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The Costs of Poor Nutrition

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Highlights
  • Poor nutrition is the leading risk factor for cardiometabolic disease and represents a significant financial burden for Americans
  • The average American spends 300 dollars a year on cardiometabolic-related healthcare costs—$76 of which could be saved by consuming more omega-3 fats from seafood
  • Financial costs are just one consideration—together with costs related to “quality of life", poor nutrition represents a far more substantial burden

As anyone who’s ever shopped for groceries can attest, eating well can come at a cost. While processed and artificial foods tend to be cheaper, fresh and unprocessed grocery items tend to be more expensive. For this reason, some find it more “practical” to eat a diet low in fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, seafood, and unprocessed meats. 

But is it more practical? That is, does eating a suboptimal but less expensive diet actually save you money? According to a recent study sponsored by the National Institute of Health, poor nutrition may be costing Americans more than we think—and not just in the long term. 

Suboptimal Nutrition in the United States 

Suboptimal nutrition is now the leading risk factor for cardiovascular and metabolic disease in the U.S, and responsible for nearly half of all cardiometabolic (CMD) deaths.13 Unfortunately, this means that poor nutrition also represents a substantial economic burden in terms of healthcare costs. 

To help assess the extent of this burden, a group of researchers used statistical modeling to estimate the yearly financial costs associated with treating the symptoms of CMD for a sample of 1,000,000 adults based on their consumption of ten dietary factors: fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, seafood, whole grains, unprocessed red meat, polyunsaturated fats, processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages, and sodium.4

In order to estimate the CMD-related costs for this sample population, the research model incorporated data for cardiovascular disease risk factors, dietary habits, healthcare costs, and associations between dietary factors and instances of coronary heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes from previous research.4

What did the Study Find? 

Percentage of People Eating Suboptimal Amounts of Dietary Factors

According to the findings, relatively few Americans ate optimal amounts of any of the dietary factors, but percentages were particularly low in three key areas. More specifically: less than 1% of Americans consumed enough whole grains; only 7.9% consumed enough vegetables; and only 9.1% consumed enough omega-3 fats from seafood.4

It is also worth noting that because the “optimal” amount of omega-3 fats was approximated at 250 mg/day (which is markedly lower than other health organizations recommend),57 the percentage of people consuming sufficient omega-3s is most likely significantly lower than the model’s estimate. 

Annual CMD Costs of a Suboptimal Diet  

According to the model, the United States collectively spends $50.4 billion a year on CMD-related costs due to suboptimal nutrition. This means that, per individual, the estimated cost of eating poorly is $301 a year

Considering that the annual cost of treating CMD-related problems in the U.S is $276.3 billion; this means that 18.2% of total CMD costs are attributable to poor diet. In other words, nearly one-fifth of the money allocated to treating CMD could be saved by Americans adopting healthier eating habits.4

Annual CMD Costs by Dietary Factor

The model also estimated the costs associated with eating suboptimal amounts of individual dietary factors. Failing to eat an optimal amount of nuts/seeds represented the highest economic burden per person ($81), followed by insufficient consumption of seafood omega-3 fats ($76), consuming too few vegetables ($60) and fruit ($57), and consuming too many sugar-sweetened beverages ($58).4

Quality of Life Costs of Poor Nutrition Are Much Greater Than $300

Ok, we know what you’re thinking—saving $300 a year would be great but is that really incentive enough for most people to change their daily eating habits? No, probably not. In fact, $300 probably isn’t even enough to cover the additional costs of a healthier diet. 

However, financial costs are just one factor, and there are myriad other “quality of life” costs to consider when trying to account for the overall cost of a suboptimal diet. While it would be virtually impossible to assign a number or value to all the costs associated with poor cardiometabolic health, we know that depression, pain, anxiety, and death are all real, and very significant consequences of poor eating habits.3,8,9 Taking into consideration that forty-five percent of all cardiometabolic deaths are believed to be the result of suboptimal nutrition, the potential savings of a healthier diet is actually a whole lot greater than $300 a year.2,3

Supporting Cardiometabolic Health 

So, what can Americans do to help support a healthier lifestyle? While it would be easy to simply encourage everyone to go out and change the way they shop and eat entirely, we recognize that this is not a financial possibility for everyone. Perhaps a more reasonable approach is to simply be aware of the inherent costs associated with eating poorly and replace as many processed, refined, and artificial food items as possible with healthier alternatives, including fresh fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds, unprocessed meats, and seafood containing the omega-3s EPA and DHA. 

Something else to keep in mind is that while it would be ideal to acquire your omega-3s from food sources such as fatty fish and algae, fish-oil and algae-oil supplements are not only a perfectly healthy way to get your daily recommendation of EPA and DHA, they can be a more affordable alternative to fresh fish. 

Other ways to support cardiometabolic health include maintaining a normal body weight, staying physically active, practicing mindfulness and relaxation, and of course, not smoking.10,11 Because the management of cardiometabolic health risk factors can begin early in life, we also recommend consulting your doctor to assess your risk factors and discuss ways you can engage in heart-healthy behaviors. 

A Wise Investment

So, next time you are grocery shopping, keep in mind that the prices on the shelves are not the only way to evaluate the cost of food choices. Ultimately, spending a little more on fresh and nutritious food items may not only save you a little money down the line, it may save your life. 

Gina Jaeger, PhD is a Developmental Specialist and Lead Research Writer for Nordic Naturals. She holds a doctorate in Human Development, and has published several research articles on children's cognitive development. Gina enjoys studying and educating others on strategies for optimizing health and wellness throughout the lifespan.

1. Lim SS, et al. The Lancet. 2012. 380 (9859): p. 2224–60.
2. Murray CJ, et al. JAMA. 2013. 310(6): p. 591–608.
3. Micha R, et al. JAMA. 2017. 317(9): p. 912–24.
4. Jardim TV, et al. PLoS Med. 2019. 16(12): e1002981.
5. International Society of the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids (ISSFAL). June. 2004.
6. Siscovick, et al. Circulation. 2017. 135: p. e867–e884.
7. GOED. Global Recommendations for EPA and DHA Intake. April. 2018.
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