The True Cost of Food: Prioritizing healthy diets for disease prevention and reversal

Throughout my childhood and into my adolescent and adult life my mother religiously reminded me to “watch what you eat because the body never forgets.” This was her way of sharing her understanding of the holistic and cumulative effects of diet and nutrition on overall health.

Unfortunately in the United States, food policies and government subsidies like the farm bill from the 1930s and 1940s (namely corn and dairy, respectively) supporting a select group of agricultural products are taking their toll.

With the unprecedented rise in chemicals, pesticides, and fertilizers used in agribusiness, along with antibiotics and hormones in meat production, it is more important than ever to prioritize a whole food, plant-based diet. Choosing more of these foods can serve as a foundation to preventing and even reversing lifestyle diseases such as heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, some types of cancer, and even Alzheimer’s disease and arthritis.

An Egyptian proverb translates to “One quarter of what you eat keeps you alive. The other three quarters keeps your doctor alive.” The debate over who can afford healthy foods amid increasing awareness surrounding food deserts is mired in controversy. While popular rhetoric that it is cheaper to eat poorly has proved arduous to substantiate or debunk, the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) published a scientific study attempting to do just that in their 27-study meta-analysis spanning 10 high-income countries.

In this December 2013 study, HSPH purports that the magic number–the monetary cost to eating the healthiest diet over the least healthy– is $1.50 per day. This premium would be much less, if not negative, if food policies did not support hyper-processed foods. While critics might be wary of this number, it is worthwhile to note that the alternative to highly processed junk foods and fast foods is not necessarily organic or local produce. With the exception of food deserts in rural and urban communities in the United States, affordable healthy food options are within most people’s reach at supermarkets in various forms and price points.

The low pricing of many unhealthy foods is reflective of decades of food policies and government subsidies. For example, the meat and dairy industries receive financial incentives, which are not included in the price of their animal products. Therefore, unlike most healthy foods, unhealthy foods have a cost that does not reflect the true price of production. These hidden costs are in actuality myriad health and environmental externalities that price tags omit. One of the most costly effects of choosing an unhealthy diet shows in the health statistics of our country. Each year, the total annual amount spent on healthcare in the United States increases. In 2014, healthcare expenditures hit an all-time high at $3.8 trillion with unprecedented mortality rates we can largely attribute to lifestyle diseases.

It seems the more Americans spend on healthcare, the sicker we become. It is time to rethink the data and statistics, and advocate for a social and cultural shift in our attitudes towards diet and nutrition. Rather than dwell on excuses for eating poorly, such as scarcity of time or money, individuals must take responsibility for their own dietary choices and subsequent health outcomes. At the same time, it is important to bear in mind that healthy eating is far more complex a matter than individual choice.

For example, many opine that the playing field is uneven, especially in the case of the government subsidizing unhealthy, highly processed foods with prices that do not account for negative externalities. But until our food policies, government subsidies, and health curricula in primary and secondary schools align to prioritize American health and well being, the best option is to make conscientious choices of how we nourish our bodies and continue to advocate for change. Such positive public policy changes would go a long way in helping individuals internalize the message that it is possible to prevent and reverse many of the diseases that claim millions of lives each year through an intentional diet centered on whole foods and plants.

Author: djjewelz; Title: Picture Perfect Eggplant and Peppers at the Hollywood Farmers Market; Year: 2011; Source: Flickr

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