Are Cheap Calories The Reason We’re Unhealthy?

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Unhealthy food is a lot cheaper than healthy food, on a price-per-calorie basis. This is illustrated in this chart about how many calories you can buy for a dollar from the Lapham’s Quarterly magazine, which corresponds to my own research ranking how much 200 calories of different foods cost:

Cost of 200 Calories: Less than 50 cents
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Glazed Donut
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Potato Chips
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Gummy Bears


Cost of 200 Calories: Over $1.00
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Dried Apricots
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Baby Carrots
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Red Onions

Recently the NYT Economix blog charted the historical change in price for different food categories relative to overall CPI inflation since 1978. This shows that the price gap is growing. For example, the the price of soda has dropped more than 30%, while the price of fresh fruits and vegetables has gone up more than 30% (both relative to other prices in general).

Source: NYT, BLS

It is pointed out that it costs about $5 to buy 2,000 calories at McDonald’s, $19 to buy 2,000 calories worth of canned tuna and $60 to buy 2,000 calories worth of lettuce.

But I’m not sure this means what we think it means. Do people really buy junk food because they need cheap calories? I think most unhealthy people get plenty of calories. Also, if you simply ate mostly rice and beans, you’d get plenty of calories for even less than McDonald’s. If all foods were the same price, would we really eat that much better? Perhaps it would help, but I don’t think lower prices would solve obesity.

I think the problem is people just eat what they want, and what they want happens to have way too many calories. If more health problems are caused by being overweight than malnutrition, then unhealthy people need less calories more than they need “better nutritional quality” calories. There are many studies that show that the less calories you eat, the longer you’ll live. Even severe calorie restriction (near-starvation) is believed to result in longer lives in a variety of animals including mice and monkeys.

What do people in countries where starvation is a real concern eat? Mostly rice with a little fish for flavor. Mostly beans and lentils with spices for flavor. Mostly cassava with a little meat and vegetables for flavor. They don’t eat a huge variety of things, and they eat mostly carbs. But they eat a lot less. If we can’t lower the prices of healthy unprocessed food, maybe we just need to eat less in general. But that takes self-control, which can also be hard to come by.

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  1. I’m so glad you posted this, I remember reading your original post on cost per 200 calories and found it really interesting. If you don’t mind Id like to use some of your pictures in my blog on nutrition and working out.

  2. No, but it’s a small part. Laziness is the biggest problem.

    Most people are too lazy to plan and make balanced meals every week. They are also too lazy to follow through on the other side of the equation… exercise.

    It isn’t about your caloric intake, it’s about servings. Caloric intake is a terrible measure:

    Look at the foods being compared. Of course you are going to have to eat many, many more carrots or grapes to equal the calories of a Snickers. Carrots and grapes are mostly water!

  3. juggler314 says

    I think it’s a factor, definitely. I’ve thought about what I would do if i were to need to scale back to minimal spending (like if i lost my job, etc). Theoretically pasta, rice, beans, whatever meat is on sale and some other things to mix in makes for a very cheap and healthy diet. However it’s not really *that* much cheaper than say, mcdonalds if you are looking just a calorie counts. And now lets say you are poor and have 3 kids to feed and are working some crap job that doesn’t pay enough 12 hours/day. You can see it’s very easy to go for the cheap, mass produced junk food.

  4. Eric Jacobson says

    To look at this from one money perspective: this is exactly the reason why couponing often isn’t worth it. How often do you see coupons for produce or quality meat? Those are the two costliest portions of my typical grocery bill. Certainly every geographical area is different and manufacturer and store policies vary, but just as an example, here is what our local store offers this week for coupons: pectin flex ball, natural sweetener, baby yogurt (ok, this one is better but is overpriced to begin with), pepcid, agave nectar, kitty litter, candy, allegra, vinegar, processed cuisine entrees. Similarly the coupons in the Saturday paper are usually on canned soup, cake, frozen pizza, cookies, etc. The manufacturers and the stores track the costs closely and tend to discount junk food.

  5. Donald Bindner says

    I do think this is part of the problem. If you can buy a whole box of Great Value Swiss Rolls for $0.88, it does somehow feel like there isn’t “much” in the box. I’ve found myself inclined to think this way many times and have often pondered that I’m inclined to eat more of something because it isn’t expensive.

    It’s not because I can’t afford healthy food. It’s just because somehow I instinctively equate the price with the amount.

