Boston, MA—A healthy diet could save the U.S. $50 billion in health care costs, according toa new studyfrom Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

An unhealthy diet is one of the leading risk factors for poor health, accounting for up to 45% of all deaths from cardiometabolic diseases (CMD), a category which includes heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. Researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital and from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University analyzed the impact of 10 dietary factors and estimated the annual CMD costs of suboptimal diet habits.

Thomas Gaziano, MD, MSc, of the Division of Cardiovascular Medicine at Brigham, and his colleagues used data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) to create a representative U.S. population sample of individuals aged 35-85 years. They developed a model named the CVD PREDICT model, and analyzed individual risk of cardiometabolic disease and 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 food groups analyzed.
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Their conclusion: 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.

Consumption of processed meats, low consumption of nuts/seeds, and low consumption of omega-3-rich seafoods contributed most to these costs.

Gaziano said in the release: “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. 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.

Co-senior author Renata Micha, Ph.D., Associate Research Professor at Tufts, added: “We have accumulating evidence from the Food-PRICE collaborative research work to support policy changes focused on improving health at a population level. One driver for those changes is identifying the exorbitant economic burden associated with chronic disease caused by our poor diets. This study provides additional evidence that those costs are unacceptable. While individuals can and do make changes, we need innovative new solutions—incorporating policy makers, the agricultural and food industry, healthcare organizations, and advocacy/non-profit organizations—to implement changes to improve the health of all Americans.”

The release notes that the study may underestimate the cost of unhealthy diet habits, as dietary factors may contribute to risk of diseases that don’t fall under the cardiometabolic umbrella, such as cancer.