website for a while, you've heard all about the health risks of obesity. The RAND Corporation, a non-profit research organization that provides objective analysis in a wide range of fields, has released a "Research Highlight" summarizing its research on the long-term economic consequences of the United States' dash toward obesity ("Obesity and Disability":www.rand.org/health).
The Price Myth
I get a lot of questions during lectures from people wanting to know how they can eat better when it's so expensive. This is, quite simply, one of the last great myths of eating healthy - ranking right up there with the fallacy that eating healthy doesn't taste good. There's no doubt that it's just as easy and economical to cook a meal that's good for you than eat one that's not.
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I'm sure you've all seen the headlines about a recent article in the British Medical Journal that concluded that a healthier diet costs about $1.50 per day more than a less-healthy diet (BMJ Open 2013;3:e004277).
Yes, it's true, as far as their analysis goes. Let's look at what they really wrote.
In their study the researchers looked at data from 27 studies performed around the world after 2001, and the prices were adjusted for inflation by country and standardized to the value of the US dollar in 2011. They did not just compare the price of less-healthy vs. more-healthy cuts of meat (such as a boneless skinless chicken breast versus a drumstick with the skin on); they also compared dietary patterns, including the Mediterranean diet. They looked at realistic amounts of food versus a standard 2000 calories per day. They used standard serving sizes as defined by the USDA. All of this is part of quality research.
The bad news is that:
One serving of a boneless, skinless chicken breast costs about $0.29 more than a serving of a drumstick with the skin on.
High-fiber breads cost more than low-fiber breads.
Fats and oils that were designated as "healthier" were more expensive than less-healthy oils.
Cookies with low saturated fat cost more than those with high saturated fat.
And the good news:
Healthier peanut butter costs about the same per serving than the less-healthy peanut butter.
Skim milk and full-fat milk averaged about the same price per serving as well.
But the really good news:
"Some food-based diet patterns exhibited smaller or no price differences, including ... comparing home-cooked to fast food meals."
It's a really well-designed study that's designed to look at prices, and that's exactlly what it does, which is undoubtedly useful. But it compares the extremes of everything: least-healthy chicken versus most-healthy chicken. A diet that would score perhaps an 8 or 9 on the Mediterranean Diet Score is compared to a 1 or a 2 (and yes, costs more).
But the message of Dr. Gourmet has never been about following a perfect diet, no matter how that diet is defined. The message of Dr. Gourmet is that eating healthy is about learning about and eating great food and making healthier choices as often as you can. It's about doing your best in the real world, not eating perfectly all the time.
Yes, the healthiest foods cost more than the least-healthy versions of the same food. And a perfect Mediterranean Diet is more expensive than eating fast food all the time. But what this study doesn't look at is that simply making better choices in just a few different areas can have a major impact on your health - you don't have to be perfect to eat healthy.
First posted: December 18, 2013