Is Inexpensive Food Making You Fat?

Americans are fat because of cheap food
The conventional wisdom is that we are a nation which is overweight because we’re too lazy to get enough exercise, and we don’t eat enough healthy food. A new study says that these assumptions are wrong. The real problem causing American’s expanding waistline isn’t the lack of exercise or not eating fruits and vegetables, but it’s due to the fact that food is too inexpensive.

A recent study by Roland Sturm and Ruopeng An argue that the key element behind Americans getting heavier is the fact that food is too cheap. The two reviewed government data over several decades to see how much Americans spent on food. They found that Americans currently spend less than 10% of their disposable income on food, yet with that 10%, they are able to buy more food than families in previous decades (The percentage does vary depending on income group. The poorest 20% of Americans spend far more on food — close to 33% of their disposable income). In the 1950’s American families spent 20% of their income on food, and families in the 1930’s spent 25% of their income on food. The study found Americans are able to spend a smaller percentage of their income on food than families in any other nation in the world, and they still get more food for that amount.

While one of the main factors is that food is less expensive, the effect is compounded by the fact that it’s much easier to buy and prepare food today than it was in past decades. The result of being able to purchase a wider variety of easily prepared cheap food results in Americans increasing their caloric intake. According to the Department of Agriculture, the average American consumed 2,109 calories in 1970. In 2010, that amount had risen to 2,568 calories. In other words, an American today eats the equivalent of an extra McDonald’s double cheeseburger every day, 365 days a year, than he did 35 years ago.

Another part the problem is that we are able to eat a lot faster than we have in the past. Far more people choose to go for quantity over quality today. It’s a lot easier and less time consuming to buy food at a restaurant, or to pick up premade meals, than to prepare an entire meal from scratch. Since Americans have such easy access to ready-made foods which don’t cost a lot, it’s much easier for them to consume greater amounts of calories without breaking their budget.

This leads to some surprising findings. Since Americans have access to a wider variety of foods, studies have found they are eating more fresh produce and getting more exercise, but they are still getting fatter. The authors conclude the standard advice to lose weight by getting more exercise and eating more produce won’t solve the problem by itself. Americans are already doing that. Unfortunately, they’re also consuming more food while doing it. For those who really want to lose weight, there needs to be a lifestyle change rather than simply an addition of more exercise and eating more of certain foods.

(Photo courtesy of Tony Alter)

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6 Responses to Is Inexpensive Food Making You Fat?

  1. Fascinating. I never would have thought that the problem could be that food is too cheap and easy to get. I guess it makes sense, since you would literally never have to cook these days if you didn’t want to- fast food and pre-made meals abound!

  2. Dody says:

    Interesting because low income families tend to be the heaviest. Wouldn’t it be that food would take a higher percentage of their budget and thus be more expensive to them? The study is flawed.

  3. bill says:

    I hate it when people say things are flawed based on their own perceptions without providing any actual information to back it up. Please explain why the study is flawed with scientific citations instead of just pulling stuff out of thin air.

  4. Nowadays, fast foods and restaurants are everywhere, so we can’t stop the urge of buying from those establishments. If we just make our own food from scratch, then surely we will not become fat and of course with lifestyle.

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  6. jd wolfe says:

    i’ve spent a significant amount of time living in outside of the USA and it’s amazing how much higher percentage of income the rest of the world must pay for food than we do. we have relatively cheap access to GOOD food as well as the fast food, highly processed convenience foods. growing up in the USA means you will be bombarded in media and on every street corner with food images and advertisements. for anyone struggling to control food intake, this can be hazardous.

    as for the seeming paradox of lower income people spending more on food and being fatter even tho’ they have less income to spend on anything – consider the effect of grocery stores (food deserts) in low income areas, the lack of fresh food at convenience marts that may stock the only food in the neighborhood as well as perhaps less information on label reading and the effects of things like too much sodium and salt in the diet (esp from processed foods). this, like most things, is an educational issue. the teens i teach in the ‘hood always have money for ‘hot chips’ and soda. always! they do not have easy access to better food and develop cravings for what they know – just like everyone else does!

    so, our food costs are very reasonable but our choices may not always be so. it takes a bit of work to plan healthy meals based on the best buys and healthiest choices at the market. many meal planners and preparers – mainly moms – run out of time each day to pull this off. no shock there.

    like all other areas, choices must be made, needs prioritized, follow thru applied.

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