The Cost of Eating Well

About a month ago, I was shocked by an interview I heard while driving home. The radio program Florida on the Line had Holly Benson, secretary of the Agency for Health Care Administration, as a guest. The interviewer asked Holly if the economic downturn would have an impact on health. Holly responded, “just because you’re poor doesn’t mean you’re unhealthy; it just means you have a lot more time to go running.”

I was disappointed that this question was not seriously addressed (and by the callousness of the response). In fact, being poor does impact your health. Those with the lowest income have the highest rate of obesity. The fact is, the cheapest foods are not the healthiest (related article at CNN). Sugar is cheap:

All that corner-store processed food is relatively inexpensive – artificially so. Researchers say that many junk foods contain high-fructose corn syrup, made from government-subsidized corn crops. Federal help keeps the cost of syrup-containing foods such as sodas, fries and even burgers down. Drewnowski said that healthful, unsubsidized foods like spinach cost five times more per calorie to produce, thus driving up the price (from Philadelphia Inquirer).

As an engineer, I like numbers. So, what are some example calories-per-dollar ratios? Since I try to eat healthy and keep a spreadsheet of all the foods I eat at home, computing calories-per-dollar for all my recipes is easy. Here are some examples from my spreadsheet:

Food calories/dollar
Peanut Butter 978
Peanuts 889
Oats 741
Whole Wheat Bread 420
Almonds 387
Kashi Bars 316
Nonfat Milk 268
Canned Beans 262
Pistachios 258
Grapes 185
Frozen Strawberries 159
Fat-free Yogurt 122
Tempeh 115
Canned Tuna 107
Oranges 107
Cooked Turkey 89
Carrots 62
Blueberries 54
Tomato 48
Spinach 28

Notice anything? All the produce is significantly more expensive than the fats and grains. McDonald’s sells cheeseburgers for 59 cents on some days. Since those cheeseburgers are about 300 calories, that gives you 504 calories/dollar. Of all the things in the above list, McDonald’s cheeseburgers are the fourth cheapest! If you eat 2000 calories/day, you could survive on 4 dollars a day on McDonald’s cheeseburgers. You’d get more than 100% of your fat and cholesterol, and only 8% of your Vitamin C, but you’d get 100% of your calories.

Perhaps you like sweets instead of cheeseburgers. You can buy 56 oz of Peanut M & M’s for 15.99 which gives you 8065 calories, or 504 calories per dollar, the same as the cheeseburger!

Being healthy and avoiding disease requires more than cheap calories, it requires getting sufficient vitamins and other nutrients. Unfortunately, in the United States, between 5-17% of the population is Vitamin C deficient.

If you were at risk of starving would you purchase spinach at 28 calories per dollar or peanut butter at 978 calories per dollar? This is a problem I don’t hear addressed very often in the obesity discussion. We need to look more at the cost-per-calorie of healthy choices. This is an area where the government could help. We should tax unhealthy choices, and subsidize healthy choices. Since humans’ tastes are set for a food landscape that does not exist today, namely scarcity of sweets and fats, we need to leverage other mechanisms such as economics to help make better choices.


Week 1 of Marathon Training: 16 weeks until 2:59 Marathon

On December 6, 2008, I’ll run the Memphis St. Jude’s Marathon. This week marks the first official week of my marathon training. I’m following the 16 week program by the Furman Institute of Running and Scientific Training (FIRST). This program includes 3 quality runs a week, and then 2-3 days of cross training (swimming and cycling) per week. This plan is covered in their book, Run Less, Run Faster.

I tried to run a marathon once before (Feb 2007). I did not respect the distance and tried it without any serious training. After the halfway mark, I had to stop due to a flare up of illiotibial band syndrome.

This time, I’m following a careful plan and working hard to avoid training errors that could lead to injury. I have a good base. I’ve been doing between 12-17 mile long runs for the last two months. I’m doing resistance training twice a week. After my long runs I use the 50 degree cold pool at the gym to cool my legs.

I try to remind myself that every time I run, I’m running the marathon. The race is not on one day, it is the totality of my training leading up to it. Here’s hoping that everything goes according to plan.
Update: I ran 2:57:18. Woo!

The Freakonomics of Human Fuel Economy

With gas prices high, I’ve heard a lot of articles assert that biking gives infinite miles per gallon. While it is true that humans don’t use gas, it’s not true that they don’t use energy.

