Food Is Medicine: The Cost of Poor Nutrition With and Without Insurance

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Forty-two percent of Americans are obese, and 500,000 deaths occur in the U.S. each year due to poor diets. You can’t maintain a healthy heart by eating processed foods, high in fat and sugar, so it’s no surprise that 45% of all cardiometabolic deaths are attributed largely to bad eating habits.[1]

Eating poorly is expensive too, not just for an individual or family but for the community and the entire country. Roughly $173 billion a year is spent on health care for obesity alone. On top of that, 117 million people have a disease related to poor nutrition, which costs roughly $1.1 trillion each year.[6] Cardiometabolic diseases alone cost $300 per U.S. resident per year on average, or $50 billion nationally.[3]

Individual costs associated with poor nutrition include: medications, lab tests and frequent doctor and specialist visits. For the insured, that means more copays for blood tests, drugs and doctor visits as well as higher copays to see specialists and to receive blood infusions (for anemics). Health insurance rates will increase too. For the uninsured, the bills can become unsurmountable. 

Here’s more on poor nutrition and the costs associated with it.

Key Takeaways

  • In the long-run, eating poorly is expensive for an individual as well as the community and the country.
  • Diseases caused by poor nutrition come with heavy costs, whether the patient is insured or uninsured.
  • Nutrition is so important to health that there are so-called Food is Medicine initiatives, with doctors prescribing fresh produce and healthcare providers distributing grocery vouchers.

Diseases and Conditions Caused By Poor Nutrition

Proper nutrition is vital for good health. A bad diet can lead to malnutrition and obesity as well as diseases and conditions like: 

  • Type 2 diabetes, 
  • Hypertension, 
  • High cholesterol 
  • Anemia
  • Stroke
  • Heart disease
  • Heart failure
  • Asthmas
  • Kidney disease
  • Cancer
  • Mental illness

What Is a Good Diet and How Much Does It Cost?

Eating right is expensive too, but the people who try to cut corners by eating cheap, processed foods end up not only paying with poor health but with heavy health care costs in the form of higher insurance rates, copays for visits to doctor and specialist as well as prescription drugs to treat the issues caused by poor nutrition. 

Generally speaking, poor diets consisted of too much processed meat, low consumption of nuts and seeds, and low consumption of foods containing omega-3 fats.[1] Buying fresh produce and quality meat and cooking it at home costs about $1.50 more per person per meal than eating the cheapest fast food available.[2] 

While a person who has a family and is struggling with their finances may have a hard time adding this extra amount onto their regular grocery bills, the cost is much higher down the line.

A person with diabetes spends an average of $16,752 more each year on health care that an otherwise healthy person does not.[4]

Malnutrition is also a problem, especially for older adults, and 116 million people who live in food-insecure households.[10] According to one study that focused on elderly subjects, those with proper nutrition avoided hospitalizations and outpatient visits, saving each patient roughly $1500 in healthcare costs each year![5]

Diabetes, Heart Disease and Anemia: Most Common Diseases Caused By Poor Diet

Almost 20% of heart disease, stroke and diabetes costs are due to poor diet.[1] It is estimated that 40 to 45% of cardiovascular diseases in this country are preventable and can be healed with a good diet.[2] 

Take a look at some average estimates of medication and treatment costs for diseases based on GoodRx and


Cost of Typical Medications/Treatments


$3,000-$4,600 a year, on average, with health insurance or Medicare $4,300-$6,000 a year, on average, without health insurance or Medicare

Heart Disease

$2,000 per year, on average, with health insurance or Medicare$19,000 per year, on average, without insurance


$18-$500, per month, with insurance (high range includes transfusions)

As much as $14,500 a year, on average, without insurance

Is Food Medicine?

There are ongoing efforts to incorporate food as medicine, also known as “Food Is Medicine”, into healthcare to prevent diseases caused by poor nutrition. 

Food is such an important component of health that in some disadvantaged areas, doctors are prescribing produce and other healthy foods as a prescription. With the prescription, they get vouchers for free or almost-free fresh produce, distributed by the health care provider, to fight certain diseases like diabetes and hypertension.[6] 

Food is Medicine programs also offer medically designed meals as well as help preventing, managing and treating diet-related diseases. The focus of this program is to substitute doctor visits and medication with food that will heal the body. 

What Foods Should I Avoid?

Each person’s diet should be designed by a physician, especially if there is an existing condition. However, it’s generally recommended that people avoid the following:

  • Soda
  • Processed meat
  • Saturated fats
  • Sugary food and drinks
  • Seed oils
  • Trans fats

What Foods Should I Eat?

A physician will tell each patient what foods to eat and avoid based on blood tests, but generally speaking, it’s a good idea to have an abundant intake of the following:

  • Seafood High in Omega-3s
  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
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Cost of Poor Nutrition FAQs

Can poor nutrition cause mental health issues?

Yes, malnutrition and malnourishment can affect brain functions and are associated with depression and anxiety.

How does poor nutrition affect children?

Poor nutrition can lead to a lack of physical, mental and emotional development. Not only can a bad diet stunt a child’s growth but it can also reduce cognitive functions, which will negatively impact academic performance. A lack of vitality will impact extracurricular activities as well. Poor nutrition can also cause depression and anxiety in children.

How can individuals reduce the cost of poor nutrition?

You can reduce the cost of poor nutrition by eating a balanced and nutritious diet, staying physically active, and making informed food choices. It’s always best to speak with a doctor or nutritionist to see what kind of diet is most beneficial for your body.

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