  6. not to mention the effects of marketing on the very young majority of whom are glued to the TV (instead of spending time at school – another problem) being blasted with ads of junk food. I agree with the first lady that we do need to restrict junk food exposure from the young age.

  7. I think cost is definitely a component. Forget about calories — meal prices are much cheaper if you eat unhealthfully than healthfully. A poor family of 4 can eat a full dinner at McDonald’s for around $10. Unless you’re eating pasta, rice and beans (as you pointed out), that can’t be beat.

    Laziness is a huge issue. It’s MUCH easier to get fast food than anything else. Period. Let’s not forget time, either, though. Americans work more than any other industrialized country. We have less time for meal planning, grocery shopping and cooking than anyone else in the developed world.

    These things work in concert: we have less time, and the easiest, cheapest, most readily available options are bad for us. Deadly combination.

  8. Greg K, I disagree with you when you say that McDonalds can not be beat. I think a lot of it comes down to serving sizes. If you want a giant piece of chicken and and 2 massive sides then you’re right. Recently I went on a shopping trip and was able to get enough groceries for a week for my wife and I which came to ~$140. Seems like a lot, but when you break it out into meals (we eat 5 “meals” a day) it comes to less than ~$2 a meal. Granted, you have to look for deals (there was a buy one get one free of boneless chicken) which really helped get the price down. But it can be done. You hit the nail on the head with the laziness issue, it takes some time to prepare a proper meal.

  9. Alexandria says

    I have never understood the “fast food is cheaper” mentality.

    IT simply isn’t.

    I feed my family of four on about $15 per day. That is 3 square meals a day. Of course, this is for good, nutritious food, and plenty of luxury thrown in. We could eat for FAR less if we went the basic beans, rice diet (or anything along those lines for basic survival). We eat plenty of meat, fish, and fresh produce. We don’t grow anything on our own either.

    I’ll admit that buying/cooking in bulk would give us a huge advantage over trying to feed one single person so cheaply.

    Of course, people are so extreme – I would get criticism for not having an all organic diet or for the amount of processed foods we do buy (cereal, canned/frozen food, etc.). But, we are pretty moderate. I find whenever we eat out (fast food or otherwise) our waistlines grow far more rapidly. We just find eating in cheaper and healthier.

    Though I enjoy some fast food here and there, I would hardly classify most of it as *food.* When you are used to good home cooking, most that stuff is just awful in comparison. I can’t stand McDonalds, for one. (Well, like the fries, but can’t stomach the rest). & I swear to you – it doesn’t matter WHAT we eat in restauarants, but it is always more fattening. It astonishes me because my scale will always reflect more eating out before my budget does.

    Laziness is everything. I don’t *get* what is so novel about cooking a half-hour-to-make meal every night. Leftover or sandwiches for lunch. The fact that I pack my lunch every day and eat in most dinners is a marvel to most. I find it far less time consuming than eating out, personally! Every time I hear “I don’t have time” I can’t help but think “You don’t make the time.” & anyway, “What time???” Everyone imagines we slave away in the kitchen for hours every day or something?

    Sorry, kind of my rant!

  10. Jenna, Adaptu Community Manager says

    Laziness and lack of education. Knowing what fruits and vegetables are in season (and thus cheaper) to buy is also key.

  11. People generally don’t make rational decisions about diet. They eat what they like or what is convenient. People are generally either ignorant or resigned about their diets.

    If people did make rational decisions about their diet, calorie-per-dollar wouldn’t be a very meaningful figure. I’m currently body-building and even though I need to take in extra calories to gain mass, I’m more concerned that I’m getting as many of the nutrients I can per calorie than how much each individual calorie is costing me. Empty calories that are cheaper per calorie are worse than useless.

    Nutritional value per dollar would be a better measure. Those high caloric foods are generally nutrient poor and high in fat. Not very valuable in terms of nutrition in the modern world.

    People who have unhealthy diets are generally taking in far more calories than they need, anyway. They could spend the same amount or less and even if they were taking in fewer calories, they’d still be getting more bang for their buck.

  12. The cheaper stuff is loaded with High Fructose Corn Syrup. The Government subsidies on the corn and tariffs on sugars distort the true cost of the cheaper products. Same with fast food, the meat is usually soy reinforced, so it’s less nutritious but cheaper. Food is the one area you should probably not look to cut expenses in your budget, IMHO

  13. “cost of calories” is ridiculous. Re-scale these to “cost of full stomach” and you’ll see that veggies are MUCH cheaper.

