Sunday, May 17, 2009

Poor an Indicator of Overweight-But You Might Be Surprised Why

One of my favorite authors is Michael Pollan. He has a direct, yet eloquent style of stating facts. He makes reading about government issues interesting and relevant. I discovered an article of his from April 2007, which is still very interesting and relevant today.

Thanks to Michael Pollan and The New York Times:

"A few years ago, an obesity researcher at the University of Washington named Adam Drewnowski ventured into the supermarket to solve a mystery. He wanted to figure out why it is that the most reliable predictor of obesity in America today is a person’s wealth. For most of history, after all, the poor have typically suffered from a shortage of calories, not a surfeit. So how is it that today the people with the least amount of money to spend on food are the ones most likely to be overweight?

Drewnowski gave himself a hypothetical dollar to spend, using it to purchase as many calories as he possibly could. He discovered that he could buy the most calories per dollar in the middle aisles of the supermarket, among the towering canyons of processed food and soft drink. (In the typical American supermarket, the fresh foods — dairy, meat, fish and produce — line the perimeter walls, while the imperishable packaged goods dominate the center.) Drewnowski found that a dollar could buy 1,200 calories of cookies or potato chips but only 250 calories of carrots. Looking for something to wash down those chips, he discovered that his dollar bought 875 calories of soda but only 170 calories of orange juice.

As a rule, processed foods are more “energy dense” than fresh foods: they contain less water and fiber but more added fat and sugar, which makes them both less filling and more fattening. These particular calories also happen to be the least healthful ones in the marketplace, which is why we call the foods that contain them “junk.” Drewnowski concluded that the rules of the food game in America are organized in such a way that if you are eating on a budget, the most rational economic strategy is to eat badly — and get fat."

Read the entire article, here.

Though the article directs its attention to agriculture, politics and the farm bill, I got focused on the issue of junk calories being less expensive than healthy calories.

Do you think it's expensive to eat healthy? In a previous post I argued that it costs less to eat healthy, nutrient per nutrient. My example is that even if someone spent $5 on a hamburger and french fries they would not be getting the nutrients needed that an apple, some nuts and some veggies could provide at the same price. Though one can get calories cheaper by buying junk food, they are not getting nutrients. Yes, nutrients may be more expensive (I realize that healthy foods like fresh produce and organic nuts are expensive) but if one were to cut out junk foods entirely, one could spend that $5 and at least get the nutrients needed, even if one ran shy on calories. The argument then becomes, is it better to get cheap, fattening, disease-inducing calories or is it better to get less calories and more nutrients?

If I had to decide between the two choices above, based on a limited amount of money to be spent on food for, say, myself and a family of four, it would be a tough choice. I would consider that my family needed a certain amount of calories, but I would hesitate on providing calories in any shape or form, especially the calories that raise blood sugar, cause obesity, clog arteries and are likely to be nutrient-deficient. It seems like providing the healthiest foods available, even at the expense of providing less calories, might be healthiest.

I am not an expert. The conundrum seems to be a question for a dietitian, a nutrition professor or a public health advocate. On the other hand, I do recall being a poor, 3rd-year college student in Seattle and living on cartons of Top Ramen. I chose cheap calories instead of nutrients, but I was also not focused on nutrition back then. In order of things I was concerned about, studying, getting good grades, and having a social life trumped nutritional planning, which I never gave much thought to.

I believe there are many families experiencing the same need to feed, calories being the number one reason to buy a food product, not nutrient value. And in their cases, there are a million other things trumping nutrition as a priority, as well.

Please share your feedback. Everyone's insight is extremely valuable to me, as I believe this subject matter to be of utmost importance. Comments and criticisms are equally welcome.


princess rose said...

oooh what a great post. my husband and i spend a bit more money on healthy, mostly organic food every month. what started off as a weekly chore is now a hobby and something that i enjoy doing. i love meal planning and trying new recipes. i lovingly made a list of "food projects" to tackle, all of them naturally sweetened and made with wholesome ingredients.
here's how i justify our extra food costs: it is an investment in our health. when i eat crappy, i feel crappy. the money we spend is invested in our health and it also supports our local farmers. sometimes when i eat our homemade meals and desserts, i think to myself, "take that, industrialized food industry!". (i really enjoyed "in defense of foods"!)

anastasia_wolf said...

We spend a LOT on food. I buy fresh food from the markets of a weekend, and I do a fortnightly grocery shop. Although I'm vego and most meals are sans meat (my partner isn't vego so he cooks himself meat some nights), and we use a lot of dried beans/lentils, we still spend heaps. I have two littlies and am still pretty reliant on packaged snack foods (rice crackers and corn thins mostly, not additive filled crud) and we go through a LOT of nut butter. So while some of the things we buy are super cheap, they are balanced out by the super exxy things (like agave, coconut oil etc). But in terms of nutrients we eat very well... I just wish it was cheaper. but I definitely wouldn't compromise... there are ways to eat healthy without spending as much as we do!

