Healthy Eating Is Too Expensive for Most Americans

Eating Healthy

Most Americans are unable to follow their government’s recommendations for healthy eating, simply because they can’t financially afford to do so, says a study that was recently published in the journal “Health Affairs.”

Do You Have to Be Wealthy to Be Healthy?
High Quality Foods Are Out of Reach for Many

The updated food pyramid, now called “MyPlate,” encourages higher consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables, which are typically more expensive than processed foods. Purchasing food items that provide important nutrients like potassium, dietary fiber, vitamin D and calcium, could add up to $380 annually to consumers’ grocery bills, according to the lead author of the study, Dr. Pablo Monsivais, professor at the Department of Epidemiology and the School of Public Health at the University of Washington.

Only the people who are able to spend considerable amounts of money on food get close to meeting the federal recommendations, the study found. “Given the times we’re in, the government really needs to make [its] dietary guidelines more relevant to Americans,” Dr. Monsivais said.

His assessment is based on a survey of about 2,000 residents of King County in the State of Washington, which included random telephone calls and printed follow-up questionnaires. Participants were asked to list the grocery items they typically bought, which then were analyzed for nutrient content and estimated costs.

The study results are at odds with the widespread assumption that people make their food choices primarily based on individual tastes and preferences. “Almost 15 percent of households in America say they don’t have enough money to eat the way they want to eat. Estimates show 49 million Americans make food decisions based on cost,” said Dr. Hilary Seligman, professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco, who was not involved in the study. “Right now, a huge chunk of America just isn’t able to adhere to these [government] guidelines,” she added.

Dr. Seligman agrees with the study’s conclusion that the government could and should do more to help people who struggle with ever-rising food prices. Government can affect the cost of food in a number of ways. Subsidies are available for big agricultural industries that specialize in corn, soy and sugar production but not for small farms that grow fresh produce. Those policies could be changed if there was enough political courage.

For now, it seems, a lot of people won’t have the luxury to improve their eating habits even if they understand the need to do so. According to a 2010 report published in the journal “Psychological Science,” the cost of fresh produce has almost quadrupled since the 1980s. Prices for processed foods, on the other hand, have hardly changed over the same time period. Sodas are now just 30 percent more expensive than they were 30 years ago.

When it comes to meeting daily calorie requirements, it is much cheaper to make do with lesser nutritional quality. According to a study published in the “Journal of the American Dietetic Association” (2007), consumers can buy 1,000 calories worth of processed foods for less than 10 percent of the price for the same amount of calories from fresh produce. Fruits and vegetables don’t only cost more, they are also less calorie-dense than processed items, which makes it necessary to buy larger quantities, just to meet one’s calorie needs.

So, is it illusory to expect Americans to better their diet because of financial constraints? Some experts have suggested that educating the public not only in terms of healthy eating but also smart shopping is a necessary first step.

Fast food and pizza are often falsely thought of as cheap. While you can get a basic meal at a drive-through for a couple of bucks, the costs can add up quickly when you order the bigger sizes, side-orders and soft drinks. A large pizza can easily set a family back $20 or more. For the same amount, you can buy at least a few potatoes, frozen vegetables and some chicken pieces to prepare at home.

Being a smart shopper can indeed make a difference in your pocket book. Grocery stores always have sales events going on, especially in the produce department where the most perishable items are offered. Look for coupons and specials in local newspapers and online. And you can get better deals at discount stores.

Planning ahead for several days reduces spoilage and waste. Leftovers can be reused for soups and stews. It is also important to understand portion sizes. For instance, a large banana or a whole grapefruit may be more than one serving. A fruit salad can give a healthy boost to a whole family.

There are countless ways to maintain high nutritional standards without breaking the bank. Does that make the issue of healthful eating versus affordability go away? Of course not. But, since these are the times we’re in, we have to start somewhere.

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7 thoughts on “Healthy Eating Is Too Expensive for Most Americans

  1. There is so much bad information out there it is a wonder anyone knows what to eat and what not to eat.
    So many people are following bad advice in an effort to get fit and healthy not realizing that it is having the opposite efect.
    It is so refreshing to come across someone talking sense – keep it up.

  2. You simply cannot dispute the view that healthy eating is substantially more expensive than it is to eat processed foods. Your example of a $20 pizza dinner is not the type of meal a lower middle class family could afford to eat even close to regularly. Try a couple cans of soup or a $5 pizza. That’s more realistic. Today I tried to buy a bag of cherries which turned out costing $7 (at Wal Mart). I wanted to have fruit for breakfast, but I ended up buying donuts for $1 instead. It’s all a part of the American quality of life diminishing.

    • You can get fruit for a dollar! Hello have you heard of bananas? They’re incredibly cheap! Their are lots of cheap vegetables too! Squash is really inexpensive. You definitely don’t have to buy donuts.

  3. Eating healthy per government guidelines “could add up to $380 annually to consumers’ grocery bills.” $380 per year is a small amount compared to how much money people waste every year on eating out, buying sodas and juice drinks, expensive cable tv bills, cell phones, designer clothing, and I could go on all day.

    The calorie for calorie cost of fruits/vegetables vs. processed junk foods is a losing argument. Sure, a box of Debbie cakes may be cheaper than a bag of fruit or vegetables, but which will fill you up longer? Fruits and vegetables have fiber, water, and other nutrients that fill you up for a longer period of time than most sugary junk foods. On top of that, we are fighting an obesity epidemic in this country so we don’t need more calorie dense foods, we need more foods that are lower in calories but higher in nutrients.

    I wholeheartedly dispute the view that healthy eating is more expensive than eating processed foods. I can buy a couple cans of soup or pizza (which you won’t get much leftover out of)… or I could buy a whole chicken, roast it along with some veggies and some rice or potatoes. Eat that for several meals, then take the leftover chicken meat and carcass and make a large pot of homemade soup by adding some herbs (grown at home for cheap), carrots, celery, etc and getting many more meals off of that. I can buy bags of dried beans and combine them with rice and a few sautéed vegetables and again, eat off of that for days. Eating healthy foods doesn’t have to be expensive but it does require some work and knowledge to cook from scratch. Some people don’t know how to cook, some people think they are too busy, and some people are too lazy to cook. Cooking from scratch at home, especially if you throw in a couple of meatless meals each week is completely doable, even for people living off SNAP benefits.

    • Yes, I completely agree! You can live healthily and inexpensively. Not knowing how isn’t an excuse! You can use the internet to learn.

    • Couldn’t agree more, Daniel! The more people try on self-discipline, try healthy living, i.e. intermittent fasting, exercise, pay attention to food selections, read about healthy living, drink water instead of soft drinks, will definitely reduce junk food intake. and there are million excuses for people to eat junk food. expensive is just one of the millions. The truth is, banana, apple, orange are very common, but the are less tasty then grapes, papaya, cherries, mango….. boiled potatoes can never compete with donuts

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