When one walks, runs or bikes, one burns energy that would otherwise go unburned. For walking (4 mph), running (10 mph), and biking (11.9 mph) a 155 lb person burns 281, 1126, and 422 calories per hour respectively (according to this site). We can compute the calories per dollar of cheap food sources, such as grains (741 calories/dollar) or peanuts (867 calories/dollar). Let’s assume one can average 800 calories per dollar (which assumes spending about $2.50 per day on food on a 2000 calorie diet), which is a pretty generous assumption.

Let’s compute the miles/dollar assuming 800 calories/dollar: walking gives 11.4 miles/dollar, running gives 7.1 miles/dollar, and biking gives 22.6 miles/dollar. Assuming a gallon of gas is worth 4 dollars, we can express miles per dollar as miles per gallon. This means walking, running and biking converts to 45 mpg, 28 mpg and 90 mpg respectively. Very few Americans spend as little as $2.50/day on food. In fact, $10/day is probably more realistic. Assuming instead 200 calories/dollar (10 dollars/day), we get something like 11 mpg, 7 mpg, 22 mpg for walk, run, and bike. The only way I can beat the economy of my Prius is to bike and fuel that bike ride with ultra-cheap food sources.

Don’t get me wrong, exercise is great. I run, walk and bike a lot. Additionally, most Americans are eating more calories per day than they need, and could possibly bike for transportation without increasing their calorie intake. But, it is not the case that humans are much more efficient than cars.

Menus Without Labels

Once upon a time, when a gentleman would take a lady to a restaurant, the lady would get a menu without prices. The idea is clear, the lady should enjoy her meal without worrying about the price. Today, almost all menus are printed without labeling the calories of the meal. The Center for Science in the Public Interest has a campaign to change this.

There are 3500 calories in a pound, and 365 days in a year. Eating an extra 9.6 calories a day, puts a pound on you every year, which is the average amount of weight gain in a recent study. So, if your diet calls for about 2000 calories, you have to be accurate to about 0.5% in your caloric estimates to only gain about 1 pound a year. Unfortunately, people underestimate the calories of meals, and are particular bad at estimating the calories of big meals. Further, only 11% of consumers could identify which choices had the most calories at McDonalds or Denny’s and 9 out of 10 underestimate the number of calories of less-healthy choices by an average of more than 600 calories. You can try your hand at it: take the online quiz! (I got 2/5 correct).

Let’s look at this thing from the other direction. Why not pass a lady’s menu to everyone? You guess the calories and the cost. Clearly steak is more expensive than chicken! They don’t need to tell you that do they? To make it even easier for the restaurant, they don’t even tell you the price at the end. You just give them your credit card/checking account number and they take the money. At the end of the year, you get a report on how much you owe for food. This might help with obesity. At the end of a few years, when you overeat, you’re not only obese, you’re bankrupt. Maybe that will improve the consumer’s powers of estimation.

I don’t think the obesity problem is a lost cause. I do think the secret is pretty simple:don’t eat too many calories. Here are some simple tips: don’t drink sugar sodas. Don’t eat mega-calorie desserts like Dairy Queen Blizzards (1000), Cheesecake Factory Cheesecakes (1050), or Chick-fil-a milkshakes (790). Never ever ever eat an Awesome Blossom (2710 calories!). If you want dessert, try a cup of strawberries (77 calories) or other fruits. Fruit has carbs (gasp!) but it also has a lot of fiber and water and is very filling. On the other hand, chocolate is not very filling and it’s pretty easy to eat 1000 calories of it. If you are out to eat and must order dessert, try the mini-desserts some restaurants offer. These weigh in at 200-300 calories. WebMD has some tips on cutting calories.

I hope my state of Florida follows San Francisco and New York City to require menu calorie labeling. Here are some examples of menu labels including pictures from NYC Starbucks.

Not yet a sub-5 minute miler.

Not wanting to fall into the trap of only reporting success and never failure, I thought I should report that I failed to run one mile in less than 5 minutes at the track meet.  You can find the results at the FTC website. I did 5:11 for the mile, and then I did a “cool down” 2 miler (which was more of a tempo pace) at 12:25.

I want to thank Brian Menaker. He’s much faster than me, but he paced me for the race. I didn’t make my goal, but I really appreciate his help in my attempt.

My plan is to try again about once a month until I hit it. I’m going to try a new training method: run 6 x 1000m repeats at 5:00/mile pace. Any training or racing suggestions would be appreciated.