“You should eat healthier. It’s so good for your health!”
We’ve all heard it before. Eating healthy improves your wellbeing. But have you ever been to the organic section of the supermarket and looked at the price tags? I have. And poof: every intention of eating healthier magically disappeared. The first thing I thought was: “I don’t have a choice. Everything’s so expensive. It’s impossible to eat healthy on a budget!”
Is it truly like that? Not exactly.
What is considered healthy eating?
Fruits, vegetables and ABSOLUTELY no desserts. Is this a healthy diet?
According to the World Health Organization, in order to eat a healthy diet, we should eat as many calories as we burn throughout the day. If you eat less, you lose weight. If you eat more, you gain weight. But it’s not as simple as that. There are also a series of recommended quantities of food you should aim to eat every day: no more than 10% of total intake should come from free sugars; no more than 30% from fat; never eat more than 5 grams of salt per day. The list could go on and go.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t have the time or the patience to keep track of all the food I eat every day. However, this doesn’t mean that we can’t make smart food choices.
Whether our goal is to lose weight, gain muscle, or just live a healthier life, all the food we eat is the result of conscious choices we make throughout the day. Some choices are healthier than others.
Let’s imagine it’s 4 p.m. and you’re hungry. You go to the kitchen to get something to eat. Opening the fridge, you see two things: an apple with some nuts on the right and a cereal bar on the left. Cereal bars are very tasty, we all know it, but you already ate one yesterday. So you make a conscious choice and eat the apple with nuts.
This simple food choice will result in an overall healthier diet. Cereal bars are full of fats and sugars and have little nutritional value. Does it mean that you can never eat them? Absolutely not. A healthy diet is firstly a balanced diet.
Having no choices
Not everyone is lucky enough to afford to make a conscious choice regarding the food they want to eat. Many people don’t even have access to food. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) defines food insecurity as lacking “regular access to safe and nutritious food for normal growth and development and an active and healthy life.” In a 2019 report, the FAO highlighted that almost one-third of people worldwide suffer from food insecurity.
This issue is strongly related to money: people who have a lower income might need to buy the cheapest food available — highly processed and higher in saturated fat, sugars, and empty calories — instead of more nutritious food, such as fruits and vegetables.
It may seem absurd that fruits and vegetables are actually more expensive than highly processed foods, but we should keep in mind two contributing factors:
- Fresh products have a shorter shelf life and, therefore, can’t be bought in bulk.
- Fruits and vegetables can’t be mass-produced; we have to wait for their natural course of life.
Moreover, since most highly processed foods are calorie-dense, buying one apple — even if it’s cheaper than a cereal bar — isn’t going to fill you up the same way a cereal bar does. Many low-income groups just don’t want to feel hungry at night, regardless of the nutritional values of the food they ate.
Factors influencing food choices
Why do people eat the food they eat? When it comes to food choices, there are a lot of factors contributing to it.
Income and cost of food
As we’ve said in the previous paragraph, not everyone is able to buy the most expensive and organic foods. Sometimes, we only want to feel full and satisfied at night. For many low-income families, food decisions aren’t even seen as a choice but as a means of surviving; therefore, instead of caring about nutritional values, they care about the longevity of the product, the price, and how filling it would be.
Having a lower income means that you have to make choices regarding how you want to spend the money you have. In a 2020 report, low-income families highlighted that most of the time, they had to choose between paying bills and buying food.
The expression “cultural food practice” refers to the fact that people’s preferences regarding food types, eating time and structures, and eating places are mainly influenced by their family traditions or their social groups, such as schools and friends. For example, what food we like and don’t like depends on physiological conditioning gained through exposure to foods.
Regardless of education level and occupation category, there’s a strong link between food choices and nutritional knowledge. In fact, it’s been shown that being aware of the positive and negative aspects of foods influences our eating habits and might lead to consuming more fruits and vegetables and less saturated fat.
Having a limited budget means that you might not afford a car nor a monthly pass to travel around the city and reach the most convenient yet organic food shop you can think of. Most low-income families can only afford to walk to the nearest supermarket, regardless of that shop’s food quality.
Is healthy eating really that expensive?
As we’ve seen so far, many factors contributing to food choices are linked to money. But eating healthy might not be as expensive as it seems.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) tried to prove that it’s possible to eat healthier on a limited budget by providing an affordable weekly menu; however, the menu has been criticized for being unrealistic. Therefore, a community based participatory research (CBPR) decided to collaborate with a Native American community, the Mechoopda Indian Tribe of Chico Rancheria, and Northern Valley Indian Health (a private, non-profit tribal organization providing medical and dental services) to create a more inclusive yet inexpensive menu that followed the USDA nutrition guidelines.
The study confirmed that it was possible to eat healthy on a limited budget if the families shopped at bulk supermarkets instead of specialty supermarkets. Moreover, it suggested ways to make the shopping more affordable and healthier by choosing a mix of whole grains products and protein. For example, choosing oats and corn products is a great and affordable alternative to whole wheat products.
Healthy eating shouldn’t be all about money
Having shown that by making smart choices it’s possible to eat healthier on a budget, it’s clear that not everything’s about money. Creating good habits, such as eating fruits as a snack or choosing oats instead of whole grains, is as important as buying affordable products.
As we’ve seen, the foods we like are those we got used to eating when we were younger. If we don’t like vegetables and fruits, we can think of new ways in which we can get used to them. . For example, we could take meals and dishes that we already like, but use new versions of the recipes which involve more vegetables. This can be a great first step towards liking the vegetables themselves.
However, the financial barrier should still be considered. Dr. David Katz presented an idea by which we could incentivize people to eat healthier without spending more money. He proposed to place a small tax on low nutritional value food and use the revenues from that tax to support fruits and vegetables, consequently lowering their price.
Regardless of whether or not Katz theories are applied, we can still have a very healthy diet by going to bulk supermarkets and buying the most nutritional yet affordable food we can find.
Not everyone is lucky enough to afford to go to a bulk supermarket or have the time to cook a decent meal; however, if you are in a more privileged position, you have the power to choose how you want to live your life and how healthy you want to be.