The Real Price of Eating Healthy

The Real Price of Eating Healthy

The socioeconomic discrepancies when it comes to nutrition are blatant. Lower income families on average eat less fruits vegetables, and have less healthy food purchases overall.


Source: The Guardian

Traditionally, this linkage has been attributed to the higher cost of nutrient-dense foods. According to a study by the University of Washington, energy-dense items cost on average $1.76 per 1,000 calories, compared to $18.16 per 1,000 calories for low-energy but nutritious foods. The image below displays the number of calories a dollar’s worth of different types of foods can provide. The difference between junk food and produce is clear. Options such as whole grains, produce, and lean proteins are energy dense but not always calorie or fat dense. When 1,600 calories are recommended for children each day, and the average low-income family spends $4 per day on food, is it simply too expensive to be healthy?


Source: American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 

Some argue that, if done strategically, eating healthy on a budget isn’t as difficult as studies imply. Perhaps there are ways to eat healthy within financial constraints. Yet, doctoral candidate Caitlin Daniel points out our current financial calculations may be underestimating the cost of introducing food to a family’s grocery list. According to studies of eating behavior, children often refuse unfamiliar foods 8 to 15 times before accepting them. Pickiness is natural – a tendency thought to be an evolutionary adaptation to the human need for a range of nutrients but a lack of knowledge of potential toxins in the foods we consume.

Through associative learning, children link the sensory characteristics of food with the physiological effects of eating. This process is imperative early in life because it is harder to adapt to tastes as an adult. Taste preferences developed in childhood will also persist throughout one’s life. Yet, trial and error can be cost prohibitive for families already on a tight budget. For single mother Trisha, who participated in Daniel’s study, money is so scarce that she equates failed food experimentation with going hungry. As Colleen, a low-income mother, stated, “Trying to get [my son] to eat vegetables or anything like that is really hard. I just get stuff that he likes, which isn’t always the best stuff.” To minimize the risk of food waste, low-income shoppers tend to purchase the foods they already knew their children liked, which often happened to be calorie-dense and nutrient-poor.

To contrast, parents with greater resources frame exposure to diverse foods as a source of pleasure, and justify steeper prices as building cultural competence for future social settings. Leslie, a high-income mother, was probed on her reasons for offering diverse food options to her daughter. She responded, “I just wanted her to like them.” When asked about the potential cost of uneaten food, she replied, “Honestly, it never crossed my mind.”


Source: Loop by Trend Media Inc.

These findings raise the important question of how to change the intergenerational transmission of unhealthy consumption patterns linked to low-income households. First, we should allow children to explore their tastes in settings outside the home. Schools and daycares need to consider their potential to change taste preferences. Several parents interviewed stated that if their child mentioned they enjoyed trying a new snack at school, the risk of purchasing that item was significantly lower. Households can also make changes, such as purchasing easily divisible foods with a generous shelf life so caregivers can provide small portions repeatedly without throwing away a larger unit of food. If anything else, we should consider that policymakers could be overestimating the ability of low-income families to provide wholesome food to their children by not considering the potential cost of waste accrued from repeatedly exposing children to new foods.



Economic Constraints on Taste Formation and the True Cost of Healthy Eating. Social Science & Medicine [Internet]. 2016;148:34-41.


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