Unhealthy Diets Are Responsible for Almost $50 Billion in Health Care Costs in the U.S.

A new cost analysis indicates that the cardiometabolic costs associated with poor diet in the United States are almost $50 billion.

The study, conducted by Brigham and Women’s Hospital and published in PLoS Medicine, was based on a validated microsimulation model (the Cardiovascular Disease Policy Model for Risk, Events, Detection, Interventions, Costs, and Trends [CVD PREDICT]). The model estimated cardiovascular annual disease (defined for the purposes of this study as fatal and nonfatal myocardial infarction, angina, and stroke) and type 2 diabetes costs associated with suboptimal intake of certain food groups. The researchers chose 10 food groups for the analysis: fruits, vegetables, nuts/seeds, whole grains, unprocessed red meats, processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages, polyunsaturated fats, seafood omega-3 fats, and sodium. They used data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), creating a representative U.S. population sample of participants (aged 35 to 85 years). Using the CVD PREDICT model, the researchers then looked at individual risk for cardiometabolic disease and the associated costs based on current participant dietary patterns. After that, the authors re-calculated the costs for cardiometabolic disease if it were completely optimized with the healthiest amounts of all 10 food groups.

According to the study results, the researchers found that poor diets accounted for $301 per person in terms of cardiometabolic disease-related costs. When scaled up, this amounted to an estimated $50 billion nationally. Eighty-four percent of this was due to acute care. The data also indicated that costs were highest for those with Medicare ($481/person) and for those eligible for both Medicare and Medicaid ($536/person). The three dietary factors that contributed most significantly to these costs, according to the authors, were consumption of processed meats, low consumption of nuts/seeds, and low consumption of seafoods containing omega-3 fats.

“We have accumulating evidence from the Food-PRICE collaborative research work to support policy changes focused on improving health at a population level,” said study co-senior author Renata Micha, of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts, in a press release. “One driver for those changes is identifying the exorbitant economic burden associated with chronic disease caused by our poor diets. This study provides additional evidence that those costs are unacceptable. While individuals can and do make changes, we need innovative new solutions – incorporating policy makers, the agricultural and food industry, healthcare organizations, and advocacy/non-profit organizations – to implement changes to improve the health of all Americans.”