Why the poor can't afford to eat better

Compiled by Lane Anderson, Deseret News National Edition

Published: Wed, Sept. 3, 2014, 5:15 a.m. MDT

 Eating healthy is a luxury most poor can't afford.

Eating healthy is a luxury most poor can't afford.


Americans are eating better — filling up on more heart-healthy whole grains, fruits and vegetables than they were a decade ago.

On an index of healthy eating in which 110 is a perfect score, U.S. adults averaged 40 points in 2000 but climbed to 47 points in 2010, according to a 12-year Harvard study.

For low-income, adults, however, the score has barely budged. They averaged almost four points lower than high-income adults, putting them at higher risk for obesity and chronic illnesses like heart disease and diabetes.

Researchers call the "diet gap" disconcerting and predict that it will "have important public health implications," according to study co-author Dr. Frank Hu.

"Declining diet quality over time may actually widen the gap between the poor and the rich," Hu said.

He said the diet difference reflects an income gap that widened during the financial crisis, making healthy food less affordable and out of reach for low-income families, while processed foods tend to be inexpensive and widely available in low-income neighborhoods.

The healthy-eating index for the Harvard study gives top scores to those who eat more than two cups of vegetables a day and at least four servings of fruit and a healthy fat, like nuts — the very foods that often come with the highest price tags at the grocery checkout.

A recent Feeding America study that interviewed 60,000 people in lines at food pantries found that the No. 1 coping mechanism for food insecurity was buying cheaper, less nutritious food. It also found a high correlation for chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension, once again linking poverty, poor diet and chronic disease.

A JAMA response to the study noted the "growing chasm" between the diet and health of the poor and the well-off; it suggested that government programs like food stamps may not solve the problem and that limiting government benefits to healthy food might be a better solution.

Email: laneanderson@deseretnews.com

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1. belgie
Tualatin, OR,
Sept. 3, 2014

It is absolutely untrue that it costs too much to eat healthy.

Whole grains in bulk and fresh potatoes are almost the cheapest foods you can buy. Carrots are cheaper than dirt, and several other vegetables like celery, lettuce, and tomatoes are always reasonable. Some frozen and canned vegetables are cheaper than fresh, and often, just as healthy. Bananas are always less than $1 per pound, and other fruit, especially in season, is almost always available for less than $1.50 per pound. Chicken or pork a few times a week will not break the bank. They're certainly cheaper than the junk I see in most people's basket. And, nuts, though nice, are expendable.

Really, the problem is ignorance and laziness.

2. Libilou
Lehi, UT,
Sept. 3, 2014

Belgie, do you live here in Utah? Those things may be "dirt cheap" there, but not so here. And you have absolutely no idea that cooking involves more than just those things. Fresh fruit and veggies are damned expensive here. Chicken is incredibly expensive here. Your privilege is showing. Try actually being poor to understand.

3. JoeCapitalist2
Orem, UT,
Sept. 3, 2014

belgie is right. You can eat very cheaply if you buy bulk raw healthy foods. That is how I made it through my college years. They only get expensive when you insist on some fancy organic label at a specialty market.

It gets really cheap when you grow your own in a garden. It is a complete lie that poor people can't afford healthy foods and must buy junk food instead with their food stamps.

It would be much better if the bulk healthy foods were the ONLY thing you could buy with food stamps, but the grocery business will have none of that kind of reform.

4. belgie
Tualatin, OR,
Sept. 3, 2014

@Libilou - I spend plenty of time in Utah, I do the shopping, I cook, and I've been plenty poor. I know what i'm talking about. I see lots of canned/boxed drinks, candy, chips, cookies, and other processed, prepared foods in the baskets of people paying for at least some of their food with food stamps.

5. Impatient
Lindon, UT,
Sept. 3, 2014

You can argue about the absolute price of foods, but it is undeniable that prepared foods--whether at the supermarket or your local grease joint--are more expensive than basic staples. This is just yet another elitist making excuses for obese people. There is plenty of cheap food in this country; what is needed is people taking responsibility for their own health.