— If you are trying to eat as healthy as the government wants you to, it’s going to cost you: at least $7.28 a week extra, that is.
A recent update of U.S. nutritional guidelines -- what used to be known as the food pyramid and is now called "My Plate" -- calls on Americans to eat more fresh foods containing potassium, dietary fiber, vitamin D and calcium.
But for a typical consumer, the simple act of adding more potassium to your diet could tack on hundreds more dollars to your annual grocery bill, scientists reported Thursday in the journal Health Affairs.
That could make it tough for many Americans to meet healthy diet recommendations during lean times -- and the government should do more to help, according to lead author Pablo Monsivais, an assistant professor of public health at the University of Washington.
“Given the times we’re in, I think we really need to make our health guidance, in particular the dietary guidelines, more relevant to Americans,” he said.
Monsivais and colleagues surveyed more than 1,000 adults in King County, Wash., to calculate the price tag on bridging the gap between current intake of key nutrients and the Food and Drug Administration's recommended "daily value."
With potassium, for instance, the participants consumed an average of 2,800 milligrams a day — 700 milligrams below the recommended amount. To get up to par, they’d have to spend an extra $1.04 a day, or $380 a year. For a family of four, that's $1,520 annually.
To boost levels of dietary fiber and vitamin D, they’d have to spend about 35 cents extra a day for each of the two nutrients. Most participants came so close to meeting calcium guidelines, they wouldn’t have to spend more on dairy products.
Overall, those who spent the most on food came closest to the recommended daily values of the nutrients across the board. They also came closest to staying within the recommended limits for saturated fat and added sugar.
King County is expensive, so the prices may be inflated compared to some other areas of the country.
Boosting potassium doesn't have to come with such a high price tag, though.
“If you were to guide people toward the most affordable sources of potassium, you could do it more cheaply,” Monsivais said. Potatoes and beans, for instance, are inexpensive sources of potassium and dietary fiber,
For a mere 95 cents, you could buy five bananas at Trader Joe’s, and they’d provide 450 to 500 milligrams of potassium each.
So why would the participants in Monsivais’ study have to spend so much? King County includes Seattle, one of the most affluent and highly educated cities in the country. When those folks consume potassium, Monsivais says, it tends to come in the form of more expensive fruits and vegetables such as nectarines and dark leafy greens.
Sure, they could eat more economically, but they'd have to know how to do so, Monsivais said. The guidelines may be based on solid scientific evidence, he says, but they won’t do much good if Americans don’t know what foods provide the best nutritional bang for their buck.
He criticized some of the marketing for a healthy diet — for example, the image of a plate of salmon, leafy greens and maybe some rice pilaf — and said a meal like that is not affordable for many Americans.
Hilary Seligman, assistant professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, said Monsivais' research is an interesting addition to the debate about healthy eating and food insecurity, her area of expertise.
A lot of people assume the poor eat cheap food because it tastes good, but they would make better choices if they could afford to, said Seligman, who was not involved in the Health Affairs study.
"Almost 15 percent of households in America say they don't have enough money to eat the way they want to eat," Seligman said. Recent estimates show 49 million Americans make food decisions based on cost, she added.
"Right now, a huge chunk of America just isn't able to adhere to these guidelines," she said.