    You can eat a whole bag of chips when it’s only 7 or 12 ounces of food, and it’s a heck of a lot more calories than eating a whole bag of baby carrots.

  14. Serving Size and Laziness are the key.

    Compare even fast-food sizes of 20 years ago to now. Monster Burgers, Angus Burgers, Large size etc. Supply and Demand, Americans want to eat more, so fast food and other restaurants are happy to oblige.

  15. @Eric, while I do think coupons are a pretty good resource, I agree with you that they’re hard to find for meat/veggies. Though with produce the best way to save money is to generally buy whats in season, as those will be by far the cheapest options. Though I have had some recent success in finding coupons for things like bananas, raspberries, and store coupons for meat.

    @Alexandria, By the numbers you gave, $15 a day, or $450 a month for 4 are actually just about average. According to the US Dept of Labor stats, an average family (2.5 people) spends about $3750 per year. Broken down that’s about $125/month/person. So ignoring savings for more people, that’d be about $500 a month, so you’re only about 10% under average.

    So I do think that many other people are finding the time just like you are to make food. Seems the country on average is doing just as well. We might not be all *that* lazy yet.

  16. As is the case with most things, education/parent apathy/wealthy corporations is the key. I think laziness is rarely what it appears to be…it’s usually parent neglect.
    Parents of young children should be educating their children about healthy meals… by example. Schools should then be providing healthy meals to all students too. Meanwhile T.V. should not be educating children to eat unhealthy.
    These children grow up to be uneducated adults, and they feed their children the same way. Cost is not really a huge factor in eating healthy, since most people could grow their own food at a low expense. It’s all about the education.

  17. @Alexandria What are you eating for $15 per day? Somehow that sounds low. Then again, I generally buy organic and unprocessed foods.

  18. Thanks for posting this article and drawing attention to the cheap-energy efficient (price/calorie) but nutrient deficient foods vs. expensive-energy poor (price/calorie) but nutrient rich foods.

    Like many of the other comments, I do believe price has a factor in the eating habits of people. Humans evolved to naturally seek energy efficient foods. In modern times we still tend to budget based on caloric efficiency – What will fill me up the most for that $1. That’s where cheap-energy dense but nutrient deficient foods come in. That $1 will get you a 360 calorie chicken sandwich, which is so much more efficient than that measly bowl of salad. Essentially, we’re still looking at money as our limiting factor where we really should be budgeting on calorie counts (i.e. actually using those suggested daily values like 2500 calories for men, etc.) So instead of saying “I have $100, lets see how many calories I can get”, we should say “I have 2500 calories to spend, how can I spend that wisely with my food choices.” Problem being, like you mentioned in the 2007 post, people with limited education and income can’t afford to make that choice so the cheap junk food is what they will always choose. They don’t know that although it’s cheap in the short term, it’s expensive in the long term with all the health problems and costs associated with eating that kind of diet.

    While laziness does play into it, I think it’s more laziness in people’s physical habits than food habits. Most of us work behind computers and drive everywhere. We’re hardly ever active enough anymore. Couple that with excessive calorie consumption and all those surplus calories have got to go somewhere. While there is some degree of self-control and laziness involved with making the healthier food choices, I don’t think that’s the whole story. Early studies in animals show that a diet high in fat and sugar can create a drug-like addiction to those foods. I won’t go so far to say that they don’t have a choice but to eat the junk food, but the companies behind those types of food are smart folks too and know that’s the kind of food that’ll keep you coming back for more. And with all those farm and corn subsidies, we’re making the wrong type of food cheap.

  19. The calories may be cheap but nutrients do not tag along. Many people are now suffering from the consequences of both morbid obesity AND malnutrition at the same time.

  20. Chandra25 says

    Margo was right on when she said ‘ “cost of calories” is ridiculous. Re-scale these to “cost of full stomach” and you’ll see that veggies are MUCH cheaper.’

    I am very frugal in most of my expenditures, but spend the money needed to buy mostly organic fruits and veggies. The rest of my diet is whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. (Yes, I eat a whole foods, non-processed vegan diet for 15 years now and have never felt better!). Of course, I look for the very best deals on these healthy foods and don’t shop at places like Whole Paychecks Market (Whole Foods) except for the sale items. So, I don’t think it’s just about looking for what is cheapest (since I personally look for what’s inexpensive in other areas of life). It’s about some combination of ignorance, laziness, and the ubiquitous and addictive nature of junk food.

