Lifestyle

Healthy eating is too expensive for most Americans | Gustafson

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."

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."

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.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book "The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun"®, which is available in bookstores, on her blog at http://timigustafson.com and at Amazon.com. You can also follow Timi on Twitter at http://twitter.com/TimiGustafsonRD.

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