When Only the Rich Can Afford to Eat Healthy
> 1/4/2008 9:47:14 AM

Many fingers have pointed in many directions when it comes to the question of why Americans' waistlines have been expanding, but, according to a study published last month, at the heart of the issue may be one of the cruelest of explanations. The rising price of healthy foods has outpaced inflation over the last two years, while heavily processed, generally unhealthy food choices have continued to decline in price. The marketplace, it would seem, is forcing bad choices upon us, even if we don't want them.

Let's get the shocking numbers out of the way upfront. A University of Washington study found that:
  • The healthiest foods in the study—green vegatables, fruits, and berries—cost approximately $18.16 per 1000 calories.
  • The poorest quality foods—typically sweet or fatty snacks—cost $1.76 per 1000 calories.
  • From 2004 to 2006 the price of healthy foods rose by about 20%, while the cost of the more unhealthy choices fell by about 2%.
The hard data here, may surprise, but the information in this study shouldn't really shock if only because Dr. Adam Drewnowski, the lead researcher, has been exploring and publishing in this area for several years. As the director of the University of Washington's Center for Public Health Nutrition Dr. Drewnoski has reached a number of conclusions about the state of nutrition in America, as he pointed out in a university press release:

"That the cost of healthful foods is outpacing inflation is a major problem. The gap between what we say people should eat and what they can afford is becoming unacceptably wide. If grains, sugars and fats are the only affordable foods left, how are we to handle the obesity epidemic?"

Calling the U.S. an "overfed but undernourished nation," Drewnowski suggests that any changes will require wholesale changes to our country's approach to food. As others have started doing, writer Michael Pollan perhaps most prominent among them, Drewnowski points to the farm bill, with its favoritism of the corn and soy that sustain the industrial food system, as well as the policies that continue to prop it up, as areas ripe for change.

The facts described by the Drewnowski's research are stark, and the conclusions that can be drawn can be depressing. But changes can, and we must hope, will come. Until then, a point that Pollan makes in his 2006 healthy eating manifesto The Omivore's Dilemma can provide some perspective. In essence, Pollan asks why, as a society, we are comfortable over-spending on unnecessary items—a new car, an HD TV, heck, even cable television—but when it comes to the one expenditure that we can't afford to skimp on, that which provides us with sustenence, we are more or less okay shopping for the cheapest deal, even if it is a highly processed, flavorless meat patty between two processed-corn infused buns?

Eating healthy is more expensive than eating garbage, that's a fact of life these days. The question we all must ask ourselves is how comfortable we are borrowing against our future well-being just so we can buy those unneeded luxury items today?

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