Obesity and Poverty: Eating Cheap Foods

I did a quick comparison of the price of some common foods, and calculated their cost-per-calorie. The following table shows the price for 400 calories of various common foods.

The cheapest sources of calories, of the foods I compared, are sugar, margarine, wheat flour, and bread. These prices are based on deep-discount priced stores, like bag-it-yourself supermarkets.

I neglected to add two important foods: corn tortillas, and corn syrup. Their prices are $0.56 for 400 calories for corn tortillas, and $0.17 to $0.68 for high fructose corn syrup. These are not the cheapest calories, but they are cheap.

Calories are the Main Reason for Weight Gain

There are a lot of ideas floating out there to explain the obesity epidemic among the poor and working class in America. They include a sedentary lifestyle, overeating, soda consumption, fast food consumption, GMO consumption, lack of vegetables in the diet, excessive fats, fried foods, etc.

I’d like to start with a simple assumption that all calories are equal, whether you get them from artisinal 9-grain bread, a tomato salad drenched in olive oil, or a 32 ounce soda.

Poor People Try to Save Money

Let’s just assume this. When you don’t have much money, you try to maximise what you can buy with it. When you have to save money on food, you buy the cheapest foods.

I think this is borne out by some of the popular foods associated with poverty or saving money: ramen, mac and cheese, ground beef, whole chicken, spaghetti, potatoes, beans, rice, hot dogs, stew, bologna sandwiches, potatoes and onions. You use oil or margarine to add flavor.

These aren’t all on the calorie table above, but if you know the prices, you can guess that a lot of them cost below $1 for 400-calories.

Vegetables are Expensive

Per-calorie, vegetables are some of the most expensive foods out there. Tomatoes in the table above cost 16 times what bread costs.

They are full of water, so, to start feeling “full”, you need to consume a lot of vegetables. However, they are low in calories, so you can eat a lot, and you won’t get may calories.

(When I was vegetarian, I got to a point where I was eating two plates of vegetables, or around 8 or more servings. They weren’t very filling. Despite the large quantity, the veggies only had around 800 calories.)

Maybe Poverty is the Cause

I would suggest that it’s not excessive consumption of cheap sodas, or fast food, neither of which are actually that cheap, which is the cause of obesity among low-income people. It’s not snack foods or soul food, which are both expensive.

Rather, it’s poverty itself that is the problem. Poverty is causing people to make price-based dietary decisions to buy the cheapest sources of food, to cook at home, and these happen to be some of the least filling, calorie laden foods.

These foods are also low in fiber and high in water (or in the case of bread, gasses). Consequently, people eat more to feel full, but the cheapest foods are dense in calories from starches.

It doesn’t matter that the calories are prepared at home, from fresh ingredients, if the fresh ingredients are included in a large batch of pasta, and served with bread (or tortillas, or rice), and butter or margarine at the table. The starches help stretch the meats, and most people like bread and pasta more than veggies.

Next up… criticizing the popular ideas.

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