Does Healthy Eating Really Cost Too Much? A Blogger Roundtable Discussion

Barely two generations ago we had a problem with hunger in our culture. Now, in an era where energy-dense food is cheaper and more plentiful than ever, we face an obesity epidemic, and the lower you are on the socioeconomic ladder, the greater your risk of being overweight.

There is an argument, held by some, that obesity is more common among low-income people because healthy food costs more. The logic behind that statement has always bugged me on some level. Perhaps it's because I write a food blog that features so many healthy and laughably cheap recipes.

So I decided to submit this thorny question to Casual Kitchen's Blogging Roundtable and see what our braintrust of bloggers thought about the issue. Here's what I asked them:

America's poor have an obesity problem because healthy food costs more than unhealthy food. Do you agree or disagree with this statement, and why?

Once again, this exercise yielded candid and exceptionally thought-provoking answers from some of the best bloggers out there. Here they are, in their own words:

Joy, author of What I Weigh Today:
I don't agree. It's true that if you go to a typical megamart the potato chips will cost less than the fancy organic snacks at a boutique organic grocery, but I can make a family feast based on mostly vegetarian whole ingredients for less than what a family will spend at the drive-through. Whole ingredients are a cheaper alternative than processed, packaged foods. Now the high-end whole ingredients may cost as much or more than the low-end processed foods, but conventional vegetables, fruits, legumes, and grains are cheaper than even cheap packaged meals and manufactured ingredients. And conventional whole ingredients, especially when meat is limited or eliminated, are healthy.

The real problem is that the basic skills that can turn a hamhock, a pile of beans and some rice into a delicious meal have been all but lost. Plus, economic pressures force parents to spend long hours at multiple jobs, leaving little time or energy for home cooking. We've created a situation where it's so much easier to grab the cheap, palatable meal from a fast food outlet that many have lost the will to learn to cook. When we decide, as a society/culture, to pursue social justice for all walks of life, the health of all Americans, including the poorest among us, will improve.

Tyler, author of 344 Pounds:
I disagree with this statement. I was the textbook definition of poor growing up and I don't blame anybody but myself for my obesity. Sure, I believe the rich or those of moderate means have easier access to food that is of a higher nutritional value due to its cost, but at the end of the day -- unless you suffer from a medical condition, being obese is a choice. While I might have only had access to unhealthy foods growing up, I also had the ability to control my portions and make sure I engaged in daily physical activity -- the exact same way I'm losing weight today.

I did neither when I was a child and I became overweight, then obese. It had nothing to do with my parents' bank account.

Tara, author of Beach Eats:
As a woman who's engaged in a life-long struggle with her weight, I'm here to tell you that its entirely possible to be fat on a diet of quality, healthy food. It's not the cost of food that's gotten me here, its the quantity! I avoid packaged foods, shop organic, eat fresh, local, foods as much as possible and have not seen the inside of a fast food restaurant in years ... yet ... I'm overweight. I'm overweight on high quality, expensive, healthy food.

Personally, I can't separate any discussion of obesity from the issue of personal responsibility. We all make choices and suffer their consequences. Will I go for a walk, or crash in front of the tube with a bag of chips? Do I really need a "Big Gulp" when water would suffice? Snack on an apple or throw down with a box of Twinkies? You get my point. Skip the walk and opt for the chips, Big Gulp and Twinkies and you're going to end up fat every time, regardless of income.

Yes, we absolutely need to address the rising cost of food in this country, but we also have to hold ourselves accountable for our choices.

Kris, author of Cheap Healthy Good:
I vehemently disagree with this statement. America's poor have obesity problems because many urban and rural areas lack decent grocery stores, there isn't enough overall nutrition and food education, and cooking at home becomes a negligible priority when a family is just trying to get by. Schools are attempting to combat this, but it's difficult when junk food is pushed at kids from birth, reinforced constantly by the media, and served every day at home. It's important to recognize that non-poor Americans have the very same issues, though, which is why two thirds of the country is overweight. It's not the economy. It's our culture.

