Is Healthy Eating Affordable?

This morning I woke up, sad that I was supposed to be starting training for the Capital 10 Mile race but that I wouldn’t be able to. A few weeks back, when it had been snowing really hard and I wanted to dream about being able to run outside, I had written up a “training plan.” Basically, I figured out when I would need to start actually working on it if I started with a long run of 5 miles per week then went up one mile per week on that long run until I reached 10 miles, and that week was this week. I figured I could fill in the details at a later date, and assumed the snow would be melted by now. Oops.

I wound up going for a 3 mile run today, though – 18 degree temperature and ice-covered sidewalks and all. I had a discussion with Kris this morning in which I told him to “stop being a baby” and realized that I have been being a “baby.” Not because I was not running in the ice, snow, and cold before – I had no real reason to put myself in that position – but because I was going to let that excuse get in the way of a goal. I was willing to accept that I just wouldn’t be able to run the 10 mile race because of the weather right now, and I’m surprised I was going to abandon that goal so readily just because I don’t have access to a treadmill right now. I will admit that I would much prefer it if I could afford to join a gym and workout in a nice warm and dry space right now, but there is no reason I have to do that. It may have been less pleasant, but after I put on my ice spikes for my running shoes, I really had no excuse, and I was able to go out there and complete my run, even if it was slow and uncomfortable (11 minutes per mile!).

Last night, I noticed a link on my Facebook wall to an article that is a couple of months old. I had heard about this article before, but had not really read it. In the article, the author argues that it is feasible to eat “healthy” for under $6 a day, which is apparently an amazing feat because a) eating healthy is supposed to be “expensive” and b) the average person spends more ($7 ) per day on food, making his option “cheap.”

When I first heard about the article, all I saw was a discussion on a forum somewhere about how someone had proved that it “only” cost $6 a day to eat healthy, which implied that everyone who thinks that is expensive is incorrect. I saw a lot of responses reminding the person who held that opinion that for a lot of people, $6/day person is actually quite expensive – after all, that is over $700 a month for a family of four – and did not investigate further. Last night, I actually went and read the article, though, and I now have a number of my own thoughts to add (sorry I am a bit late to the bandwagon).

  1. Disclaimer before I start: Kris and I spend close to the national average on food, including eating out, and I consider this doing quite well at saving money on food. I shop exclusively at one store because I like it more and not because it saves me money. I am obviously in a privileged position in regards to grocery shopping, and one should keep that in mind when considering my opinions. To be fair, that national average is only $1 per day higher than he prides himself on achieving, which I don’t think is significantly higher – at least not the point that you can declare it as evidence that healthy eating is cheap.
  2. That being said, I do not disagree with his original premise. I believe it is possible to eat healthy on a budget, and I believe he is correct that the misconception that healthy food is more expensive does come from misrepresentative statistics, like comparison of calories per dollar.
  3. I would like to add that I personally believe that some of the other discussions on this matter come from different poorly represented statistics. A lot of these comparisons also compare healthy meals cooked at home to fast food menu items as though one is inherently healthy and one is not. Setting aside for the moment the subjective nature of healthy, let us think about what would happen if we compared healthy and unhealthy meals of more similar types. Are grilled chicken value meals significantly more expensive than burger ones? How about a grilled chicken meal vs. a red meat and potatoes meal at home? If we stop comparing apples and oranges (to be fair, I think in this context they would be in the same category and be unable to be compared) I think the statistics would be less shocking.
  4. We also need to think about what is meant by the word “expensive.” In the article, this man spends less on his entire day’s food than some people might spend at McDonald’s (it is less than most value meals, and similar in price to a handful of value menu items). He also, however, spends $76 at the grocery store in order to do this, and does not  show evidence that he understands grocery budgeting in this trip. He buys ingredients only with these 3 meals and 2 snacks in mind. I bought twice as many items at the store last time I went for the same approximate price, including $20 I spent on paper products! To be fair, he buys enough to  make his omelets and parts of his sandwiches for a couple of days, but he is going to quickly run out of snacks, parts of his sandwich, and sides for his chicken. He did not meal plan at all, and in order to eat a second day, he is going to need to return to the store. He also doesn’t discuss trying to shop sales/seasonal items or buying certain produce in bulk to save money (it is way more expensive to buy one apple or potato  than to buy a whole bag on a per item basis). Even if he had done proper meal planning and sale-shopping, it is important to remember that spending that much in one trip might not be possible for someone with small paychecks, making it impossible for them to “stock up” and reap the benefits of lower long term cost. To that person, it might seem better to grab a couple of $1 items at a fast food place here and there; to grab some hamburger helper and a pound of beef to last 1-2 meals; to subsist on ramen once the money runs out altogether.
  5. One thing no one is discussing is what this man’s actual diet consists of. As I previously mentioned, “healthy” is subjective, but I would say that most people include “eating enough calories to sustain oneself” in their definition. If you tally up the calories that this man ate – despite his claims that he is a large man, and therefore he couldn’t possibly be skimping on calories – it is roughly 1600-1700. A man his size probably needs 500-1000 more calories a day, depending on age, activity level, etc. To put this in perspective, I am 10 inches shorter than him and weigh 70-75 lbs less and I eat more than he did on a daily basis. Unless his goal is weight loss, he is going to need to eat more. On average, I eat 20% more than this per day (roughly). If we assume that 20% more eating equals 20% more spending (a bit of a jump, I admit), his spending would come far closer to the national average, making his “accomplishment” seem far less amazing.
  6. I would like to end by pointing out that there are a number of issues that I have not touched on that others have brought up in the past, and I largely did not bring them up because others have discussed them at length – I wanted to contribute to the discussion, not beat a dead horse. I will briefly state, though, that I agree that many articles like his dismiss the issues that many of the poor who fail to eat healthy face, like not having enough time to cook and clean up dishes after working long hours, or difficulty getting to far away grocery stores without a car (or even if they have a car, money for gas).

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