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Why eating cheap, quick foods is actually MUCH more expensive...

Posted Sep 17 2008 12:45am

Are you eating food that's bad for you just because it costs less?

That's an excuse I hear often -- and I'll admit there's some truth to it.

The issues behind our economy and why some foods cost less than others are complex, but I'll try to simplify it here.

There are two main points to remember:

First, the true cost of unhealthy food isn't just the price tag -- in fact, the real costs are hidden.

(More on that in a just a minute.)

Second, eating healthy doesn't have to cost more.

Sure, it seems cheaper to eat a burger, fries, and a soda from McDonald's than to eat a meal of whole foods. 

But there are healthier options.

I will give you suggestions to help you eat well for less -- and save you money and suffering.  You are not destined to be fat if you are poor!

So let's take a look at my first point.

==> Unhealthy food is cheaper because our government's policies support its production.

We're spending nearly $30 billion a year to subsidize corn and soy production.

Where do those foods go?

Into our food supply as high-fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated soybean oil (trans fats), that's where!

Since the 1970s -- when our agricultural policies where changed to support corn and soy farmers -- we're consuming, on average, an extra 500 calories (mostly in the form of cheap, artificial high-fructose corn syrup) per person.

Corn and soy are also used to feed cattle for the production of meat and dairy. In fact, 70 percent of the wheat, corn, and soy farmed in this country is used to feed animals used for our food.

The world's cattle alone consume a quantity of food equal to the caloric needs of 8.7 billion people -- more than the entire human population on Earth!

So, when our government helps pay for these foods -- well, of course they're cheaper!

That explains the low price tag. But what about the OTHER costs to you?

==> Bad foods are bad for your health...

One expert has estimated that healthcare costs related to obesity are $118 billion per year. That's nearly 12 percent of total healthcare expenditures -- and more than twice that caused by smoking!

Let me tell you a little bit more about the consequences of eating poorly (and gaining weight).

A report from the Worldwatch Institute called "Overfed and Underfed: The Global Epidemic of Malnutrition" (March 2000) documented the real costs of obesity related to poor diet -- and this does NOT include the other effects of poor diet such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, dementia, autoimmune diseases, and osteoporosis:

* Obese people account for a disproportionate share of health-related absences from work.
* Obesity accounts for 7 percent of lost productivity due to sick leave and disability.
* 7 percent of all of North Carolina's healthcare expenditures are related to obesity.
* Obese people visit their physicians 40 percent more than normal weight people
* Obese people are 2.5 times more likely to require drugs prescribed for cardiovascular and circulation disorders.
* Liposuction is the number-one form of cosmetic surgery in the US, with 400,000 operations a year.
* Over 100,000 people a year have gastric bypass surgery.

According to a recent study in The New England Journal of Medicine (i), we're spending about $20,000 per person for each extra year of life gained from medical interventions like drugs and surgery...as if that's something to be proud of!

That doesn't even take into account the $282 billion in costs resulting from medical interventions that go wrong -- hospital infections, medical errors, deaths from drug reactions, or bedsores, or unnecessary surgeries.

And what if that $20,000 per year was given to each person during his or her lifetime to support better nutrition, lifestyle, and stress management?

My guess is that we would save trillions of dollars in health care expenditures on chronic disease!

As these numbers prove, the costs of eating fast, junk, and processed foods often are deferred until later. 

And that's the key point:  when you go to McDonald's for a cheap burger and fries, you might immediately associate that lower price vs. whole organic foods as being cheaper.  But the total cost isn't just how much you pay for your meal at that immediate moment, it's the cumulative cost of what that decision is over your lifetime.

For example, when you eat unhealthy foods like these, the costs of medical visits, co-pays, prescription medications, and other health services skyrocket.

But there are also other non-economic costs of eating poorly:

We reduce our ability to enjoy life in the moment with more fatigue, low-grade health complaints, obesity, depression, and more. 

The biggest advantage of eating well now is not just preventing disease and costs later, but simply enjoying each day now to its fullest. 

You can make that happen.

==> As I mentioned earlier, eating well doesn't have to cost more.

It's true that there are very few, if any, subsidies for the production of produce or healthier alternative foods. 

And the same government agency that supports the production of the ingredients for junk food provides less than $300 million for education on healthy nutrition.

But change is in the air.

Dean Ornish, MD, has shown that a program to teach people to eat better, exercise, and learn stress reduction can prevent heart disease and reduce the need for heart bypass or other treatments. 

And insurance is starting to take notice as some insurance companies are starting to cover the costs for that program.

Paying $5,000 for such a program now, Medicare has now recognized, is better than paying $50,000 later for a cardiac bypass operation.

And even bigger surprise?

According to a study published by the American Dietetic Association (ii), eating well to lose weight is actually cheaper -- or at the worst, no more expensive -- than eating poorly!

The authors of the study concluded that "adopting a lower-energy, nutrient-dense diet did not increase dietary costs over time. Consequently, cost should not be a barrier in the adoption of a healthful diet."

That's powerful evidence that eating well is not just good for your body, it's good for your wallet, too!

Here are some ideas to get you started.

1) Listen to Gandhi.

Yes, Gandhi! He said that we should never mistake what is habitual for what is natural. 

Case in point: Some Chinese are very poor and yet they eat extremely well -- small amounts of animal protein, with an abundance of vegetables.   

2) Be willing to learn.

We have to learn new ways of shopping and eating, new ways of ordering our priorities around our health and nutrition that supports our well-being, even if it is hard at the beginning.

3) Do your research.

There are ways, as I mentioned in my last blog, to find cheaper sources of produce and whole grains and beans and nuts and lean animal protein. 

It doesn't all have to be organic. Simply switching from processed foods to whole foods is a HUGE step in the right direction.

Read that again:  it's doesn't HAVE to be organic, although that's preferred - simply switching to whole foods and avoiding processed foods is one of THE most important steps you can take.

4) Make an effort.

Eating healthy does take more planning. It may require you to find new places to hunt and gather for your family.  You might have to reorder your priorities of where you spend your money and your time to make healthier choices. 

But remember, eating healthy foods without spending a lot IS possible -- and you can do it. I hope you'll take this blog to heart and give yourself the gift of health by eating right.

Now I'd like to hear from you...

What do you think about the long-term costs of eating poorly?

Do you agree or disagree that eating poorly in short-term has dramatic long-term consequences on your health care costs?

What other costs of eating poorly have you seen?

Are you also worried about the exploding costs of health care, whether insurance, medical, Medicare or other costs?

Are you an optimist and think that we can change our habits and move from instant gratification to smart long-term choices or are you a pessimist and think that we as humans are wired to think this way?

Do you have any other recommendations for how to get over the difficult task of changing your habits to go from fast-and-easy processed food to whole foods that might require a little more preparation but have maximum long-term health benefits?

Please let me know your thoughts by posting a comment below -- just click on the Add a Comment link.

i Cutler DM, Rosen AB, Vijan S. The value of medical spending in the United States, 1960-2000. N Engl J Med. 2006 Aug 31;355(9):920-7.

ii J Am Diet Assoc. 2002;102:645-650, 655-656.

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