Jules, author of stonesoup:
In Australia, we face a similar situation with obesity. I wish it were as simple as the cost of healthy food but to me there are many more factors involved. Sure there are plenty of cheap burgers and takeaway pizza out there but pulses (legumes) and fresh fruit and veggies aren't necessarily any more expensive--they just take time and knowhow to turn them into something delicious. The other key factor to me is the availability and convenience of fresh food.

So if you did have to point a finger to the cause of our expanding waistlines I'm thinking lack of education is really the key. Knowing what the best food choices are is really important as is having the skills to be able to prepare nutritious meals at home.

Readers, here's your chance to sound off. What are your thoughts on this issue?

Related Posts:
All CK recipes tagged with laughably cheap
When High-Fat Food Can Actually Be Healthy For You
Ten Strategies to Stop Mindless Eating
Make Your Diet Into a Flexible Tool
The Pros and Cons of a High-Carb/Low-Fat Diet

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Morta Di Fame said...

I think everyone is different whether you grew up rich, middle-class or poor, and each person has unique experiences with food, culturally and with regard to the types of food accessible and the choices made with those options. Genetics also plays a big role. But when we look outside our own kitchens at the population as a whole, the proof is in the pudding with regard to socioeconomic status and health. Aside from obesity which like one blogger said, is a simple mathematical problem of quantity, no matter what the quality of the food is, other food related diseases like diabetes and hypertension have ALOT to do with socioeconomic status, "women with diabetes were approximately twice as likely as women without diabetes to have an annual household income <$25,000," (
Another, "Mortality rates from hypertension related diseases such as coronary heart disease, hypertensive heart disease, stroke and end stage renal disease show an inverse association with socio-economic status" (
And last, "overweight and obesity are particularly common among minority groups and those with a lower family income," (
All of this information is out there and if you believe that a lot of these diseases including obesity are related to the quality of the food we put in our bodies, then this points to the fact that people of lower socioeconomic status have either access to lesser quality foods or have no knowledge of how to acquire better quality foods. Its really as simple as driving around a major city. In nicer areas, there are better grocery stores, while in poorer areas, there are not.
That being said I have changed my diet to all local and organic with a food csa and farmer's market. I am saving ALOT of money, so I am paying less for superior quality food. I am not poor. I am well educated and make these choices based on my knowledge which is not accessible to everyone, unfortunately.

Steve said...

Healthy eating need not be expensive. Eating inexpensive food doesn't cause obesity. To eat healthy food and not get fat does require some knowlege of nutrition and, for some of us, a lot of willpower both to make the right food choices and to get more exercise. This time of year, my wife and I also eat fresh veggies from the garden. It doesn't get much cheaper...or healthier... than that!

Kat said...

Obesity is not always a result of overeating or poor food choices, it sometimes IS a matter of genetics. Two people can eat the same foods in the same quantities and have two different reactions. I've known people who could eat massive amounts of foods and remain thin. I could eat 10 calories a day and exercise for 1/2 an hour and still gain 5 pounds a week. If we were to ignore biology, the weight gain statements would apply.

As for me, I grew up poor. Healthy fruits and vegetables were always available at the local supermarket, at the local bodegas, even by vendors who would drive around selling their porduce. Junk food was a phenomenon of American culture. Only in the US could you find bags and bags of chips and Twinkies lining the counters and next to the cash register. My summer vacations showed me stores where fruit were showcased like this instead.

The constant bombardment of tv and print ads, along with poor nutritional education is the problem in urban societies. We also shouldn't forget that in some societies, food, as well as the shape of one's body, is a status symbol. A plump, curvy figure sometimes is more treasured than that of a twig. The american perception of what a woman should look like is just as damaging, and the idea of a woman who isn't as thin as either of the Olsen twins is deemed to be considered fat or obese by their peers...

pixelgal said...

I've battled the bulges for the better part of my senior life and haven't figured it out yet. I know it has nothing to do with the cost of food. Or whether you're rich or poor. My husband was poor and he's not fat. I wasn't and I am. My family had fat genes on both sides but my sister is thin as was my Dad until he was older. And bread and pasta are really good! So is chocolate. I think today the sedentary lifestyle kids lead, 2 working parents eating at Mickey D's a lot and so much pressure to have activities going on every minute there's no time to think about cooking or what you're feeding the kids. But my Mom always made the best, healthiest meals. I just ate too much and couldn't control my sweet tooth. Or inherited the fat genes instead of the few thin ones. Good question though.

