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Healthy eating ‘does not cost more’

GPs should challenge the assertion that a healthier diet is necessarily more expensive when advising the parents of obese children, say UK researchers.

A study for the British Journal of General Practice – due to be published in January – found that switching a child’s meals to healthier alternatives could result in a small price increase at a budget supermarket, or a reduction if independent high street retailers were used.

Researchers used three-day food diaries for 13 children, with mean age of 9.2 years and a BMI in the heaviest 2% of the population. They drew up alternative healthier menus and priced these at a budget supermarket, a mid-price supermarket and independent high street shops.

Sweets were replaced by nuts, cola by semi-skimmed milk, etc. The children’s original menu choices averaged 221 calories a day more than the adapted healthy diet, which was within 7 calories of recommended requirements.

The cheapest option was the existing diet at £2.48 per day bought from a budget supermarket, while switching to the healthy option cost 33p extra per day. However, at the mid-range supermarket, the price increase was only 4p more for the healthy menu, at £3.44 per day.

And switching to the healthy option at independent high street shops meant a saving of 17p daily, down to £3.58 per day.

The authors accept that their study is based on models of better practice, rather than on actual changes in eating behaviour, and that other factors such as time and cooking skills may impact on a family’s choices.

Lead author Dr Julian Shield, paediatric endocrinologist at the Bristol Royal Hospital for Children, said: ‘Food cost is frequently cited as a reason for failure to address eating behaviours in clinical practice, and this study demonstrates that for many this is a perceived rather than a real barrier.’

‘Consultations in general practice addressing weight may benefit from actively challenging a universal presumption that healthy eating is necessarily more expensive.’

BJGP 2012; 62: 16-17