For centuries people have associated being overweight with being rich. And for centuries, this assumption was true. Being obese was a sign of abundance, it meant never going hungry and always having more than enough to eat.
Today, the opposite is true. People living in poverty are more likely to be overweight and obese. This is because low socioeconomic communities tend to lack access to nutritious food, live sedentary lifestyles, and eat large portion sizes that are high in fat.
There are two main reasons why people with low incomes are more likely to be obese:
High-Fat, Processed Foods Are Cheaper
When an apple consists of only 1 ingredient and a package of cookies consists of more than 30, why is the apple more expensive per calorie? According to Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, the cookies are made of corn, soy, and wheat based ingredients – 3 of the most heavily subsidised crops in the market. These subsidies allow the cost of fat, sugar, and processed carbohydrates to stay low.
High fat, processed foods are the cheaper alternative thanks to subsidies. To illustrate this, let’s consider the following: the cost of fruits and vegetables increased by 40% (number adjusted for inflation) between 1985 and 2000. The cost of soda, on the other hand, decreased by 25%.
Unhealthy Foods Are Often More Filling And Seem To Be More Cost-Effective
As unhealthy foods are loaded with unhealthy fats contributing to high calories, they make people feel fuller. When a pack of salad has the same price as a fast food set, low income people are more likely to choose the latter one as it seems to be more cost-effective (in terms of level of filling and calories).
Obesity researcher Dr. Adam Drewnowski conducted a study to see how many calories he could buy while comparing healthy food with the unhealthy ones.
Turns out, his dollar could get him around 1,000 calories in cookies and chips. That same dollar could only get around 250 calories in carrots. Since households with limited finances try to purchase cheap, filling foods, the choice becomes clear. Foods with refined sugar, processed grains, and added fat are a more cost-effective solution in the short term. Consequently, these same foods lead to an overconsumption of calories and weight gain.
How to Eat Cheap and Healthy
Despite all of these obstacles, there are ways to avoid foods that are high in fat and low in nutrients. The trick is to look for nutrient dense foods to get more bang for your buck.
- Buy frozen and canned vegetables. Many people seem to think these options are not as healthy as fresh produce, but that simply isn’t true. In fact, some evidence indicates that frozen vegetables may have higher nutrients than fresh. This is because they are picked and immediately frozen, preserving their vitamins and nutrients. Add frozen and canned vegetables to soups, stir-frys, pasta dishes, and even sandwiches.
- Eat more eggs. Eggs are an excellent source of cheap protein and healthy fat. Prepare them for in an omelette for breakfast, hard-boiled on a sandwich for lunch, or scrambled with rice for dinner.
- Beans are often overlooked as a cheap and healthy food option. Refried beans, chickpeas, and kidney beans can often be found in cans in convenient stores. Not only are they loaded with protein, but also healthy fat and carbohydrates. Mix whole beans into soup or spread refried beans on whole-grain corn tortillas for lunch or dinner.
- Complex carbohydrates can be difficult to find, particularly in food deserts. Good choices for cheap, nutrient-dense options are oatmeal, brown rice, and corn tortillas.
- Don’t forget fruits. By saving money on some of the above ingredients, you should be able to stretch your dollar to include fruits in your diet. Watermelon and bananas are particularly cheap choices. Watermelons offer vitamin A and C, lycopene, and magnesium. Bananas are full of potassium. Both are pretty filling options.
Featured photo credit: Freepik via freepik.com