NOV 17, 2017 7:14 AM PST

Can You Eat a Healthy Diet on Food Assistance Programs?

The federal guidelines for a healthy diet are in place so that people know how much of which food groups will provide proper nutrition without impacting weight issues or medical illnesses. While a healthy diet includes fresh produce, lean meats, low amounts of sugar and fat, and whole grains instead of processed, it's not always budget-friendly.

Families who are low-income and who receive funds from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) are likely to have trouble buying everything the guidelines suggest, especially for larger families. A new study from North Carolina State University and the Union of Concerned Scientists showed that this food assistance program could only cover between 43-60 percent of what a family would need to spend to comply with the recommended dietary allowances.

The numbers are not quite that simple though, and in conducting the study, the researchers had to look at lots of variables. Each family receives SNAP benefits based on family size and income, which can vary, so in their computations, the team used the average monthly SNAP benefit for the year 2015.

This can be a tricky question to answer, as federal dietary guidelines vary based on age and gender. SNAP benefits also vary, based on household income and the number of adults and children living in the household. The researchers used the average monthly SNAP benefit for 2015. For the food prices in the study, they used data from the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture's retail price records, also from the year 2015

They also ran the numbers for several variations in the food choices, such as fresh or frozen produce, and a vegetarian diet. After it was all tallied up, the results were that if a family of four (1 adult female, one adult male, two children) wanted to follow the federal guidelines on nutrition, their SNAP benefits would only cover about 60% of the bill. Depending on the location of a family, transportation costs to grocery stores, etc., a family would need to spend an additional $200-600. It was more expensive, as expected when produce was fresh vs. frozen, and the least expensive scenario was a family following a vegetarian diet.

Lindsey Haynes-Maslow, the co-author on the study and an assistant professor of agricultural and human sciences at NC State, explained, "Even though SNAP is not designed to cover all of the cost of food -- it's meant to be a supplemental food program -- this study makes it clear that there would be many low-income households that would not be able to cover the gap needed to eat a diet consistent with federal dietary guidelines. Many low-income households simply don't have an additional $500 or $600 to spend on food in their monthly budget."

The video below details the issues surrounding staying on budget and healthy

Sources: North Carolina State University, Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, UPI 

About the Author
  • I'm a writer living in the Boston area. My interests include cancer research, cardiology and neuroscience. I want to be part of using the Internet and social media to educate professionals and patients in a collaborative environment.
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