Hanlie said...

I opt for nutrients! Dr Joel Fuhrman's equation - Health=Nutrients/Calorie - makes absolute sense to me.

The only reason junk food is cheaper than produce and whole foods in America is because of agricultural subsidies. Here in South Africa it is certainly not the case. Especially now in winter, we are eating a lot of healthy, nutritious and filling soup and spending very little. My husband and I find that eating whole foods is much cheaper than eating processed and packaged foods. Admittedly, I'm not buying organics all the time - organic culture is still in its infancy here and choices are limited.

I think our Western culture has moved so far away from natural foods that we don't really know what to do with them anymore...

amy said...

Thank you! I've tried to argue this point more than once.
Here is the cheapest: Grow your own! I vote however, nutrient over calories. Most of us can stand a few less calories anyway.

pixiepine said...

I spend a fair amount of money on food, but I view it as an investment. My fresh juices and healthy vegan meals made from scratch are preventitive medicine to me.

Lisa..... said...

This is an important conversation to have about the health of this nation. There are people out there depending on food stamps and things like WIC for their food.

One of the most important places to look at nutrition is the national school lunch program, established under President Harry Truman. These kids get up to two meals a day at their school. How nutritious is that food? How much fresh produce and healthy alternatives are given to kids who have no other options? I know I have seen my daughter's school lunches offer pizza and bean burritos. When I was growing up (poor) the cafeteria gave us white bread and fruit cocktail, among other things. said...

I think that with wise kitchen management you can eat very healthfully without resorting to junk; however, I think inadequate nutritional education is a huge part of the problem. The more educated one is, the more likely they are to pursue healthful eating.

Emma @ the Berry Patch said...

I read your blog regularly and had to comment on this post.

I think that although eating junk food may be cheaper based on calories, I believe you will spend more on your groceries if you eat high processed junk food.

The reason is that junk food sizes are huge - 1200 calories of potato chips is almost a days calories for someone trying to lose weight but I bet those chips are eaten as a snack in one sitting. You then have to buy food for lunch, dinner, breakfast and afternoon tea.

If you were buying healthy foods then 1200 calories would almost do you for the day. So according to the article, if you were buying based on the most calories per dollar you could pay $1 for a junk food snack or around $6 for a days worth of healthy meals (assuming healthy food is around $1 for 250 calories).

We have this same problem in Australia. I have friends that constantly tell me how lucky I am to be able to afford to eat healthy foods and yet when we compare grocery bills mine is much less as I have much smaller portion sizes for meals and my snacks are an apple, not a huge bag of potato chips.

Sorry - I will finish ranting now. I feel very passionately about this topic as these are habits we worked very hard to break.


The Cooking Lady said...

Yes, it would be cheaper for the pocketbook to go thru any number of drive thru's. But have you ever seen the customers that stand in line in those places? They are not the slim and shapely customers the commercials are depicting. Most of them are overweight/obese.

I choose not to go to those places and count my pennies and buy healthy. We do not bring home as much in our grocery cart, but at least was in in there and eventually in our home is good stuff.

And 20 years down the road, I will still be standing while others are on a plethora of medications for diseases I cannot even pronounce. So I choose our more expensive less fattening diet any day of the week.

Losing Waist! said...

You asked for my here it goes.

This subject makes me extremely frustrated. I understand this debate because I was neck deep in it just two short years ago. IT COSTS MORE TO EAT SHIT! It makes me want to yell out loud when people say it costs more to eat healthy. TRULY, HONESTLY HEALTHY EATING COSTS LESS. I know because I used to eat shit. Then I decided not to eat shit and I save SO MUCH MONEY!

The problem with all of these media fueled reports on poverty levels and obesity are that they are missing the fact that there is a CORRELATION between obesity and poverty levels- there is no proven CAUSATION. Correlation means there is an undefined relationship. Causation means one causes the other. So- The point is that there is a relationship between poverty and obesity. BUT IT DOES NOT MEAN THAT POOR PEOPLE CANNOT AFFORD TO EAT HEALTHY- which is the implication. There is the implied causation that poverty means there is no money to eat healthy. It is just not that simple. There are probably thirty different angles that tie poverty levels and obesity levels to each other. I will give a few examples.

When mom works two jobs and when dad works overnight. When there is only one parent. When there is worry over crime in the neighborhood. When the adults work shitty retail nightmare jobs, or hard underpaid manual labor. WHO WANTS TO THINK ABOUT COOKING? Who wants to do anything but throw some processed meal into the microwave or oven and have instant success? What about the instant relief a high sugar/fat meal provides to the children and family alike? What about the crash thirty minutes later that sets those children up to want to zone out in front of the TV until bed? Who wants to fight their children to eat veggies when a mac and cheese meal with a cookie will do the job?

