The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Pricier Foods Lead to Less Healthful Diets

Pricier Foods Lead to Less Healthful Diets

Shoppers and Trends

March 30, 2008

Pricier Foods Lead to Less Healthful Diets
Low-income families are likely eating fewer fruits and vegetables than their higher-income counterparts, according to a recent study published by the American Dietetic Association. The study, which looked at food-retail prices over a two-year period, found that the price of low-energy-density foods was significantly higher than high-energy-density foods, and increasing disproportionately. Unfortunately, this cost discrepancy is influencing the diet choices of low-income families.
Energy density is defined as a measure of available energy per unit weight. Low-energy-density diets – in other words, diets consisting of whole grains, lean meats, low-fat dairy products, vegetables and fruits – have been known to lower the risk of obesity and improve overall health. Why? These types of diets tend to be higher in nutrients per calorie than diets consisting of more sugars and fats. Although sugar and fat-filled diets are higher in energy, they tend to be nutrient-poor.
“Lower-income families choose high-energy-dense foods for many reasons. Lower costs, a lack of education and lack of availability of healthier foods can all be influential factors,” says Dee Sandquist, M.S., R.D., American Dietetic Association Spokesperson. “The consequences are that they get more fat and sugar and fewer fruits and vegetables. This creates a tendency to gain weight, and a tendency to lack a balanced diet.”
Between 2004 and 2006, the cost of low-energy-density foods was $18.61 per 1,000 kcal, while the cost of high-energy-density foods was only $1.76 per 1,000 kcal – a shocking disparity. Over the two-year period studied, the cost of low-energy-density foods rose a whopping 19.5%. At the same time, the cost of high-energy-density foods dropped 1.8%. Prices of fresh fruits and vegetables in particular increased disproportionately to prices of fats, sweets and soft drinks.
The fact that high-energy-density foods are not only cheaper but also more resistant to inflation may shed some light on the obesity crisis facing lower-income families. It seems clear that economic factors may prevent individuals from choosing more healthful diets, thus increasing their chances of becoming obese. The American Obesity Association concurs, pointing out that that women and persons of low socioeconomic status within minority populations appear to be particularly affected by overweight and obesity.
“In general, because it’s easier for lower-income people to access the foods that have higher calories, it’s easier for them to gain weight. Registered Dietitians, nutritionists and retailers need to work with lower-income families to come up with strategies for prioritizing their budgets, and finding ways to sneak in healthier foods at reasonable costs,” says Sandquist. “Canned and frozen foods are a great option for lower-income families, as these products maintain high nutrient quality.”
Previous studies of this kind emphasized the relationship between the lower cost of food and the higher cost of physical activity with obesity rates amongst the poor, however, not all foods have become uniformly cheaper. This study is the first analysis to highlight the dramatic increases in the lowest density foods as compared to other foods. These findings suggest that the goals set out in the USDA’s 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which has focused on improving the nutrients-to-energy ratio in the American diet, may be unrealistic if they don’t take economic status into consideration.
Other studies reveal that the struggle to improve the American diet is continuing to be an uphill battle. Four consecutive National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES) found that the energy density of foods increased over an eight-year period on trajectories almost parallel to the rates of prevalence of obesity in the U.S. population. Health prevention strategies may need to evolve as consumers persist in seeking out low-cost, and therefore nutrient-poor, foods.
“The first step is to address immediate barriers to achieving a healthy lifestyle, like paying the rent and finding transportation to the grocery store. Once we find solutions to those barriers, we can start to make small changes in eating habits and physical activity. Just a five to 10% decrease in weight loss can help consumers decrease their blood pressure medications,” says Sandquist. “So in the long term, eating healthier can actually help lower-income families reduce their medical costs.”
Policy measures surely have a role to play in ensuring equal access to nutrient-rich foods. Still more crucial is the role of nutritionists and retailers in helping their consumers understand the relationship between cost and energy-dense items. With a little guidance, consumers can learn to select the foods that provide the most nutrition at the most affordable prices.
“Retailers may have to think outside the box to help their lower-income families make better food choices. We can increase their access to healthier foods by helping neighborhoods develop community gardens and by encouraging the growth of local farms, as locally-grown items have reduced transportation costs. But none of these answers are overnight solutions. This is a long-term, ongoing process,” Sandquist adds.