The research, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, examined data on food spending and scores on the Alternative Healthy Eating Index (AHEI) for 78,191 women participants of the Nurses’ Health Study. The index was developed by Harvard researchers as an alternative to the US Food Pyramid. It is characterized by prioritizing white meats and fish over red meat, whole grains over refined grains, and unsaturated fats over saturated ones.
High AHEI scores have been associated with lower rates of cardiovascular disease.
The researchers divided study participants into fifths according to AHEI scores. They found that those with the highest scores spent 24 percent more money each day on food to prepare at home than those in the lowest quintile. They had higher intakes of fruit and fruit juice, vegetables, poultry and fish, nuts, soy and beans, whole grain, and alcohol and lower intakes of red and processed meat, high-fat dairy, grains, and snacks and sweets.
They also had lower rates of angina, type-2 diabetes and hypertension.
Those in the highest-scoring quintile were also more likely to have attained further education in addition to their nursing qualification.
“Although spending more money was associated with a healthier diet, large improvements in diet may be achieved without increased spending,” the authors wrote. “The purchase of plant-based foods may offer the best investment for dietary health.”
The researchers recommended increased spending on nuts, soy and beans, and whole grains, and decreased spending on red and processed meats and high-fat dairy, as the best (and cheapest) way to improve health.
A corresponding commentary in the same issue said that this was not necessarily the case, as the education required to make the most beneficial dietary choices was not taken into account.
“Their assertion that there need not be any cost associated with dietary improvement belies the evidence that dietary education is costly to deliver,” wrote Cliona Ni Mhurchu of the University of Auckland’s School of Population Health.
An additional study in the same issue, conducted by Adam Drewnowski of the University of Washington’s Center for Public Health Nutrition, examined the cost of various foods and their nutritional content. He found that he found that the cheapest foods were vegetable oils, total fats, grains and sugars, while fruits and vegetables were relatively expensive.
Source: American Journal of Clinical Nutrition
“Relation of food cost to healthfulness of diet among US women”
Authors: Adam M Bernstein, David E Bloom, Bernard A Rosner, Mary Franz, and Walter C Willett
American Journal of Clinical Nutrition
“Food costs and healthful diets: the need for solution-oriented research and policies”
Author: Cliona Ni Mhurchu