Study: Healthy Eating Costs More

Meeting Dietary Recommendations Could Add 10% to the Average American's Grocery Bill

By Brenda Goodman
WebMD Health News

Reviewed By Laura J. Martin, MD

Aug. 4, 2011 -- Prepare to part with more money if you're trying to make healthier food choices.

A new analysis shows healthy eating can really run up a grocery bill, making it tough for Americans on tight budgets to meet nutritional guidelines.

“We've known for a long time that fruits and vegetables were more expensive in this country than junk food, but this really quantifies how much it would take to have a healthy diet, and it's a lot of money for a low-income family,” says Hilary Seligman, MD, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco.

The study estimates that getting the average American to the recommended target of just one nutrient, potassium, would cost an additional $380 each year.

“That's enormous, and it's money that people in this economy really don't have,” says Seligman, who studies food insecurity but was not involved in the research.

Putting Dollars to Doughnuts, and Other Foods

New dietary guidelines announced last year challenged Americans to eat less sugar and saturated fat and more vitamin D, calcium, dietary fiber, and potassium, which is present in high amounts in fruits, vegetables, and beans.

Researchers at the University of Washington wanted to see how much it would cost to meet those recommendations.

They surveyed 1,123 adults in the Seattle area, asking questions about age, household income, and education level.  Study participants also filled out questionnaires detailing their eating habits.

Researchers then tallied how many calories and nutrients people were getting from their diets, and using local retail food prices, they figured out how much people were spending for what they ate.

People who spent the least amount on their food, an average of $6.77 a day, were also the furthest from hitting the government's daily guidelines of 3,500 milligrams of potassium, 25 grams of daily fiber, 10 micrograms of vitamin D, and 1,000 milligrams of calcium. On average, they were getting around 2,391 milligrams of potassium, 16 grams of fiber, 5 micrograms of vitamin D, and 854 milligrams of calcium.

They were also the group that most overshot the suggested limits of 10% of daily calories from added sugar and 7% of daily calories from saturated fat, consuming around 14% of calories from sugar and 12% of calories from saturated fat.

The highest spenders, on the other hand, who had food costs that were nearly twice as high as those who spent the least, came the closest to hitting the government's targets, though they were still short on nutrients and a bit higher than the targets for sugar and saturated fat.

The Financial Impact of Government Guidelines

Researchers then used mathematical models to estimate how much more it might cost to meet the government's guidelines.

Adding 700 milligrams of daily potassium, the average gap seen in the study, would cost $1.04 a day and $380 a year.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, that's about 10% of what an adult spends on food each year.

Getting to a higher standard, the U.S. Dietary Reference Intake of 4,700 milligrams of potassium daily, which is recommended by the U.S. Institute of Medicine, would cost an additional $2.82 a day or $1,030 a year.

In contrast, adding saturated fat and sugar to the diet actually decreases food costs.

For every 1% increase in calories from added sugar, food costs fell about 7 cents; for saturated fat, they dropped even more, about 28 cents for every 1% increase in daily calories.

“Increasing added sugar and saturated fat will actually help you spend less, unfortunately” says study researcher Pablo Monsivais, PhD, an assistant professor in the Center for Public Health Nutrition at the University of Washington in Seattle.

“Essentially we've built a system that favors calories, but makes it more expensive to actually get nutrients,” he tells WebMD.

Researchers said the solutions to the problem can be found at both the individual and government level.

Policymakers, Monsivais says, need to find a way to offer subsidies or financial support for growing and buying vegetables and fruits. Current farm subsidies, he says, are geared toward growing grains and grain products like corn syrup and sugar.

And in the interim, consumers can improve their diets and keep costs low by doing a little homework on the kinds of foods they choose.

Some sources of vital nutrients are less expensive than others.

“Some fruits and vegetables provide a lot of bang for your buck,” he says. “Bananas and potatoes are the real workhorses of the produce department. They provide potassium very affordably. Leaning more on those kinds of foods is a good way to increase your intake of potassium without having such a big impact on your overall food budget.”

The study is published in the journal Health Affairs.


According to the USDA, there is no difference between a “portion” and a “serving.” See Answer

Monsivais, P. Health Affairs, August 2011.

Official USDA Food Plans: "Cost at Home at Four Levels," June 2011.

Hilary Seligman, MD, assistant professor of medicine, University of California, San Francisco.

Pablo Monsivais, PhD, assistant professor, Center for Public Health Nutrition, University of Washington, Seattle.

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