Here’s a multiple choice quiz for you: Eating a more nutritious diet is how much more expensive per day on average? A) $5.68 more, B) $3.58 more, or C) $1.48 more. Surprisingly, it’s “C,” but if you thought the answer was either “A” or “B” (that healthier foods presented a cost-prohibitive price premium) you’re not alone in adopting that conventional, if erroneous, viewpoint.  The good news is that making better choices — and therefore enjoying better health — is in financial reach for the vast majority of Americans.

That’s the encouraging conclusion drawn by the authors of a recent Brown University review of 27 studies from around the world.  While price differential varies among food groups (e.g., proteins, grains, etc.) the overall gap was relatively modest.  Indeed, on average, a healthy diet (vs. an unhealthy one) costs only $1.48 more per day for a 2,000 calorie diet. In other words, making healthier choices only costs about $45 per month — $540 per year — extra. The easy availability of cheap junk food may help explain the price difference, but eating healthy is far more affordable than many believe.

Regardless of how you calculate the difference, common sense dictates that eating unhealthy is far more expensive with regards to health care costs — hitting low-income, relatively more obese populations hardest of all. One analysis found that health care dollars consumed by obese individuals jumped 31%, compared to just 11% for those in a normal weight range.  In other words, the financially disadvantaged are least positioned to bear the economic consequences of poor diets. Lest you blame the “food deserts” commonly cited as the culprit for inner-city obesity, note that research suggests proximity to grocery stores does not necessarily correspond with increased fruit and vegetable consumption.

Published February 1, 2014