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Healthy diet could save $50 billion in healthcare costs

Suboptimal diet costs about $300 per person, accounting for 18% of all heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes costs in the country.

Jeff Lagasse, Associate Editor

An unhealthy diet is one of the leading risk factors for poor health, accounting for up to 45% of all deaths from cardiometabolic diseases, such as heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes.

But the national economic burden of unhealthy diet habits remains unknown. A new study by investigators from Brigham and Women's Hospital, in collaboration with investigators at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, analyzed the impact of 10 dietary factors -- including consumption of fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, processed meats and more -- and estimated the annual CMD costs of suboptimal diet habits.

The team found that suboptimal diet costs approximately $300 per person, or $50 billion nationally, accounting for 18% of all heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes costs in the country. The team's findings are published in PLOS Medicine.

WHAT'S THE IMPACT

The analysis focused on the impact of 10 food groups: fruits, vegetables, nuts/seeds, whole grains, unprocessed red meats, processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages, polyunsaturated fats, seafood omega-3 fats and sodium. Using data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, the team created a representative sample of Americans 35-85 years old.

Using a model they developed and termed the CVD PREDICT model, the team analyzed the individual risk of cardiometabolic disease and the associated costs for the sample population based on respondents' current dietary patterns. They then re-calculated costs for CMD if everyone's diet was optimized to the healthiest amounts of the 10 foods and nutrients.

The team found that suboptimal diets account for $301 per person in terms of CMD-related costs. This translates to more than $50 billion nationally, 84% of which is due to acute care. Costs were highest for those with Medicare ($481 per person) and those who were eligible for both Medicare and Medicaid ($536 per person).

Three dietary factors contributed most to these costs: consumption of processed meats, low consumption of nuts/seeds, and low consumption of seafood containing omega-3 fats.

The team said the current study may underestimate the cost of unhealthy diet habits, as dietary factors may contribute to risk of diseases beyond heart disease, stroke and diabetes, such as cancer. While the study focuses on 10 dietary factors for which there was robust data, others may influence risk and cost as well.

THE LARGER TREND

Prescribing medication is a common practice for doctors, but it's a prescription of a different sort that could lead to billions of dollars in savings.

A prescription for healthy food could not only improve patients' health but also save more than $100 billion in healthcare costs, according to a study published in the Public Library of Science.

Such prescriptions can improve health outcomes for Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries, and the findings showed that the predicted economic benefits would be realized if 20% of the cost of supermarket fruits and vegetables were covered through Medicare and Medicaid -- dubbed the "F&V incentive."

Under an alternate scenario, the "healthy food incentive," 30% of the cost of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts/seeds, plant-based oils and seafood would be covered.

That's not the first time food has been viewed as a means of achieving potential cost savings. Prior research has shown that meal delivery programs, such as Meals on Wheels, reduce the cost of healthcare in dually eligible Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries. Food has also been proposed as a possible means of cutting treatment costs for diabetes patients.

Twitter: @JELagasse

Email the writer: jeff.lagasse@himssmedia.com

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