Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


Food insecurity is not simple math

A recent study showed that healthy food is actually less expensive than “junk” food. This study eschewed the usual caloric comparison of foods for a portion-based comparison. Based on this comparison the researchers found that many healthy foods are, in fact, cheaper than their less nutritious counterparts. For example, a serving of carrots was found to be less expensive than a serving of potato chips. I agree that healthy food is not necessarily all that expensive and some options (e.g. beans, legumes, and root vegetables) can be quite economical. However, I have several major issues with this study.

Having worked with people experiencing food insecurity I know that the first concern of most of them is getting enough calories into their family members and keeping them as full as possible. So, even if this study is showing that by portion size and by edible weight, healthy foods are less expensive than unhealthy foods this is not how the majority of people who are suffering from food insecurity are thinking. They’re trying to get caloric bang for their buck. Sadly, carrots are not going to give them as many calories for their dollar as pop and hot dogs are.

Even if we accept what the study is telling us, there is a lot more to consider beyond the face-value of these foods. Many of these healthy food items are not ready to eat as is. Do you know anyone who’s going to eat onions straight-up? How about dried chickpeas? These foods require cooking skills, equipment, and additional ingredients (e.g. herbs, spices, oils, etc. to make them palatable). Many people, be they food insecure or not, are lacking in the food skills department and may not have the confidence or knowledge to cook a rutabaga. Do they have a stove to use? What about pots? Knives? Vegetable peelers? All of the additional ingredients and supplies can add a considerable amount of cost to the meal.

Another major issue when it comes to food insecurity is oral health. If your teeth are sore or missing it’s going to be mighty difficult to chow down on raw carrots and apples. Potato chips and spam are much easier to manage when you’re lacking quality teeth.

So, sure, serving for serving some fresh vegetables may be less expensive than “junk” food but food insecurity is not simple math.

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Which costs more? A healthy diet or an unhealthy diet?

Myth 12: Healthy food costs too much.
What Dietitians of Canada says:
“How much food costs is an important issue for many Canadians. With some planning and wise choices, you can create tasty, healthy and affordable meals. To get the most value, choose foods that are big on nutrients and low on cost. Many healthy staple foods can be lower-cost items, including bulk flours and whole grains, in-season fresh produce, eggs, legumes (dried beans, peas and lentils), powdered milk, and sale-priced frozen or canned vegetables, fruits and fish. Scanning flyers for specials, stocking up on sale items and cooking meals from scratch can all save you money.”
What I say:
From a food security perspective it can be difficult to provide yourself and your family with a healthy diet. Pop and chips (for example) provide calories to fill your child up without costing as much as milk and fresh vegetables. When you’re living in poverty it can be extremely challenging to eat a healthy diet. For those of us not living in poverty it is ridiculous to say that healthy food costs too much. A primarily plant-based diet is not only the healthiest diet, it’s also the most affordable. Beans and tofu are far more inexpensive than meat and cheese. Side note: Did you know that cheese is actually the most commonly shop-lifted food? It’s expensive and easy to conceal.
Mark Bittman created a neat infographic comparing the costs of a McDonald’s meal and a homemade meal (of course a flaw of the graphic is that it only shows the costs for the quantities you need for the recipe, not for the amounts you would actually have to purchase). Don’t forget the hidden health care and loss of productivity costs incurred by consuming a primarily unhealthy diet. Yes, food costs are rising. However, Canadians still allocate a ridiculously small portion of their incomes to food. According to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada that percentage has actually decreased over the past 40 years. In 1961 Canadians spent an average of 19.1% of their household income on food. By 2005 that had dropped to 9.3%. Our food spending is also lower than that of other developed nations.
It really doesn’t need to cost you a lot to eat a healthy diet. You don’t need to buy all those over-priced trendy so-called “superfoods”, healthy eating can be simple and affordable. Cooking meals at home is more affordable and often healthier than purchasing meals from restaurants.  I think we also need to reprioritise, and place more importance on eating a healthy diet and be willing to put our money where our mouths are. Consider using some of your disposable income to buy sweet potatoes and kale rather than popcorn at the movies.