A common argument why Americans don't eat better is that healthy food costs too much. A new study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) attempts to dispel this widely held belief by comparing the prices of healthy and less healthy foods. When analyzing costs per calorie, per edible gram and per average portion sizes, some highly nutritious foods such as grains, vegetables, fruits and dairy products turn out to be cheaper than protein foods like meats and processed items, which are typically higher in saturated fat, added sugars and sodium.
For the study, the researchers looked into nearly 4,500 different food items. "Healthy foods" were defined as products containing at least half a serving of one of the major food groups recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans of 2010, including vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy and proteins, as well as only moderate amounts of saturated fats, added sugars and sodium.
The takeaway from the study is that contrary to popular belief, it can actually cost more to eat badly, said Elisa Zied, a Registered Dietitian and regular contributor to MSNBC. "Comparing the costs of commonly available foods is important because, at a time when two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese and many low-income families struggle to control their grocery bills, the belief that healthier foods are always pricier adds to the problem. Although many variables -- personal preferences, convenience and cultural factors -- play a role in what we buy at the supermarket, cost may play an even greater role in our food choices," she said.
While I agree with this assessment, it seems to me that these variables cannot easily be changed. Poor eating habits can only be improved with education. Many people who eat unhealthy foods on a regular basis don't really know what makes these foods detrimental to their health. They just eat what they like and what they are used to. The same goes for convenience and culture. If a fast food restaurant or a food truck is just around the corner, but the next supermarket is miles away, guess what most folks will go for?
Also, the reputation of health food stores have as being overly pricey is well deserved. Why, for example, is Whole Foods Market often called "Whole Paycheck"? Even if not every item in the store is excessively expensive, perception matters, and many price-conscious consumers won't even try shopping there.
The USDA study is a laudable attempt to shed more light on the true costs of food and, consequently, the affordability of healthy eating. But it's a theoretical exercise with few practical implications. People don't calculate like this. They buy the kind of food they can afford and they don't want to drive long distances to find it. Those who have to get by on a limited budget have to consider expenses for gasoline and electricity as well. Even home cooking is not cheap when you include energy costs. Plus it's time-consuming and adds to the daily workload (not to mention that you have to learn a few skills with the skillet).
Having said that, it should be pointed out more often to consumers that the costs of fast food, pizza and T.V. dinners are by no means negligible. A family dinner for four from the drive-through can easily set you back $30 or more. For a similar amount, you could get, for example, a green salad, a whole chicken with some vegetable side dishes, and fruit for dessert.
The difference is that a whole lot more preparation goes into a meal made from scratch, and it may be less fun than digging into a pizza that has just been delivered to your door. But those are the real calculations we have to consider before America's eating habits can change for the better.
Follow Timi Gustafson, R.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/TimiGustafsonRD