    It is sad to see children who are already obese! And I see more and more obese young people! Obese people should pay more for health insurance (if they don’t already), like smokers. Why should I, as a taxpayer, subsidize people’s bad habits?

  21. Randall Campbell says

    There is no need to eat meat every night. Water, beans, rice and noodles should be the staples during this “economic downturn”. Can vegetables, beans,etc., even the USDA, can be prepared in a quick and healthy manner. I’m really tired of Americans being seen as the fat, indulgent kid in class. The kid in the back of the class eating snacks, instead of preparing for his math and science exams. The kid in class who brings two lunches, yet disposes or trades away the healthy snacks for one twinkie.

  22. csdx said : “according to the US Dept of Labor stats, an average family (2.5 people) spends about $3750 per year. ”

    That figure is for ‘food at home’ but the average family also spends another $2619 a year on ‘food away from home’. So the 3750 doesn’t include all meals and since many meals are eaten away from home the average cost per meal at home would be higher.

  23. Lowering costs on healthy foods would only help those who actually eat in a healthy way. I also don’t think higher calorie foods are any cheaper than lower calorie foods, but I think it is difficult to choose healthier foods in general. I do notice that many companies offer coupons for the “higher calorie” foods and I always wish they would give the same offers for a healthier choice.

  24. @ all the commenters re: coupons for fresh foods

    Not really possible, except for the bagged lettuces and other “packaged” produce.

    Fresh fruit, veggies and butcher meat are commodities, and largely unbranded (you generally don’t have a choice of Dole vs Chiquita bananas, for example, in the same store). So there’s more price pressure on them anyway, and therefore not as much margin for the producer to cut into, to offer discounts or volume purchase deals.

    All the high-calorie stuff is packaged goods – when you pay $0.40 more for Wheat Thins vs. store-brand, that’s the margin that enables the producer to periodically offer coupons.

    So while I too wish there were coupons for fresh goods, it’s just not possible. Better to hit the Farmer’s Market, join a CSA, or shop more frequently so you can snap up the “manager’s special” on lettuce bags when it’s $2 off for quick sale.

  25. You know you could give away fruits and vegetables to these fast food junkies….they still wouldn’t eat it.

  26. @jim, I know that is counted as well, but it’s not like the original commenter I responded to indicated she never ate out either. I suppose you could assume that she eats out somewhat less than average though.

    But I contend that such differences still account for only a minority variance in groceries (food at home) purchased. If you assume that a meal for 2.5 people averages about $25 (pretty cheap actually, but probably an average of restaurant and fast food), $2619/year averages out to 2 meals out per week. Assuming 21 meals a week, that’s less than 10% of all meals, so the groceries still account for a majority of food consumed. So even if the commenter only ate out half as much as a normal family, that would only be a difference of 5% in grocery bills.

    If anything, this just shows how much more expensive eating out is compared to making a meal at home.

  27. Mickey Blue Eyes says

    The inclusion of onions is interesting. The price of onions have increased at a much higher rate than oil. But nobody is demonizing “Big Onion” or “speculators”.

    I’m not sure what kind of masochist would (or could) eat 200 calories of onions in one sitting. 200 calories of grapes? No problem. 200 calories of baby carrots? That would be a challenge and I’d probably be sick of carrots forever afterwards.

  28. to say we’re all lazy and thus get fat is like saying we all have a brain and thus suffer from it.

    industry marketing and product content are primarily responsible for manipulating us into addictions:

    check out “Compass of Pleasure” by David Linden or listen to this interview on Fresh Air:

  29. Mrs. Sellaneous says

    What an interesting and informative article! The graph really helps illustrate your point. It is sad that it is costs so much more to eat well.

  30. Thanks for the article!

    I eat McDonalds/Taco Bell 4-5 times a week (mostly at lunch) and I definitely do it for the cheap calories and time savings. Rice and beans are cheaper but they require pre-planning and frankly don’t have much flavor (I suppose you could make the argument that fast food doesn’t taste that great either, but I enjoy it). Maybe that’s part of the reason McDonald’s stock is hitting all time highs again and again.

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