“Learn to Live on Lentils…”

The philosopher Diogenes was eating bread and lentils for supper. He was seen by the philosopher Aristippus, who lived comfortably by flattering the king. Said Aristippus, "If you would learn to be subservient to the king you would not have to live on lentils."

Diogenes replied, "Learn to live on lentils and you will not have to be subservient to the king."

A few years ago, I saw perhaps the most staggeringly condescending remark ever on the topic of eating healthy. It was a comment under an article in the New York Times entitled "A High Price for Healthy Food"--one of those typical media articles supporting the ugly, offensive and entirely false narrative that healthy food has to be expensive.

The article opened with the phrase "Healthy eating really does cost more" and went downhill from there, citing a hilariously unrigorous cost-per-calorie study performed by "researchers" who concluded, somehow, that healthy eating therefore must cost a lot more than unhealthy eating.

Now, looking at food costs in cost-per-calorie terms is dumb and deeply misleading, and if you're interested you can read more about why here. But sadly, because this study supported the "healthy food costs too much" narrative that's so strangely popular throughout our media, the New York Times ran an article about it.

But here's where it got interesting. The thing is, regular readers are often a lot smarter than journalists and "researchers"--particularly innumerate journalists and researchers. And readers began leaving comments with helpful solutions contradicting the article's false narrative that healthy food costs more. They began offering ideas for many different kinds of nutritious yet inexpensive foods--exactly the kinds of foods the article author and the study researchers seemed to think didn't exist.

One of the more popular examples given of a healthy, nutritious, yet inexpensive food was--you guessed it--lentils. Nutritious, satisfying, delicious, and laughably cheap lentils.

Somehow, the very idea of the existence of lentils angered the author of this article, Tara Parker-Pope, causing her to make the following statement in the comments:

"The solution that people live on lentils which are healthful and affordable is just ridiculous to me. Nobody wants to live like that." *

This is why the beautiful little story above about Diogenes and Aristippus--and lentils--has both literal and metaphorical meaning to me.

Isn't it interesting, in the modern era, how we are buried with study after study from SCIENCE!!! telling us what and what not to eat, telling us which foods cost too much and which foods don't cost enough--when the ancients had already figured everything out for us? We just had to stop listening to twisted, false narratives like "healthy eating costs more" and instead embrace a far more empowering and far more effective narrative: that healthy food does not have to cost more--in fact, healthy, delicious and nutritious food can quite often be laughably cheap and easy to prepare.

This is why lentils, for me, are a metaphor for solution-minded thinking, and for the rejection of false narratives.

In stark, stark contrast, the "healthy eating costs more" narrative literally hurts people. It teaches that low cost and high nutrition somehow must be mutually exclusive. It kills off solutions. It blinds people to all kinds of healthy and incredibly inexpensive meals, like the many healthy, laughably cheap recipes you can find right here at Casual Kitchen. And yet for some inexplicable reason, this untrue and unethical narrative is wildly popular with "researchers," the media--and with journalists who make condescending remarks about lentils.

A lie told often enough becomes the truth. "Healthy eating really does cost more" is one of those lies. Don't support it and don't spread it.

Readers, what do you think?

Read Next: Cooking Up Advantages Out of Disadvantages

And: Bonus Reading!
1) Does Healthy Eating Really Cost Too Much? A Blogger Roundtable

2) Avoiding the Yes, But Vortex

3) The "It's Too Expensive to Eat Healthy Food" Debate

4) Dumb and Dumber: The Flaws of Measuring Food Costs Using Cost Per Nutrient and Cost Per Calorie

5) Guess What? We Spend Less Than Ever on Food

[*] The Times has since made it somewhat difficult to find this specific comment. You have to dig around a bit for it, but it is there. However, note: if you’re not a Times digital subscriber, each time you click for a new page of comments under this single article, it counts as an extra "free article" toward your monthly quota of ten free Times articles. Pretty lame if you ask me.

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Marcia said...

I guess it depends. It's a sliding scale you know, so ... what is your baseline? And what are your requirements?

You can start by the USDA "Cost of Eating at Home", for example and their four levels.
You can compare the SAD to a healthier diet
You can compare processed food to cooking
You can compare eating out to cooking.

Eating healthfully *will* be more expensive, sometimes, depending on what you are comparing it TO.

For me, a mid-40's woman, eating healthfully (for weight loss and weight control) requires more fruits, more vegetables, more proteins, and fewer carbs. So, all else being the same - meaning - I was cooking from scratch before and still am - it's more expensive.

Eating 2 servings of carbs, 6 veg, 2 fruit, and 4 lean protein is more expensive than the carb-heavy diet you'd find in the government website, or by eating vegetarian. Lean protein is more expensive than carbs. Lentils are cheap (and I do eat them), but I cannot eat as many as I'd like.

Vegetables are not cheap either. Even eating the cheap vegetables. (I don't garden). I eat approximately 3 lbs of produce a day. I have a family of 4. That comes out to, approximately 9-10 pounds of produce a day. (It's a little less, as my kids eat lunch and snacks at school/ daycare. But vacation was eye-opening!)

And then you have to look at the environmental aspect. There have been multiple studies showing that eating with a thought towards the environment - local, organic, grass fed, free range - is better (both health and planet). That is certainly more expensive than the rest. So, eating from a CSA or the farmer's market is more expensive than produce from the dollar store. However, as it's fresh, it's more nutritious.

Over the last decade or so, my grocery costs have fluctuated with family size and type of eating and time. When I was focused on losing weight, they were high. My energy was on the health and calorie level of the food (more produce and protein) and less on cost. As I moved back towards controlling cost, I found that it took a lot more time (shopping at mulitple stores, more prep work), and it was harder to maintain weight loss (for example, gradually switching over to more beans and less meat resulted in a few pounds of weight regained).

I'm trying to find the right balance.

In any event, for many people, eating healthfully *is* more expensive. I lost my baby weight on a program called "21 Day Fix" by Beachbody. It's not magic, it's macros. But the beauty is its simplicity (I tried for years to develop my own "exchange" program like it.) I am on a message board with 40,000 people, and new people all the time trying to navigate the switch. It's a HUGE shock to many, as their costs go way up. For some of them, it's just going to take practice to figure out how to bring down costs by bulk buying, shopping around, etc.

However, for others, simply going from a high carb diet to one that focuses on produce and lean protein - results in a large increase in their food budget. And while shopping around will bring it down, it will NEVER be as low as their prior processed food diet.

Daniel said...

Interesting thoughts Marcia, thank you for sharing.

I think there's a difference between saying something *can* be true versus saying something is *always* true. I'm not saying you are saying this, but this was what I'm pushing back against with the study and the article I'm criticizing above.

But to your point, certain types of diets can, in general, cost more than others. We've discussed here at CK in the post Does Wheat Belly Eating Always Cost More? that the Wheat Belly diet was just such an example of a diet that, in general, costs more.

Except (and here's the important part) there were *still* many examples of ways to lower the cost of even this diet, and readers of that post shared several helpful and creative examples in the comments.

So, while I agree with you, I still want to make clear that "Can be" more expensive doesn't mean "Is always" more expensive. It's an important distinction that helps unlock peoples' creativity in finding ways to maximize health and save money at the same time.