Diane said...

I think the statement that one cannot eat well cheaply is a bit of a cop-out, although at the extreme end of the income spectrum (if one lives in a single room without a kitchen for example...), it is certainly true.

I eat extremely well on less than $40 a week. I buy some organic ingredients, lots and lots of veg & fruit, some meat and fish - but I cook everything from scratch. And I do it while working 40-80 hours a week. It is NOT more expensive to eat well, or to eat fresh foods, or to eat "gourmet" - but here comes the IF - put in the effort. And yes, it can be a bit daunting if you are not used to it, or have not developed these skills:

- don't drink soda or buy snacks. Don't buy single servings prepped for ready-eating, or ready-made snacks. If I want brownies I make them.
- know how to cook. This is a dying skill. It's way cheaper to make stock from scratch, or to break down a chicken into parts, or to make pies for example than to have someone else do that work for you.
- menu plan, shop with a list, and be a good home economist. For example - buy what's on sale when you see it - but KNOW if it's a good deal and not just clever packaging trying to get you to buy a bunch of stuff you don't actually need. I recently found apples on sale for $0.30/lb and bought >5# to make applesauce. Over yogurt (bought in 1/2 gallon tub) that's breakfast for weeks.
- Buy in bulk when it makes sense - and know your unit costs. I buy rice, beans, yogurt and the like in large quantities as it is way cheaper.
- Go meatless a few days a week if you can (this is not for everyone). I eat lots of Indian food, with a wide variety of veg, but I only eat meat 1-2x a week. I also buy cheap meats and fishes - I like squid, rock cod, trout, flank steak, ox tail, lamb shank, organ meats, etc. They can be very affordable still, although less affordable than just veg.
- Know where to shop that will have the best deals. I buy my rice in Chinatown, my spices at the Indian grocery, meats/produce at one grocery, and canned goods at another - each has the best prices for that particular thing. I've built up this shopping database in my mind over time. Ethnic markets, particularly if one lives near a Chinatown, can be really affordable and have great produce.
- Buy organic only for the stuff that matters (the high pesticide fruits/veg), if that matters to you. I always buy organic strawberries, for example, as conventional are high in residue. But onions? Never. They are low in residue and get peeled. It's a waste of money.
- If you can, garden or at least grow herbs. Herbs are REALLY expensive, and many are pretty easy to grow.
- Enjoy the splurges, but just as an accent item. If you save on other stuff, buy something that's a great taste item to brighten up your meals. I like Italian Parmesan, and always have it in the fridge, but I small small wedges and don't use that much of it per dish. It doesn't take much to give a lot of flavor.

Anyhow - this is a bit long and rambling, but I guess I think it's all a matter of a) skills and b) trade-offs. The skills and knowledge database takes time and effort to build up, and it's not an instant thing. But I eat a lot cheaper than my friends do, and I don't eat poorly, and I eat a widely varied diet with many fresh items.

Nancy said...

I agree with Joy on this one. The skills needed to take whole foods and turn them into a meal have all but disappeared in today's culture. I think there is a desire to change this though but unfortunately it's after we (USA) have suffered obesity at epic proportions. I grew up on a farm and we didn't have much money but my mother always had a garden, we had fruit trees and we raised our own cattle & hogs so we were relatively self-sustaining. Mom canned and froze vegetables and fruits. We had fresh applesauce, jellies and pie filling all winter long. As a young teenager I remember many times looking in the cabinet and finding nothing to eat but just like magic Mom could put a complete meal on the table for lunch or dinner. I am so thankful that I learned the basics of cooking from scratch from my mother. It's saved me a lot as an adult -- both financially and physically.

The Diva on a Diet said...

Dan, thank you so much for providing the forum for this valuable discussion. I'm simply blown away by the thoughtful responses (both here and on my own blog) and I agree with each and every one of them.

