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Better diets can save Canadians $13.8 billion annually, says U of A study

Another reason to avoid that double cheeseburger

Canadian’s poor food choices are costing the healthcare system $13.8 billion a year, according to a recent University of Alberta study.

Over the span of a year, recent U of A postdoctoral fellow and registered dietician Jessica Lieffers and her team calculated the costs of not meeting dietary recommendations. She found that diets lacking in enough nuts, seeds, and whole grains cost Canadians $6.5 billion of the total $13.8 billion. The study also shows how small dietary changes, like cutting out processed meat, can make all the difference in alleviating stress on the healthcare system and improving personal health.

Lieffers and her colleagues looked at five categories of healthful foods, including vegetables, fruit, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and milk, and three categories of harmful foods included red meat, processed meat, and sugar-sweetened beverages.

The high cost of not eating enough vegetables didn’t surprise the researchers but the even higher cost of a lack of nuts and seeds and whole grains did.

“Vegetables and fruit were also up there… but I think nuts and seeds and whole grains surprised us more,” Lieffers said. “Those foods together were actually responsible for almost nearly 50 per cent of that 13.8 billion.”

Using census data on dietary habits, the team conducted a series of complex calculations to reach the total estimate of $13.8 billion.

“This was the most math I’ve ever done in my life,” Leiffers said. “There were a lot of steps along the way and we learned a lot along the way.”

Leiffers’ research also shows that national costs associated with not meeting food recommendations are higher than the costs of physical inactivity, and is only slightly less than the costs of smoking.

“Other types of estimates on the economic burden of lifestyle-related risk factors have been done, but there have been very few done on diet,” Lieffers said. “The ones that have been done have just looked at one type of food… but we know that diet is more complicated than that”.”

Leiffers said failing to meet dietary recommendations can increase susceptibility to chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, type two diabetes, and some cancers. These health complications put stress on the healthcare system and can lead to cases when people are no longer able to work due to their disease.

Direct costs of dealing with these outcomes, such as increased visits to the doctor and hospitalization, account for $5.1 billion. Indirect outcomes, like decreased productivity, account for $8.7 billion.

Leiffers hopes the study will allow government and public health professionals to compare the costs of other lifestyle-related risk factors, such as inactivity and smoking, to the costs of poor diet and implement policy accordingly.

Lieffers said to meet dietary recommendations, most adults should eat three to four servings of whole grains a day. She also said swapping out white bread for whole grain and eating nuts for snacks are small changes that have potential individual health benefits and eases the burden on the healthcare system.

There are a number of online resources that Canadians can turn to in order to improve their diets, Leiffers added, such as unlockfood.ca, a site run by the professional association of dieticians in the country.

“If everyone in Canada made small positive dietary changes, this has the potential to save a lot of money and strain on the healthcare system as well,” Lieffers said. “So small changes at a population level can add up.”

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