Following Healthy Eating Patterns Has Potential to Reduce Health-Care Costs

January 31, 2019

Costs related to medical services are expensive and can place a significant burden on people, families, communities and the nation. The encouraging news is that healthy eating can contribute to a solution.

A recent study found that closely following the Healthy U.S.-style or Healthy Mediterranean-style eating patterns recommended by the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) is projected to save billions in health-care costs.

Many Americans suffer from one or more chronic diseases related to poor eating habits. The most recent DGA concluded that healthy eating patterns are associated with a lower risk for certain chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity and some cancers. This new study was the first to quantify the potential cost savings, in terms of direct medical costs and indirect costs, associated with more closely following the DGA-recommended eating patterns.

Unfortunately, most Americans don’t eat enough of the healthy foods, including dairy (for example, on average, people eat just shy of two servings a day, when the recommendation calls for three servings for Americans 9 years of age and older), outlined in the dietary guidelines.

For this new study, baselines were set to score how closely U.S. adults are adhering to the guidelines. Food consumption records collected in the What We Eat in America component of the 2013-2014 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, a large dietary survey of a nationally representative sample of the U.S. population, helped set estimates of adherence with the aforementioned two eating patterns modeled in the study.

For the study, researchers modeled what would happen if adults improved compliance to the eating patterns by 20 percent, meaning they increased what they ate to more closely follow the recommendations in both diet plans. The results were stunning: An estimated annual cost savings of $31.5 billion and $16.7 billion, respectively, based on adults who increased adherence by 20 percent from the average for the Healthy U.S.-style and Mediterranean-style eating patterns.

Alternatively, the researchers also looked at what would happen to costs if adults followed the diets 80 percent of the time. The findings were equally impressive: If the U.S. adult population were to reach a target of 80 percent overall compliance, the annual cost savings were estimated to be $55.1 billion and $88.2 billion, respectively, for the two previously mentioned eating patterns.

The takeaway from this study is that a modest, realistic shift in adherence to two DGA healthy eating patterns could result in significant healthcare cost savings. Increasing dairy food consumption to meet the recommended three daily servings of dairy is an easy way to help improve adherence to the guidelines.