When I worked in retail management there was NOTHING left in me to cook, care, or MOVE after I was done. I was depressed, I was worried about money, I was exhausted. I bought whatever was easiest to satisfy my emotional needs, and that got me off my feet. I never gave a shit about going to the store and buying what gave me the most calories for the money. It doesn't happen.

No one tells those stories. They ponder the costs... Shitty processed boxed food is expensive! I was not able to truly work on my health until my husband and I left being financially unstable behind. Until I left retail behind and got a break...

Sizzle said...

I'm not eating starches or fruit or sugar or any processed foods for a few weeks and I spent $75 at the grocery store stocking up on veggies and protein (I did actually buy non-food items too so that might be why it was high). So maybe it's not all that much cheaper? It's definitely better for me.

I think eating processed foods like the ones mentioned in the article is not only a class issue but it's passed down from parents to kids. It's cyclical. We learn how to eat from our parents and if they ate those foods, so will we. Like most cyclical things it's hard to know you are in the cycle and to break it.

I've always been confused by the idea that fast food is economical for those on a tight budget. I actually had a disagreement with an ex-boyfriend about that while he was unemployed and shoving McDonald's in his face daily. If you actually buy healthy groceries and COOK the food, you would save a lot of money was my argument. Weeks later he started doing just that and I bit my tongue. :-)

cathryn said...

First of all, I'm WAY late to this discussion, but have been reading through the very informative and interesting archives. Love reading about your journey! This post is the first to really "hit a nerve" with me and even if no one ever reads my comment (because it's so late), I feel the need to add to the discussion.

I agree with LosingWaist!, the ability and motivation to eat healthy as person living in poverty is monumentally less than the average middle-class person.

In addition to the points LosingWaist! makes, I would add that the "health food stores" that we all take for granted and frequent whenever we want, are not even options for people living in poverty. Oftentimes, the only place a person can get to (either by walking or taking public transportation) is to a convenience store (and we all know what kind of food is sold there...and at a much higher price than a grocery store), or a low-end grocery store that isn't able to offer the kind of fresh produce selections we are accustomed to.

In addition to poor nutrition, exercise is non-existent. Who has time to exercise when you have to take care of kids before you go to work your two jobs? And often, kids aren't able to just go outside and play because there is no place to play or it is too dangerous.

It's all well and good for someone to write about getting up in the morning to exercise or having the time and space to grow your own food, or being able to go anytime you want to Traders Joes to get the "cheap" organic almonds, but the reality is that this healthy, nutritious lifestyle is a huge priviledge and not something the majority of the country is able to enjoy.

My Year Without said...

Sorry it's taken me THIS long to get back to this post!

Rose-It's great that you are able to make healthy eating/shopping a hobby!

Anastasia-I have to agree that there are super spendy nutrient-rich foods. I should attempt to make a list of the MOST nutrient-rich foods for the LEAST cost. I bet this would be helpful....

Hanlie-Right on. And, soups are an excellent way for nutrient-rich foods to go a long way.

Amy-I'm going to try and grow a few of my own veggies this spring on my little balcony....

Pixipine-I feel the same way, however I feel for those who don't have the money AND the know-how to do the same.

Lisa-It seems like school lunches are getting a lot of press right now. I think that they will only improve....even if it takes forever. They can't get much worse nutritionally!

NourishedKitchen-I truly believe also that education is everything. If someone with only $5 to spend on food were told of ALL their options, less junk food may go in their basket.

Emma-This is an excellent point. Portion sizes matter, a lot, and when you're trying to fill up on a bag of potato chips, it may take you the whole bag, whereas a baked potato (which is cheaper!) would do the same thing and isn't junk food!

CookingLady-I wish drive-thru's didn't even exist. I think some day in the future we (or generations after us) will look back upon drive-thru's as crazy.

LosingWaist-Wow......! I'm glad to hear from someone who experienced both.

Sizzle-That's a great story, as well!

Cathryn-I worked at a health food store that accepted food stamps and it always made me happy to see them going towards great foods. I know that these healthy stores are rarely convenient (we have SO many more regular stores) but it seems like even regular groceries offer a section of "healthy" and "natural" foods.

I think the majority of people are addicted to junky foods and these foods are in advertisements everywhere, so it seems the norm. However, when someone has a teeny amount of money to spend, I agree with LosingWaist, also, that the comfort a candy bar provides over the nutrition of an apple, is an easy decision although obviously not the healthiest.

cathryn said...

That's great that the health food store you worked for accepted food stamps!

And I agree that basically it's psychologically, financially, and physically more difficult for those living at the poverty level to choose/maintain a healthy, nutritious lifestyle.

I was also drawn to your post (the next one I think) about school lunches having to meet a certain amount of calories even if that means replacing nutritious apple slices with cookies. Unbelievable!

Thanks for the information and dialogue you provide. I look forward to reading through the rest of your archives! :)