Monday, March 5, 2012

Americans Eat Badly Because We're Lazy, Not Because We're Poor

Who would you rather be? What relationship with food do you want to have?

A new study just published in Public Health Nutrition gives some surprising results about what prompts people to and prevents people from eating healthily.

In what undoubtedly will have consequences for the work I do, Ezra Klein summarizes the findings:
The study’s authors looked at fruit and vegetable consumption in six low-income, primarily minority neighborhoods in Chicago, and they found that convenience was key among those who eat more produce. Participants who agreed that they had “convenient access to quality” produce were more than twice as likely to eat the FDA-recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables, compared to those who said they did not have such access.

What didn’t matter, though, was the price of produce. Those who reported high cost as a barrier to the consumption of produce ended up eating just as much as those who didn’t.
“In fact, perceived cost was not associated with dietary intake among this predominantly minority and low-income audience,” write Jonathan Blitstein, Jeremy Snider and W. Douglas Evans. “Respondents who agreed that cost was a barrier to eating fruits and vegetables did not report lower dietary intake than respondents who disagreed that cost was a barrier.”
Mark Bittman recently pointed out in the NYTimes that junk food isn't cheaper than healthy food: "a typical order for a family of four — for example, two Big Macs, a cheeseburger, six chicken McNuggets, two medium and two small fries, and two medium and two small sodas — costs, at the McDonald’s a hundred steps from where I write, about $28. ...You can serve a roasted chicken with vegetables along with a simple salad and milk for about $14, and feed four or even six people."

The problem, as Bittman sees it, is that "cooking is defined as work, and fast food is both a pleasure and a crutch." My wife and I eat really well, practically all the time - both in terms of health and flavor. My friends and coworkers marvel when I bring in leftovers or describe what we had for lunch or dinner, especially on the weekends. One of the big reasons for this is that my wife sees cooking as an enjoyable hobby, not as an odious task to be performed in order to prevent us from starving. Sometimes, she'll even get up on Saturday or Sunday and say, "I feel like cooking all day today." And she will - and the result will be roasted leg of lamb, lemon custard, fruit tarts or pies, something with lobster or shrimp, etc., and there's usually enough of it for several meals/lunches later in the week. If you approach cooking like that, then it's easy to put in the work needed to eat really well.

All of this means that solving the problem of poor nutrition in the US is a monumentally complex task - it's as much about changing Americans' food culture and our collective relationship with food as much as anything else. It's not something that can be solved by simply giving the poor more money or building nice grocery stores everywhere (though that does help, according to the study cited above) - we have to re-learn why food is important and how to love and appreciate good food. I don't know how to do that, but I can say that the current food culture in many U.S. schools does nothing to help the situation. Kids are often given 30 minutes for lunch, which often breaks down thus: 5 minutes to get to the cafeteria, 10 minutes standing in line and paying for food, 10 minutes to eat, and 5 minutes to walk back to class. If a child has to consume most of his or her lunches in 10 minutes, it's simply not possible to develop a positive relationship with food.

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