By Jorge Rojas, Humanitas Global
The most recent post of our overnutrition series, “Temptations, Peer Pressures and Ignorance – The Influence of our Sociocultural Environment on our Weight”, explored the ways in which our surroundings contribute to unhealthy diets and lifestyles. With fast-food chains on every corner, sweet and salty goodies surrounding the check-out lane at supermarkets, ads for fast and junk food on television, and magazines and billboards showcasing calorie-dense foods, it is clear that junk food is readily available and that we are prone to consume it unless we make the conscious decision to avoid it. Average food consumption has increased from 2,360 calories per person per day in the mid-1960s to 2,800 in the late 1990s and is projected to increase to 3,050 by 2030.
Building-on from the latter, our final post on the etiology of overnutrition will take on the economic food environment, analyzing factors such as food quality and prices and how these affect consumption. In sum, “demographic and behavioral changes have led to a nutrition transition with altered dietary trends towards ‘low-cost, high-calorie but nutrient-poor’ foods”.
Research has shown that the main influences on food choice are taste, cost and convenience, with health and variety playing a lesser role. This means that the palatability, selling price and easiness of buying and preparing food are the leading factors influencing our choices on food consumption with food diversity and our concerns relating to the effect of food on chronic disease, nutrition and body weight are secondary factors when we consider our food purchases.
The literature has noted that wealth and education significantly contribute to our decision-making process when choosing tasty, cost-effective and convenient foods. Older and wealthier consumers have displayed higher quality diets characterized by more variety and better quality meats, seafood, vegetables and fruit. Low-income families were found to more commonly choose “low-cost meats, inexpensive grains, added sugars and added fats”. A study in South Africa revealed that disadvantaged communities with low levels of education have increased consumption of “cheap processed and packaged food” and prefer eating “fried food and chicken with skin as a result of inadequate nutrition knowledge”. Moreover, South Africans “are progressively changing their diets” from the traditional high fiber and carbohydrate dense foods to food products rich with saturated fat, added sugar and refined carbohydrates. Consequently, such communities experienced negative health outcomes such as an increase in obesity rates and non-communicable diseases. These findings confirm a relationship between socio-economic status and increase in overnutrition.
The primary issue is the convenience of unhealthy diets in terms of short-term costs and time.
Studies conducted in Australia, Canada and the European Union found that eating healthy costs approximately $1.54 more per day for every 2,000 calories consumed. These studies compared the amount of fat or sugar in similar products and compared whole grain versus refined carbohydrate versions. A 2014 Cambridge University study in the UK revealed that eating healthy costs three times as much as consuming unhealthy food. To make matters worse, the study also argued that the price gap will continue to widen. Researchers found that 1,000 calories made up of healthy food products such as yogurt, vegetables and lean salmon cost an average of £7.49 in 2012, whereas 1,000 calories made up from unhealthy food products such as pizza, hamburgers and donuts cost an average of £2.50. The 2012 £4.99 price gap between the two mentioned calorie baskets increased from £3.88 in 2002 and is expected to continue to grow. Families ‘living on a budget’ tend to gravitate towards foods that give them the biggest ‘bang for their buck’, meaning the most calories per dollar, such as fruit flavored drinks versus fruit juice. Furthermore, the price of healthy food is increasing so quickly that “vegetables and fruits are rapidly becoming luxury goods”.
Nutritious fast-food competitive concepts have emerged to try and promote healthy eating at a reasonable price among communities. For example a 440 calorie salad containing baby spinach, kale, tofu, broccoli, beets, quinoa among a few other vegetables runs $9.25 while a freshly juiced kale, celery, collard greens, Swiss chard, lemon and ginger juice goes for $10 in New York City. Even though a fast-food hamburger or a $1 pizza slice are cheaper options, healthy eating initiatives are raising awareness on healthy food choices and promoting more diverse and nutritious diets.
Unfortunately, the economic advantages of poor dietary habits disappear when viewed over the lifespan of an individual. Obese adults in the U.S. spend approximately 42 percent more on direct healthcare costs than adults who are not overweight and obesity accounted for about 21 percent of the national health spending in 2005. In addition, studies have shown that obese 18 year old men grow up to earn 16 percent less than those who are of a normal weight (BMI from 25 to 30). The obesity “penalty” of 16 percent corresponds to approximately three years of education, similar to a university bachelor’s degree in the UK. The reason behind such a statistic, according to researchers, is that “non-cognitive factors” like motivation and popularity have a strong relationship with “success in the labor market”. Those who are overweight and obese acquire less non-cognitive skills as they are, for example, less likely to join sports teams or even face discrimination from teachers and peers. A circular relationship between poverty and overnutrition is apparent; however, further research is required in order to prove it.
We ought to raise awareness about healthy food choices and the threat junk foods pose on our health and wellbeing. People must learn about shopping for, preparing and cooking nutrient-rich food products. One trend, exploding throughout the United States are meal-delivery services. Healthy, nutritious, pre-measured ingredients are delivered with step-by-step instructions on preparation, making healthy eating easy. In some instances, healthy food products are available but not utilized, especially in rural communities where some fruits and vegetables naturally grow but are not consumed because people dislike their taste and flavor or do not know how to prepare and consume them. We have the power to make choices about what we eat and a healthier lifestyle can start by making the conscious decision to avoid calorie-dense, processed, and ‘junk’ meals and fast food.
Overnutrition is an opportunity to promote collaborative efforts as we all have the capacities and potential in our own ways to promote healthier diets and lifestyles for all.