Cleaner diets could save the US $50B

Switching to a healthier diet could save Americans more than $300 annually and could cut U.S. healthcare costs by $50 billion, a new study suggests.

For their study, Thomas Gaziano, MD, of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and colleagues examined the cardiovascular impact of 10 food groups, including fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, whole grains, unprocessed red meats, processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages, polyunsaturated fats, seafood omega-3 fats and sodium. They used NHANES data to pull together a nationally representative sample of U.S. adults aged 35-85 before analyzing individuals’ risk for cardiometabolic disease (CMD) using a model they called CVD PREDICT. The team also took disease-related costs into account.

Gaziano et al. then re-calculated what CMD would cost each person should they optimize their diet to include the healthiest portions of each of the 10 foods and nutrients. The team found that suboptimal diets account for $301 per person in terms of CMD-related costs, which translates to more than $50 billion nationally.

“There is a lot to be gained in terms of reducing risk and cost associated with heart disease, stroke and diabetes by making relatively simple changes to one’s diet,” Gaziano said in a release. “Our study indicates that the foods we purchase at the grocery store can have a big impact. I was surprised to see a reduction of as much as 20% of the costs associated with these cardiometabolic diseases.”

Eighty-four percent of CMD spending the authors identified could be attributed to acute care, with costs highest for patients with Medicare ($481 per person) and those eligible for both Medicare and Medicaid ($536 per person). High consumption of processed meats, low consumption of nuts and seeds and low consumption of seafood contributed most to elevated costs.

The team said their study results beg for policy change in the agricultural, food and healthcare industries. They said their work might have underestimated the costs of unhealthy diets, since dietary factors can contribute to illnesses beyond heart disease, such as cancer. Data also relied on food questionnaires, so respondents’ data about their food intake could be subject to some bias.

“Our work illustrates the need for interventions or policies that incentivize healthier dietary behavior as these changes have the potential to have a big impact and reduce the health and financial burden of cardiometabolic disease,” Gaziano said.

Gaziano et al.’s work was published in PLOS Medicine on Dec. 17.