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Latest Health News: Healthy Eating is Affordable

Sweet Decisions Berries and Doughnuts fr by Pink Sherbet Photography, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic Licenseby  Pink Sherbet Photography 

A recent study about nutrition is making a lot of headlines this month. The news is not so much a nutritional breakthrough as a rethinking of an old idea. While some consider the USDA study just a new way to crunch nutritional data, it may contribute to a major shift in how we view the cost of being healthy.

The report concluded that eating healthy food is more cost effective than eating poorly. It’s a conclusion that debunks accepted wisdom that it’s cheaper to eat a diet loaded with sugar and fat than it is to eat more nutritious food. Such assumptions, based on calorie-to-calorie comparisons, have been supported by previous studies, including one conducted by the University of Washington Nutritional Science Program in 2010, and has led many to point the finger at a broken food system that particularly affects low income families. Unhealthy foods full of calories – like cereals, pastries and fast food – could be purchased cheaply, while the price-per-calorie of fruits or vegetables was much higher in comparison, stated previous studies. Poor eating habits were understandable, if unfortunate, because it was the cost-effective choice.

The USDA study could begin to change this way of thinking.

The Study 

According to the USDA report, “fruits and vegetables are often cheaper when you calculate the cost in a smarter way.” This new calculation was the result of researching 4,000 foods and analyzing price per calorie, price by weight, and price by average amount consumed. Previous calculations that guided the “junk food is cheaper” conclusion measured only price per calorie. Researchers found that fruits and vegetables were cheaper when taking into account the amount of vitamins and minerals they provide – that is, they give more “bang for the buck”. In addition, more satisfaction can be derived by higher amounts, One article about the USDA study shows a plate of nutritious food (broccoli and berries) compared with calorically comparable junk food amounts like M&Ms and chips. The amounts of nutritious food dwarf the junk food portions. The message is that healthier food is the better value after all.

In fact, before the onslaught of headlines this month, Mark Bittman wrote an article for the New York Times that questioned this entrenched idea that junk is more affordable. (We talked about his article in a previous post.) Like the researchers cited in the USDA study, he mentions beans and lentils as inexpensive foods that provide high nutrition, high volume, and serve as great nutritional meat alternatives. Bittman also cites roasted chicken, rice, pasta, other grains, and vegetables as less expensive alternatives to cheaper fast or processed food, arguing against the idea that grass-fed meat and high priced organics are the only ways to eat healthier.

A Crack in Food’s “New Calculation”?

By all accounts, nutrition is the best way to avoid health problems, prevent disease, and reduce the myriad issues that accompany weight gain. But previous conclusions about the high cost of staying healthy have been reiterated thousands of times in writings and discussions about the health crisis. Understanding more about food and its nutritional and monetary value by looking at it in a new way – with a “smarter calculation” – may indeed provide a way to break us out of a learned helplessness when it comes to eating better.

At the same time, the study does not factor in crucial elements that lead to that value – like cooking. That roasted chicken with lentils may be pound smart, but it doesn’t calculate for preparation time or for the knowledge about how to cook. It neglects to take into consideration that we must 1) understand the importance of nutrition and how to get it,  2) know how to cook and prepare real food, and 3) have the time it takes to do it for ourselves and our families.

Also, the reality of nutrition is that better food must be available. The growth of supermarkets in urban areas and farmer’s markets is encouraging. Improved cafeterias are changing the health of our kids. Health efforts for employees that include distributing menus from places that offer fresh foods and spending lunch breaks walking has changed the health habits in many workplaces. But the “fast food mile” we drive by on the way home from a long work day can destroy good eating habits, even when money is not an issue. Good food must be available for us to have the option to choose it, and its availability must slowly replace the abundance of poor food choices in our homes, schools, and communities.

Changing Food Value By Buying Frozen 

With news of the new food value calculation, the mention of frozen surfaces over and over again. Taking advantage of frozen fruits and vegetables is one of the easiest ways we can significantly change how we invest in our health. Here’s why:

  • Frozen fruits and veggies are just as nutritious as fresh if not more. Understand why that is.
  • Frozen means nutritious foods like wild blueberries, one of the highest antioxidant foods there is, are available every day of the year, at your supermarket and in your freezer.
  • Frozen can be purchased affordably in bulk. Buy a bulk bag of a frozen fruit or vegetable, and it stays for weeks in your freezer. That means there is no waste, a major contributor to rising food bills.
  • There is no prep. Frozen is easy to use and cook with.

How do you weigh in on food values? What’s the most appropriate way to measure the cost of a meal? Should food by measured by calorie or by portion size? What’s the most nutritious meal you can make on the cheap? Let us know.

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