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.

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One Response to The Cost of Eating Well

  1. Pingback: Getting Antioxidants on a Budget « Patrick Oscar Boykin’s Personal Weblog

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