Pay Now or Pay Later? The High Price of Low-Cost Food

“Decidophobia.” That’s a real made-up term. It was coined in 1973 by the philosopher Walter Kaufmann and refers to people who have a fear of making decisions. It seems like everybody has little bouts with decidophobia from time to time. The feeling is particularly acute at the grocery store as you stare down aisle after aisle of cereal, each box a slight variation of the one next to it. Or the drink aisle. Or the dairy section. The amount of questions that flood the brain can be paralyzing: This option tastes good, but isn’t so healthy, and this is healthy but expensive, and so on and so on. 

Assuming everyone reading this is safely away from any towering rows of edible options, let’s run the thought experiment: Just what does food cost? Is the healthiest option always the most expensive? If so, is it worth the price? What about in the big picture? Could the cheap choice now lead to expensive consequences later? How about those radical penny-pinchers on shows like TLC's “Extreme Couponers" with their carts packed full of frozen, canned and highly processed foods? What about essential dietary elements such as nutrients, vitamins, antioxidants and the like? Let’s take a look at the real price of food.

The Highs and Lows

It has long been assumed that healthier foods are more expensive. But we are in the age of evidence-based science—and that’s a very good thing. About a year ago, a few researchers set out to discover (in a way that was as methodically scientific as possible) just what the price variance is between foods considered healthy and foods considered un- or less-healthy.1 The researchers found that healthy foods do indeed cost more than their less healthy counterparts, but maybe not by as much as you think.

Meats and proteins had the largest price difference. Per serving of meat, the healthier choice was about 30 cents more than the less healthy choice, with healthy chicken showing a larger price gap between its less healthy counterpart. Peanut butter—a good source of protein—showed the smallest gap in the protein category. Healthy dairy and grains were actually about even. Same goes for sodas and juices.

It seems obvious that the reason why meat has a high price differential is that healthy meat (meat with minimal processing) is more expensive to raise and produce compared to heavily processed meat and meat-like components, whereas peanut butter and orange juice are, well, pretty much just peanut butter and orange juice.

Daily Cost Difference

The authors of the study tried to determine what the daily price difference is between a reasonably healthy diet versus a reasonably unhealthy diet. This is perhaps the most important finding of the study. The authors determined that a reasonably healthy diet cost about $1.50 more per day, per person than the unhealthy diet.

Does that surprise you? Did you think the difference would be much greater?

Now, $1.50 per day translates to about $550 per year, per person, and that's nothing to sneeze at. For a family of four, it's an even bigger chunk of the budget. Here you can see the line in the sand dividing those who live on tight budgets from those who have more financial flexibility. For some, the extra money is not such a big deal; $1.50 is, after all, less than the price of a soda or a coffee. But for some, those extra few dollars a day can mean the difference between their family eating a meal—or eating nothing at all.

But isn’t the picture bigger than that?

Paying for What You Save

The money saved by eating unhealthily is often paid for in the long run and in other ways. First, there is the decrease in energy. While that frozen, processed meal may give you some calories and proteins that you need, the chemicals used to preserve the food and drive the price down will affect your body's systems—often immediately and certainly later.  Resulting sluggishness could lead to decreased productivity and decreased efficiency. It can also lead to a loss of mental acuity, so the ability to solve some of life’s problems (including finances) may be compromised.

Secondly, for each $1.50 you save on that unhealthy diet, you can go ahead and double or triple that in health care costs later. While the impact on the body of unhealthy eating runs many courses—from joint problems to mental health problems—let’s just focus on obesity.

The Cost of Obesity

An obese individual can expect to see his health care costs soar. Obesity-related conditions include coronary artery disease, diabetes and hypertension, to name a few, each of which is expensive. A 2012 study concluded that medical spending for an obese person was 150 percent higher than for a non-obese person.2

A study from way back in 1999 tried to estimate the lifetime difference of health care costs for obese people. The difference was estimated at being somewhere around $13,000 more for the obese.3 As health care costs have skyrocketed over the past 15 years, it’s safe to assume that figure is even larger now. That’s a very high price indeed.

Context

To be clear, absolutely none of this is as neat as numbers on paper. The whole concept of money and health depends on factors that touch pretty much every aspect of our lives, from personality to politics. For some people, healthy eating is difficult not only because of the cost but also because of the proximity (or lack of it) to healthy foods and fresh produce. This ought to be a matter of policy discussion and private enterprise.

But there is a simple truth here, and it’s one we should all take as seriously as possible, in accordance with our means: Healthy eating is both a physical and a financial investment. So, the next time you’re at the grocery store, and you feel a little case of decidophobia coming on, try reminding yourself that the long-term trajectory of unhealthy eating is actually more financially costly than the short-term expense of better food.

References

  1. Mayuree R, Afshin A, Singh G, Mozaffarian. Do healthier foods and diet patterns cost more than less healthy options? A systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ Open. 2013;3:e004277
  2. Cawley J, Meyerhoefer C. The medical care costs of obesity: an instrumental variables approach. J Health Econ2012; 31:219-30
  3. Thompson D, Edelsberg J, Colditz GA, Bird AP, Oster G. Lifetime health and economic consequences of obesity. Arch Intern Med. 1999; 159:2177–83 

This article is for general educational purposes only and is not intended to be used as or substituted for medical advice.  Always seek the advice of your physician or qualified health care provider with any questions about your health or a medical condition.  Never disregard or delay seeking medical advice because of something you have read on the internet.