Spending more on food isn't the only way to buy the healthiest diet, new research shows.
Increased spending on nuts, soy and beans, and whole grains, and less spending on red and processed meats and high-fat dairy, may be the best investment for dietary health, Dr. Adam M. Bernstein and colleagues from the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston and colleagues conclude.
The trick, according to the researchers, is to spend more on plant-based foods.
Several studies suggest that living on junk food can be cheaper than eating lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, the researchers note in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Research from the UK, France, Spain, and the Netherlands has also found that eating a healthy diet costs more. However, there is some evidence that healthy diets can be obtained at different levels of spending, the authors write.
To compare the relationship between food spending and diet healthfulness, the team assessed diet and spending data for 78,191 women participating in the Nurses' Health Study. They rated the women's eating habits and multivitamin intake according to the Alternative Healthy Eating Index (AHEI), a tool they developed, with points awarded for consuming healthier items.
Those with the healthiest diets, whose average AHEI score was 59, spent about $4.60 per day on food, compared to about $3.70 per day for the women with the least healthy diets, who had an average AHEI score of 30.
But when the researchers divided the women into five groups based on how much money they spent on food, they found a wide range in AHEI scores within each spending group. The AHEI score difference between the bottom 10 percent and the top 10 percent within each spending group ranged from 25 to 29, the researchers point out.
In previous research, they add, a 20-point AHEI score increase has been linked to a 25 percent lower risk of heart disease.
Spending more on nuts, soy and beans, and whole grains was associated with a higher AHEI score, the researchers found, while spending more on red meat, processed meat and high fat dairy were associated with a lower score. Fish and poultry, vegetables, and fruit and fruit juice offer the next best investment, Bernstein and his colleagues say.
They conclude: Although spending more money is associated with a healthier diet, large improvements in diet may be achieved without increased spending.