Healthy Eating: Good for Your Body, Bad for Your Bottom Line?

BY Jason Kane  August 24, 2011 at 12:30 PM EDT


Flickr User West Side Market.

It looks as easy as dishing up dinner. According to new advice from the federal government, eating healthy simply means filling your plate with fresh broccoli and salmon, a generous spoonful of rice pilaf, some fruit salsa and a side of yogurt.

Sound expensive? That’s because it is, according to a recent report published in the journal Health Affairs. If you want your dinner plate to come anywhere close to the new MyPlate federal guidelines — the same ones that toppled the food pyramid earlier this summer — get ready to fork over some cash in the check-out line.

The recommendations call on all Americans to slim down and shape up by boosting their intake of foods containing potassium, dietary fiber, vitamin D and calcium. But the study shows that living up to all of the guidelines would cost hundreds, if not thousands, more for a typical family each year. The potassium recommendation alone could add $380 to the average yearly grocery bill.

According to the report, people who spend the most come closest to meeting those guidelines. Those who shell out the least are woefully lacking in each of those four groups and have a tendency to consume far more saturated fat and sugar.

But don’t despair, cash-strapped shoppers. With a little creativity, the MyPlate message — and First Lady Michelle Obama’s accompanying crusade to get kids back to a healthy weight — is within reach for those on even the tightest budgets, says study author Adam Drewnowski.

Drewnowski, a world-renowned researcher on innovative approaches to the treatment and prevention of obesity, sat down with NewsHour Health Correspondent Betty Ann Bowser to discuss how.

Tell us in a nutshell what the findings were in your study.

Our study surveyed 2,000 people in the Seattle area, asking where they shopped, what they bought and what they ate. And what we were able to do is attach prices to their daily food consumption. If you spend more, do you eat better? And the answer was yes.

Were you surprised by that?

No, we were not. In fact, I’m quoting Michelle Obama, who said very much the same thing standing in a supermarket, ‘The healthy choice is not always the most affordable choice.’ But we feel it ought to be. Now the question is how to make it so.

Well what are some of the answers?

I think the answer is to look beyond the obvious and try to identify the affordable, nutrient-rich foods within each food group. They do exist. So, we need to focus on foods which were forgotten in the rush to get the best nutrition. We are now moving back towards the affordable best nutrition. So we’ve got to think again about foods such as potatoes. They’re being eliminated from federal programs. Why? They’re perfectly nutritious, inexpensive food. What about things such as bananas, oranges, citrus juices, fruit juices? You know, things do not have to be organic, local, grown within a hundred miles. They can also be frozen and processed.

How hard is this going to be for the average American family to do?

Well, average American families already do it in a way. Because when you start looking at purchase patterns, you actually do see that potatoes and bananas outsell exotic fruit and salad greens. And you see that oranges outsell other fruit. So American families, to some extent, are doing this already, they know about their budgets, and they should be encouraged, as opposed to steered away. So we say to people, ‘Don’t drink fruit juices, eat whole fruit.’ Well the truth is, fruit juices are fine. We say ‘Don’t eat potatoes, eat sweet potatoes.’ Potatoes are fine. So I’m saying we ought to take the economic considerations into account, and deal openly with the fact that some families — especially these days — have very limited food budgets.

So do you think the nutritional advantage of something like a sweet potato is so minimal that it’s not worth the extra money for most folks?

Sweet potatoes are rich in vitamin A and not too expensive — but few people eat them. My goal was to identify foods that were nutrient dense, affordable and well accepted by the consumer. White potatoes, carrots and sweet potatoes all fit the bill.

Do you think the results of your study push back against some of the messaging the American public is getting from the White House about how we can become a fitter, healthier nation?

The message is absolutely consistent with the message of the White House. We’re saying, however, that some of the common approaches are going to be expensive. They can be made less expensive by adopting different eating patterns, which we should probably do, and there should be greater reliance on foods which are frozen, and processed and canned. And those are not bad foods. And also let me get this clear, I don’t think that spending a bit more money on food is a bad idea, necessarily. It will save you all kinds of health care costs at the other end. It is just we need to make arrangements for people whose economic circumstances right now are very difficult.

Do you think the average American family knows what they need to do in terms of how to get the biggest bang for their buck when they go to the grocery store?

I think they do because the shopping patterns, as I say, reflect that. Just do simple math. An average person needs about 2,000 calories per day to survive. Not to get overweight, but just to survive. An average person will spend seven or eight dollars on food. So if you look at something like that, you already know that you have to be getting approximately 250 calories for each dollar that you spend. You look at some exotic fruit or exotic berries, they give you 20 calories per dollar. You need 250. What are you going to do? Will you buy exotic berries, or will you buy potato chips and frozen pizza? So these are economic decisions and they are difficult economic decisions.

So you think this is something that is actually doable for most Americans?

I think it’s doable. I think there are two components. One is to be able to identify affordable, nutrient-rich foods within each food group. We have a number of nutrient profiles, we have a number of ways of tagging the nutritional value of foods in the logos and so on. We should include the economic component, too — point the way to affordable, nutritious food. And then going to the second step, yes, you can eat nutritious, low-cost foods. But you know what? You have to be able to cook them. So I would very much welcome an initiative by both Michelle Obama and the White House chef about teaching children to cook. It is an essential component which has not really been made public just yet. There is the White House garden, there is the White House initiative, where is the White House program teaching children to cook? I’m looking forward to that.