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Is healthy eating really more expensive?

Obesity is an epidemic. Two-thirds of Britons are overweight, which means maintaining a healthy BMI now belongs to only a minority of the population. This is not a critical issue because it is deemed as unattractive but because excess weight has been shown to significantly decrease life expectancy, causing an increased risk of heart disease, stroke and especially diabetes, to name just a few. This is all common knowledge and has been regurgitated by experts for decades, yet there is no collective sense of urgency to solve this pandemic. Aside from the health costs that extra weight causes for individuals, for the national health service that we all share in, obesity creates a huge strain on services – 10% of the entire NHS budget for England and Wales is spent on diabetes alone. The benefit, however, of this issue being a chronic feature of our society is that the solution is obvious and widely known: healthy eating. Consuming a diet high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy proteins and water is the gold standard when it comes to providing our bodies with optimal nutrition. So, what are the barriers preventing people from following the recommended guidelines, is healthy eating simply unaffordable?

10% of the entire NHS budget for England and Wales is spent on diabetes alone

The general public certainly thinks so. Expense is one of the top reasons people always give for not choosing healthier options, amongst other explanations such as taste and lack of time. Yet the figures behind the notion that healthy eating is more expensive are extremely hard to ascertain, as choosing the point of comparison from which to analyse cost is tricky. Many studies use the model of price per calorie, for example comparing a doughnut with an apple, and stating that the doughnut is cheaper because it provides 250 calories compared to the fruit’s 50.

However, this measurement of value has obvious flaws, given that most people are not eating to meet the recommended caloric intake and are in fact superseding it. Therefore, if you compared the doughnut and the apple based on portion size, deeming that they both constituted as a single snack, the difference in price would be negligible. Unfortunately, when studies are released that analyse price differences per calorie headlines are inevitably made, and the public’s negative assumptions are confirmed that healthy eating is unaffordable for the average person, despite the reality.

The figures behind the notion that healthy eating is more expensive are extremely hard to ascertain, as choosing the point of comparison from which to analyse cost is tricky

Recent research in Australia has actually found that “healthy diets consistent with the Australian Dietary Guidelines are cheaper than Australians’ current diets, which tend to be less healthy.” The research that was published in the journal BMC Public Health found that a range of different household structures spent more purchasing their current unhealthy diets than would be required to buy the recommended diet. In fact, rather shockingly, the researchers found that more than half of the food dollar in both high and low socio-economic backgrounds was being spent on discretionary choices, for example, alcohol, takeaway foods, and fizzy drinks. Totally reinforcing the notion that the average household is well within their means of buying healthy food, and that swapping out the unhealthy choices could be a money saver.

The notion of healthier choices being unaffordable and unattainable is a common misconception across many developed nations. This is partially caused by marketers who often use the health benefits of products as advertising tools to justify more expensive prices. This can cause us to believe that healthy options are intrinsically pricier. A team of US researchers recently studied this assumption that healthy equals expensive and how this presumption affects our buying decisions. One of the studies that they carried out involved two similar looking chicken wraps priced at $6.95 and $8.95, the participants were asked to choose which they thought was healthier, in ‘almost all cases’ they chose the more expensive wrap, even when the prices were swapped. Another study carried out by the team involving protein bars, found that participants displayed ‘suspicion’ regarding stated health claims towards only the cheaper bar, and unquestioningly trusted the more expensive option.

Researchers found that more than half of the food dollar in both high and low socio-economic backgrounds was being spent on discretionary choices, for example, alcohol, takeaway foods, and fizzy drinks

People aren’t just saying healthy eating is too expensive as an excuse, the majority of us are led to actually believe this. However, it is important to realise that this is simply untrue. For those living in abject poverty eating cheap high-calorie food is necessary as a means of survival, however, for the average British household cost is not a reasonable explanation as to why they aren’t choosing healthier options. So, let’s do away with the excuse that eating more vegetables is too expensive so that we can actually make progress in combating obesity rather than simply giving in to its rise.

 

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