I can't tell you how much I enjoy these Blogger's Roundtable discussions and I hope you'll continue the tradition. I've learned so much and have really enjoyed reading all the thoughts/opinions expressed here.

Well done, all of you!

Daniel said...

There's lots of great advice and insightful thinking in these comments, thanks everyone for your input.

One thing I'll add: I have to say that I'm surprised at the overwhelming consensus disagreeing with the question I asked. I figured more people would disagree than agree, but not to this extent.


Kristine said...

One friend lamented over the available foods at the food bank. Very few vegetables, fruits, low-fat proteins. I'm not sure what you can get with WIC and food stamps. Can anyone help with that?

Joanne said...

My family gets take out more often than they would like to admit and I am always appalled at the amount of money that they are willing to throw away. I will be sitting there eating my sweet potato covered with black beans and tomatoes that probably cost me about a dollar while they will have just spent $40+ on their meal (for 4 people...they inevitably order too much and then the leftovers sit in the fridge and go to waste). I think part of the problem is that people see the cost of a meal as both the money it actually expends and the time it will take to prepare it. So for some, the fast food wins out on the time front.

There is so much more I could write about this since it is a topic near and dear to my heart, and one that I frequently discuss with my family and friends but I will end here saying that I believe with a little planning and awareness, everyone can eat healthy for less.

Cheryl Arkison said...

No one touched on marketing... Who is the target audience for take-out, fast food, formula, and convenience foods? Marketing can indeed create demand. And the abundance of convenience products (already roasted pot roast, seriously?) is scary. I know why the food industry does it - you can only get growth in profits by selling more and creating new products with high margins. So they encourage people to eat more and more of foods that really are simple to make, but they capitalize on the busyness of North American culture. The growth paradigm claims more victims.

Many commenters also mentioned time and the ability to cook. I am a working mom with two little ones. I do all our shopping - a minimum of four places a week - and cooking. While some days the drag of spending so much time in the process of feeding my family does indeed get to me, I take tremendous pride in the quality of food - whether it be steak or baked beans - I feed my family. And I consider cooking to be family time, with my girls right beside me in the kitchen.

I have mommy friends who are amazed at how I cook almost everything from scratch, they wonder at the time it takes. I tell them I just don't know any other way.

Daniel said...

Kristine: I hear you. I think food banks tend to bias their offerings towards canned and packaged foods that have longer shelf life.

Joanne: I'm hoping you'll share some of your thoughts on these issues on your blog at some point. I'm sure they'll be insightful and well worth a read.

Cheryl: You make a great point. These ARE very profitable products. Permit a moment of finance-speak: consumer products companies have operating margins in the high teens, or even above 20%--that is a juicy business and it is well worth the extra marketing and advertising spend. I think it's up to us as comsumers to wake up to the fact that these foods are often unhealthy and rarely worth extra cost. We need to vote with our wallets.

Thanks again for the insights. This has been a really good discussion.


KARMINA said...

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Carol said...

My expensies are somewhat higher than the norm, as I must eat gluten-free. I have, however, found ways to cut back on the costs even there - I shop in Asian groceries, where Jowar flour is a quarter the cost of Sorghum flour in a specialty store. They're the same thing. Rice flour is much, much less expensive there, too, as are bean flours. These stores are good sources for fresh produce as well, as Asian cuisines depend upon it.

Also, check out the produce section in your supermarket. My sister once got two large boxes of less-than-perfect apples and peaches, ones the store was going to toss, for only five dollars. For an afternoon's worth of work, with the kids helping, there was enough frozen fruit for pies and crisps all winter long.

Look for pick-your-own farms for fruits, and freeze them for year-long consumption. Growing up, strawberry prep was a weekend affair. We'd go out and pick, and Mum, my sisters and I would hull and freeze the berries, while Dad played guitar and everyone sang.

Maybe our ideas of what constitutes entertainment need a little changing, too. I'd far rather spend an evening trading tunes with friends than attend a concert, and the best part - apart from a few snacks, it's free, and builds or strengthens social links as well.