Want to make healthy food choices? It’ll cost you—an extra $380 a year, according to a new University of Washington study. In fact, “the simple act of adding more potassium to your diet could tack on hundreds more to your annual grocery bill,” reports MSNBC.
It always makes me a combination of sad and irritated to hear people say it’s ‘too expensive’ to eat healthy. Sad, because I live and shop in this country so of course I’m aware that a jumbo-bag of chili-cheese fritos can be had for 99 cents, a McDonald’s combo-meal for few dollars. Unhealthy calories are cheap, sure—but so are vegetables and beans and grains. Is it easier for many people, especially in certain neighborhoods, to purchase convenience-store fare than fresh foods? Sure. Is it understandable why a working mother or father might find it easier to head through the drive-thru than cook up some kale? Obviously. But these are matters of time and access, not money.
So let’s look a little closer at this UW study. The goal, according to lead author Pablo Monsivais, was to determine how much it would cost an American family to eat according to the recently updated U.S. nutritional guidelines (which call for more fresh foods, dietary fiber and other nutrients than their predecessor, the food pyramid). To do so, the researchers surveyed around 1,000 adults in King County, Washington about their current diet, then calculated how much it would cost to bridge the gap between current nutrient intake and the recommended daily values—arriving at the extra $380 per year per person figure.
But there are approximately 8 billion flaws with the study, starting with the fact that we’re only looking at results from one county—and it’s a county known for being expensive, meaning prices may be inflated compared to other areas of the U.S.
And that’s not even the most egregious flaw. Turns out researchers looked not at how families could add potassium, fiber, and other nutrients to their diets most cheaply, but based on what participants tended to already buy that contained those nutrients.
“If you were to guide people toward the most affordable sources of potassium, you could do it more cheaply,” Monsivais said. Potatoes and beans, for instance, are inexpensive sources of potassium and dietary fiber.
For a mere 95 cents, you could buy five bananas at Trader Joe’s, and they’d provide 450 to 500 milligrams of potassium each.
So why would the participants in Monsivais’ study have to spend so much? King County includes Seattle, one of the most affluent and highly educated cities in the country. When those folks consume potassium, Monsivais says, it tends to come in the form of more expensive fruits and vegetables such as nectarines and dark leafy greens.
Of course, nothing in the way this is being reported emphasizes that aspect of the study—it’s not mentioned until about 10 paragraphs into the MSNBC article, which is titled Healthy eating adds $380 to yearly grocery bill, study shows’ and subtitled ‘fresh food choices can feel like luxury in lean times.’ This NBC New York piece fails to mention it at all. That’s irresponsible and lazy journalism, plain and simple. And it’s a shame, because it pushes this defeatest ‘it’s just too expensive to eat right so have another cheeseburger’ media narrative that I believe really does genuine damage.
Monsivais says that “given the times we’re in,” he thinks the government really “needs to make … dietary guidelines more relevant to Americans.” But nutrition isn’t something you can just fiddle around with—’Oh, VItamin D costs more to consume than candy bars? Snickers for curing cancer it is!’ And the real relevancy problem here seems to be not with the guidelines but with Monsivais’ study.
(Photo via Steve Hobson)