12/16/2013 12:20 pm ET Updated Feb 15, 2014

What Is the Real Cost of Healthful Food?

Does it really cost more to eat healthful foods? A study by Harvard researchers, the most comprehensive study of its kind, says yes. It compared the cost of a healthful diet to one filled with processed foods and sweets. It puts the added price tag per person at approximately $1.50 a day or $550 per year. As noted in a December 5, 2013, Huffington Post article by Carey Polis, "The study authors caution that the $1.50 per day conclusion is based on comparing a very healthy diet -- such as one replete with fruits, vegetables and fish -- with a diet full of processed foods, meats and grains. The price difference is thus based on a relatively extreme contrast." I suggest that price difference represents only part of the story, and ignores some broader true costs of "cheap" foods.

"Infuriating!" proclaims celebrity chef and bestselling cookbook author Rocco DiSpirito, who takes issue with the findings. "Its such an absurd study because it doesn't consider servings and serving sizes and the net cost per serving. This study ignores far more than it considers in determining the real cost of eating well. What about the cost of obesity?" Indeed, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concludes that obesity in the U.S. is common, serious and costly. More than one-third of U.S. adults (35.7 percent) are obese. Obesity-related conditions include heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer -- some of the leading causes of preventable death. "How much does it cost your family when the main earner dies 20 years too soon because of Type 2 diabetes?," asks DiSpirito.

Let's accept, as a given, that the study's findings are accurate. Factor in the additional medical costs of obesity and now you can compare actual annual out of pocket costs for adults, apples to apples. The CDC estimates that the annual medical cost of obesity in the U.S. was $147 billion in 2008 U.S. dollars; the medical costs for people who are obese ran $1,429 higher than those of normal weight. Deducting the increased food cost of eating well from the higher medical expenses from poor eating habits alone yields an annual savings of $879 per year per person. This doesn't even factor in other economic hardships, like time missed from work due to obesity related health issues.

I met DiSpirito last month when producing a healthy Thanksgiving cooking segment for Inside Edition. I was stunned to discover that a typical American adult consumes 4,500 calories during the annual family food-fest known as Thanksgiving. Thats more than twice the typical daily caloric intake, all eaten in a single meal! DiSpirito showed me and our viewers how to slash that number to a mere 350 calories while still enjoying turkey, stuffing and gravy, cranberry sauce and sweet potatoes. Add 150 calories for a chocolate cupcake with pumpkin frosting and you are still eating only one quarter the typical daily caloric intake and 10 percent of the average Thanksgiving meal! My daughter and I put his recipes to the test, preparing our own Thanksgiving dinner to bring to our family gathering. We compared our plates to my mom's and the more healthful servings were every bit as satisfying and tasty, if not more so (sorry, Mom). Plus, they were guilt free.

DiSpirito maintains the difference in food costs alone between healthful versus unhealthful meals represents only part of the picture. "It doesn't take into consideration the gas savings from driving to and from fast food restaurants rather than preparing fresh foods at home. And what about the money saved from reduced alcohol consumption in a healthy diet? This alone is a big expense." Then, of course, add in the other factors which have an immense impact as well, namely, quality of life, which by all accounts -- economic, emotional and physical seems substantially better when you eat healthful foods. I suggest that while eating healthful foods may, on first blush, appear to be more expensive, it costs us more dearly if we don't.