Does It Cost More to Follow Healthy Eating Patterns?

  • Article
  • August 22, 2019

Is a healthy eating pattern affordable in the U.S.? A new modeling study found that the three eating patterns (Healthy U.S.-style, Healthy Mediterranean-style and Healthy vegetarian) recommended by the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (2015 DGA) were both more nutrient-dense and more expensive than the average American diet.

There is strong evidence that healthy eating patterns, which include low-fat and fat-free dairy foods, are linked to a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease; meanwhile, additional evidence shows these foods can play a role in reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes, certain types of cancer and of being overweight and obese.

On average, the typical American diet costs $5.82 per day for 2,000 calories. In contrast, the healthy eating patterns from the 2015 DGA cost $5.90 a day for the vegetarian pattern, $8.27 a day for the U.S.-style pattern and $8.73 a day for the Mediterranean-style pattern.

Following healthy and recommended eating patterns may not be possible for many families because of cost. Access to high-quality, healthy and affordable diets can be cost-prohibitive. In the modeling study, it may be more difficult for African American and Hispanic families to access healthy and affordable diets than whites or Asian Americans because there is a larger difference between the amount of money the former groups currently spend on diet and the amount of money needed to achieve DGA-recommended healthy eating patterns.

The 2015 DGA’s U.S.-style eating pattern and vegetarian pattern, which both recommend three daily servings of milk, cheese and yogurt within a 2,000 calorie diet, were less expensive than the Mediterranean-style pattern, which recommends just two daily servings of dairy foods in a 2,000 calorie diet (some of the protein foods in the non-vegetarian options are also cost-drivers).

While dairy foods do contribute to the cost of healthy eating patterns, it’s also possible to get three servings of dairy foods for about $1 a day. On average, Americans eat just 1.7 servings of dairy foods per day, about half of recommended amounts. According to this study, Americans also currently spend about 41 cents a day on dairy foods. Therefore, moving closer to dairy recommendations may increase dietary cost by less than 41 cents. Dairy foods are nutrient-dense and can also be an affordable part of healthy eating patterns.

To be sustainable as well as realistic, healthy diets need to be affordable and accessible to all Americans. Considering food cost and diet cost when developing dietary guidance could be an important step toward helping Americans adopt and sustain healthier eating patterns.