Having a healthy diet may be more complicated than calorie-counting and nutritional awareness. The healthiest diets cost about $1.50 more per day – or about $550 per year – than the least healthy diets, according to research published Thursday.
Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health analyzed the prices of healthy foods and diet patterns, compared to less healthy options, from 27 studies in 10 high-income countries.
"People often say that healthier foods are more expensive, and that such costs strongly limit better diet habits," said lead author Mayuree Rao, in a statement. "But, until now, the scientific evidence for this idea has not been systematically evaluated, nor have the actual differences in cost been characterized."
The team analyzed the difference in prices per serving and per 200 calories for certain food types, as well as prices per day and per 2,000 calories (the recommended average daily calorie intake for adults).
They found that among the different food groups, meats and proteins had the largest price differences, with healthier options costing about $0.29 more per serving and about $0.47 more per 200 calories than less healthy options. Price differences for other food groups, such as grains, dairy, snacks and sweets, and fats and oils, were much smaller, ranging from $0.02 to $0.12.
A healthy diet typically consisting of more fruits, vegetables, fish, and nuts, helps fight off chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes and different types of cancer. The cost of doing so, however, could be a burden for the people who need a healthy diet the most.
"This is especially crucial for socioeconomically disadvantaged populations, who have less healthy diets and higher disease risk than higher socioeconomic groups," the study said.
Although the researchers said the difference was smaller than some might have expected, it still complicates the situation. Lowering the price of items found in healthier diets, the authors write, should be "a goal of public health and policy efforts."
"This would represent a real burden for some families, and we need policies to help offset these costs," said senior author Dariush Mozaffarian, in a statement. "On the other hand, this price difference is very small in comparison to the economic costs of diet-related chronic diseases, which would be dramatically reduced by healthy diets."