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Is Healthy Eating Too Expensive?

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Research published in Health Affairs, by scientists from the University of Washington, confirms what we already know: that eating healthy is costly, and eating poorly is cheap.

Calorie Rich, Nutrient Poor

Lack of willpower is not the only reason people make poor food choices. In many cases, it’s a matter of economics. Scientists surveyed 1,123 adults in King County, Washington (which includes relatively affluent Seattle) to see what it would cost to increase four nutrients lacking in the average American diet, in order to meet current dietary guidelines. These nutrients are potassium, fiber, calcium, and vitamin D.

The Potassium Premium

Not surprisingly, the researchers found that those who spent the least per day on average were most deficient in these nutrients, whereas those who spent the most came closest (but still fell short). Using the average cost of foods at three local large supermarkets, the researchers found that getting enough potassium would add $380 a year to the average adult's food bill, close to 10 percent of what the average American spends on food each year. Getting enough vitamin D and dietary fiber would add $127 a year. They found that calcium was generally sufficient in most diets and available relatively cheaply.

Save Money, Eat Fat

Researchers also found that while food costs rose if foods with these nutrients were added, costs would fall if sugary or fatty foods were added. Indeed, for every 1 percent increase in calories from sugar, food costs fell 7 percent, and for every 1 percent increase in calories from saturated fat, food costs fell an astonishing 28 percent.

How Government Can Help

Healthy eating, then, is not simply a matter of personal choice. Many Americans claim they would like to eat better but can't afford to do so. No matter how good a PR campaign the government runs to promote the new dietary guidelines and MyPlate, the new food guide symbol, a significant part of the population will be unable to meet those guidelines through no fault of their own. Government subsidies heavily favor grain producers, not fruit and vegetable growers. Thus corn, for example, and all its by products, is plentiful, and therefore cheap; much produce is not.

Go Bananas

However, while few would argue that it costs more to eat healthy, it seems somewhat surprising that getting sufficient potassium should prove so costly. After all, bananas, potatoes and beans, which are all rich in potassium, are not generally high-ticket items at the grocery store. Choosing a banana over a bag of corn chips would seem like a good swap that in most cases would save money, and be a nutritionally superior choice.

Convenience Factor

It's admittedly harder to do better when shopping for meals on a limited budget. Processed foods and frozen entrees are always going to be cheaper than buying fresh ingredients, and are obviously less time-consuming to get on the table. It's also cheaper and more convenient to swing by a fast food restaurant and choose from the dollar menu than shop for a meal, go home and cook it.

For those who want to eat healthy but have limited resources, there are ways to make improvements. For example, here’s how to Eat Low Fat on a Budget. But until there is a significant policy shift that makes buying fruits, vegetables and whole grains cheaper than high-fat, high sugar foods, little will change.

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