Hunting for Calories in the Supermarket is Cheap and Easy

On his blog "On the Table" New York Times contributing writing Michael Pollan provides a compelling take on people's dietary selections, citing low income levels and high cost of fresh produce as major reasons why people eat poorly. Research indicates junk food is more cost effective:

A 2004 article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition by Adam Drewnowski and S.E. Specter offers some devastating answers. One dollar spent in the processed food section of the supermarket the aisles in the middle of the store will buy you 1200 calories of cookies and snacks. That same dollar spent in the produce section on the perimeter will buy you only 250 calories of carrots. Similarly, a dollar spent in the processed food aisles will buy you 875 calories of soda but only 170 calories of fruit juice. So if you're in the desperate position of shopping simply for calories to keep your family going, the rational strategy is to buy the junk.


Mr. Drewnowski explains that we are driven by our evolutionary inheritance to expend as little energy as possible seeking out as much food energy as possible. So we naturally gravitate to "energy-dense foods" high-calorie sugars and fats, which in nature are rare and hard to find. Sugars in nature come mostly in the form of ripe fruit and, if you're really lucky, honey; fats come in the form of meat, the getting of which requires a great expense of energy, making them fairly rare in the diet as well. Well, the modern supermarket reverses the whole caloric calculus: the most energy-dense foods are the easiest that is, cheapest ones to acquire. If you want a concise explanation of obesity, and in particular why the most reliable predictor of obesity is one's income level, there it is.

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dandi kenoyer - May 17, 2006 3:48 PM

This is an interesting article. Could you sometime soon run an article on how to follow the Eat to Live diet on a low budget? Three people that I know are interested in ETL, they are all low income and need some tips on how to manage it. The question of cost came up also on the ETL discussion group on Yahoo. So this is a very timely subject.

Dandi

Helena - May 17, 2006 4:14 PM

I am sure this is one factor. I find it difficult to eat healthy, because one head of lettuce cost quite a bit of money while providing almost no calories (thankfully dried beans provide quite a bit of calories for very little money).

On the other hand: there is a HUGE market for diet soda and other diet products. People do want to spend big money on products without calories or with fewer calories. People also spend lots of money on fast food where it really is cheaper, even calorie for calorie, to prepare healthier food with the same amount of calories at home.

Linda - May 18, 2006 9:07 AM

I think it's a matter of cutting out unnecessary stuff rather than buying cheap food. I was a former starving student and, when there IS no money, you really know what to get rid of to survive! I didn't necessarily do it right back then; but I did look around and truly unnecessary stuff. Maybe save every receipt you get, write down all that you spend and what you spend it on. At the end of the month, see what can be cut or is otherwise wasteful. Are you buying coffee? Are you buying yogurt? tofu? boxed cereals? Maybe that will help.

Whole foods are denser and more satisfying, I find. And although I do eat a lot, I end up spending less in the long run because I'm satiated longer. If I continued to eat processed, it leaves me hungry for more, more more and it digests too fast.
I also intend to save on medical bills :) So, over time, I *will* have spent less.

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