Healthy food costs is barrier to a better diet among poor

Aug 4, 2011

Eating a nutritious diet appears to mean spending a bit more on your groceries. That means poor people face an extra challenge trying to eat well, according to a new study of about 1,100 King County residents.

Scientists from the University of Washington’s Center for Public Health Nutrition surveyed King County residents about the foods they eat in a typical week, looked up how much each of those foods cost and then calculated the nutritional pluses and minuses of that diet. 

The basic result links cost to quality, says Pablo Monsivais, a nutrition scientist and the lead author of the study, which has been published in Health Affairs:

 “People who ate more costly foods and had a more costly diet had more healthy diets.”

Saturated fats are cheaper

Researchers focused on four key nutrients that Americans are lacking – such as getting enough fiber in your diet and enough potassium, which prevents high blood pressure.

On the other hand, says Monsivais, saturated fat is too common – and it’s cheap.

“We in this country have built a food system that makes calories inexpensive but makes nutrients costly," he said. "That’s from the ground up, from the farm all the way to the table. Almost all the policies and the economics favors processed, packaged, refined foods with added fats and sugars.”

Monsivais says it’s not good enough for the federal government’s dietary guidelines to tell us to get more fiber. They should also show how to get nutrients inexpensively – and promote those cheaper foods.  For example, beans are a cheap source of fiber; and for potassium, it might be bananas or tomato juice.

In most cases, eating the nutritious foods also means more time in the kitchen.

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