I was listening to The Accidental Tech Podcast over the weekend, and the hosts meandered onto the topic of healthier eating. They all agreed that this is hard to do without financial means. This is something people often say — I remember a Vox video titled “Why eating healthy is so expensive in America” — but I’ve always been kind of skeptical.
While there is a moderate trend toward less obesity among better-educated and higher-income Americans and an apparent link between life-long obesity and family income during adolescence, the cross-sectional and time-series trends both point in the other direction. In other words, the United States is both richer and fatter than other countries. What’s more, the United States is a lot richer in 2022 than we were in 1982 or 1962, but our obesity issues have gotten much worse. And I don’t think that this is a trick of inequality. Owning a car is unambiguously more expensive than not owning a car, and carlessness has declined dramatically during this period — houses have gotten bigger, we consume more higher education, and Americans generally enjoy greater material abundance.
Personally, I’ve lost a bunch of weight over the past six months, dropping out of the official category of obese and joining the ranks of the merely overweight.
Some aspects of this have been expensive (more on that another time), but switching to food consumption habits that are consistent with weight loss hasn’t been. I stopped drinking alcohol and dramatically reduced my consumption of desserts and between meals or late-night snacks. I eat two slices on pizza night rather than four, even though I really like pizza. This is just to say that while a malnourished person does need to increase their food budget (and there is a clear tendency for countries to see fewer malnourished children when they become richer), in terms of the main dietary problem in the United States, I’m skeptical that cost in the key barrier.
Research does seem to say that nutritious food is more expensive on a per calorie basis. That fact can be transmitted through a game of telephone into tech podcasters off-handedly saying that it’s more expensive to maintain a healthy diet than an unhealthy one. But it’s not really the same thing at all.
Less processed food is cheaper
One reason it’s hard to offer a definitive answer is that people disagree significantly about what exactly is healthiest to eat. But there’s a pretty broad consensus that it’s better to eat minimally processed foods rather than highly processed ones. And here you’d generally expect to see that less-processed food is cheaper because someone is paid to do the processing.
I went on Amazon hunting for examples, both because Amazon sells everything and also because the fresh food listed on Amazon is from Whole Foods, which is infamously expensive. I found a pack of two 15-ounce cans of Stagg Silverado Chili With Beans for $19.08 on Amazon. You can get eight cans of plain Goya black beans for $16.20 or four pounds of dry Goya black beans (equivalent to roughly 16 cans) for $14. Of course, the chili has more than black beans in it, but then you price out the other ingredients:
Four pounds of dry black beans for $14
Three pounds of dry kidney beans for $13.38
Three pounds of ground beef for $18.00
A giant container of chili pepper for $5.71
A big bag of onions for $1.49
That adds up to $53 or so, which is obviously more than the $19.08 for two cans of chili. But you could easily make 12 cans worth of chili and have a pound of black beans to spare. The advantage of the canned chili isn’t that it’s cheaper; it’s that it’s less work. This is also why dried beans are cheaper than canned beans — someone else has gone through the trouble of cooking and canning them for you.
Now you might want to stretch your chili with some rice, in which case you can get a five-pound bag of brown rice for $6.23 or else pay 50 cents more for a five-pound bag of white rice. Most people probably opt for white rice, which — precisely because it’s more processed — is faster to cook and also tastier. But the more healthful brown rice is slightly cheaper.
A box with 24 packs of veggie straws costs $23. Or you could get five pounds of broccoli for $20. You could get 15 pounds of sweet potatoes for $12. There are a lot of valid reasons to give kids veggie straws as a snack rather than roasted sweet potatoes, but the reasons all relate to convenience and/or “they will actually eat it” rather than cost. Paying someone else to do the work for you costs money.
To be fair, you could pick other examples. For the video, Vox compared the price of mass-market strawberry jam to the price of fresh strawberries. And in that case, yes, because strawberries are bulky and seasonal, the superior shipping and storage properties of jam make it cheaper. But here we really know from history that off-season berries (as opposed to fruit preserves) have become more accessible over time, not less. And of course, berries are generally the most expensive of the fruits; other fresh fruit is much cheaper.
It is, however, at least roughly true is that within the world of “real food,” more healthful ingredients tend to cost more.
Starchy, less healthful stuff really is cheaper
Starchy plant-based foods (potatoes, wheat, rice, corn) are cheaper than real fruits and vegetables. At $2.70 for a five-pound bag, russet potatoes are much cheaper than broccoli.
And the traditional peasant diets based on very heavy consumption of these staples are not very nutritious. We know that people between the neolithic revolution and the industrial revolution were generally quite short, with height seeming to vary according to the quantity of available agricultural land. Basically, “grow a bunch of grain” is the most land-efficient way to produce calories, so when land is scarce, that’s what people do. When land is more plentiful, you have more fruits and vegetables and meat and dairy to round out a healthier diet. Some grain-based diets can, in fact, be downright dangerous. In northern Italy, lots of people used to get pellagra, a niacin deficiency that develops when you are reduced to eating an all-corn diet. Mesoamericans nixtamalized their corn to make masa, making niacin nutritionally available and preventing pellagra. But when the use of maize spread, Europeans didn’t understand that nixtamalization was nutritionally important — an all-tortilla diet is a little nutrient-poor, but an all-polenta diet will kill you.
But the well-established notion that a grain-heavy poverty food diet will leave you malnourished is different from the paleo/Atkins hypothesis that it will make you fat.
And while I think Ramona Flowers is almost certainly right about this in the specific context of dietary habits in early 21st century Toronto, it’s obviously not the case that traditional European peasants with their bread-and-porridge diet were fat. The “bread makes you fat” hypothesis is about the impact of a carb-heavy diet on the human body in an environment where food is ubiquitously available, not a world where poor people would be periodically pushed to the brink of starvation and throw a bread riot.