Who Can Afford to Eat Right?

It's hard not to spend too much time at the dinner table during the holiday season, getting fatter on our way to the poor house. Though we are lectured constantly about eating right, most of us don't. And the reason, it seems, is more a matter of economics than self-indulgence.

Eating right, new research shows, is getting so expensive that millions of Americans can't afford it.

In what is believed to be the first study of its kind, researchers at the University of Washington focused on the cost of eating foods that are rich in nutrients, and low in calories, like fresh vegetables, whole grains, fish and lean meats. That's the stuff we're told we have to eat if we are going to shed a few pounds and remain healthy.

But when the researchers checked prices at numerous stores around the Seattle area, they found that the good, healthy foods had soared in price over a two-year period, jumping by nearly 20 percent compared to a 5 percent increase in the overall food price inflation. And during that same period, high-calorie foods had remained about the same price, and in some cases had actually dropped.

"We were shocked," Adam Drewnowsky, director of the Center for Public Health Nutrition at the University of Washington, said in an interview. Drewnowsky and fellow researcher Pablo Monsivais published their findings in the December issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

"The nutrient-rich calories, the food we should be eating, are zooming out of sight," Drewnowsky said. "So eating well is really becoming unaffordable for many, even in the middle class."

Even some of the most popular diets are beyond the economic reach of many.

"I don't think people were told when the Atkins or the South Beach diets came out that those diets would really cost them double or triple the amount they were spending on food," he said.

If you can afford either of those diets, he added, you're probably not obese.

Some who understand the importance of weight control would probably like to eat right, but eat cheaper foods instead.

"Sometimes it's the only decision they can make when the rent is due," Drewnowsky said.

The finger of blame has been pointed at many culprits, ranging from agricultural policies and farm subsidies to the rising cost of labor and energy, but Drewnowsky believes one huge factor is quite elemental.

"When it comes to empty calories, it's very difficult to compete with sugar," he said.

In Brazil, for example, sugar "is produced [from sugar cane] at the cost of 30,000 calories for one dollar. Nothing else comes close."

The high cost of eating right is not reflected in the annual report from the U.S. Department of Labor. The government tracks the cost of what it considers to be the typical "food basket," which includes a lot of things with added sugar and added fat and fewer nutrients.

To find out the true cost of eating right, Drewnowsky and Monsivais concentrated on two types of food — those with high calories per gram, like grains and sugars, and those with low calories per gram but high in nutrients, like fish and fresh vegetables.

We're supposed to eat fish two or three times a week, but many consumers could drop most of a paycheck at the fish counter, and that situation is likely to get worse. The resource has become dangerously depleted around the world, and it's common for a nice salmon fillet to net around $20 per pound.

"Who can afford fish three times a week?" Drewnowsky asked.

In their latest research, Drewnowsky and Monsivais compared prices in 2006 with prices in 2004 for the same products at the same time of the year, because vegetables and fruits and even fish vary in price depending on the season. The healthiest foods went up the most, an average of 19.5 percent, but the researchers believe the cost of many types of foods, including the stuff we're not supposed to eat, will likely increase dramatically in the near future.

"Cheap calories will not be cheap much longer," Drewnowsky said.

As Michael Pollan showed in his best-selling book, "Omnivore's Dilemma," that remarkable resource corn — used everywhere from the dinner table to the stockyard — is going to be in even more demand because of the trend toward bio-fuels. It is easily converted to ethanol, a more profitable crop than cheap sugar.

So what's it going to take to eat well in the future?

"It takes three things," Drewnowsky said. "Education, money and time. If you have all three, you're home free. If you have two out of three, you can manage. But if you have only one out of the three, or zero of the three, you are pretty much screwed. And a lot of low-income people have zero out of three."

It's enough to make a guy like Drewnowsky angry. Not so much at fat people, because many of them can't afford to eat right, but at candidates for high office who ignore a growing global crisis.

"I would like to know who in the next debate is going to talk about the rising cost of food," he said. "I've not heard a comment [from any presidential contender] about that."

Maybe it's because they are all rich and educated. Let them eat cake.

Lee Dye is a former science writer for the Los Angeles Times. He now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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