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Eating Right Is More Expensive, but Costs Could Be Offset by Health Benefits, St

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Researchers from Harvard University found that eating healthily costs more than sticking to junk food. While this shouldn’t come as a great surprise, it is the first time anyone has tried to put an exact price tag on what it takes to follow nutritional recommendations.

On average, a person who wants to maintain a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein sources must cough up an extra $1.50 per day, or about $550 a year, based on a daily intake of 2,000 calories, as recommended for adults by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

“People often say that healthier foods are more expensive, and that such costs strongly limit better diet habits. But until now, the scientific evidence for this idea has not been systematically evaluated, nor have the actual differences in cost been characterized,” said Mayuree Rao, a junior research fellow in the Department of Epidemiology at Harvard School of Public Health and lead author of the study report.

Less than two dollars a day difference doesn’t sound too prohibitive, but even these small amounts add up over time, and low-income families may be hard pressed to make consistently costlier, albeit healthier, choices.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), most Americans adhere to diets that do not meet its proposed standards. Whether food costs are a decisive factor is not always evident in the view of the agency, noting that some highly processed foods are not necessarily cheaper than many fresh varieties but may be preferred by consumers because of greater convenience.

Also, food prices can vary considerably depending on location and season, making it difficult to set clear measuring standards. And it is not always apparent which foods are truly healthy and which are not. For instance, are items like apples acceptable, which are certainly nutritious but may contain traces of pesticides? Or should they be eaten only when organically-grown, making them much more expensive?

Geographic variations also play a significant role, not only in terms of the neighborhoods people live in but also in which part of the country they are. Larger cities may be better served but tend to be more pricey, while rural areas typically require longer driving distances to outlets, adding expenditures for gas or public transportation.

The government’s Dietary Guidelines would benefit from a reality check, says Dr. Adam Drewnowski, director of the Center for Public Health Nutrition at the University of Washington in Seattle and co-author of a study on the effects of food prices on consumers’ behavior. He warns that dietary guidance often overlooks the issue of affordability when making recommendations about food choices.

“Unrealistic advice is useless. People eat the foods they can afford,” he said to Food Navigator USA. “Given current food preferences and eating habits, more nutrient-rich diets do cost more,” he added.

Of course, for those who are able and willing to spend more money at the grocery store, higher quality foods have many advantages. Eating healthily makes it easier to control weight and avoid diet-related illnesses like diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension, all of which affect millions of Americans. Reducing some of these afflictions would make a huge difference in healthcare spending and people’s quality of life.

Poor eating habits of individuals, however, are not the only cause of our current health crisis. Our food policies that give subsidies to producers of commodities like corn, soy and sugar, but nothing to fresh produce farmers, will only perpetuate the existing unbalance between food prices, very much to the detriment of consumers who would love to eat better.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com. For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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