On the back of the media attack on ‘clean’ or healthy eating, a large swathe of the public must be left feeling there are no health benefits to be had, that the cost of healthy eating is extortionate — or it’s only for the rich and beautiful.
Many of us in the nutritional field know these views are patently untrue and today we set out with some scenarios to show how. We’ve used our own Food4Health guidelines to create a chicken and vegetable main meal for four, based on largely unprocessed ingredients as an example of healthy eating and we’ve compared it to a comparable ready-made meal in terms of the ingredients (from a UK supermarket) and also to a ‘junk food’ meal (from MacDonalds).
The results may surprise you. Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to eat healthy, nutrient-dense, nourishing food that cost considerably less than junk food. And, strange as it might seem, it may just keep you alive longer.
Before we delve into the details, sobering information was released yesterday in a brand, new JAMA study confirming that nearly half of all deaths in the United States in 2012 were caused by cardiometabolic diseases, including heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes. All have been linked to substandard eating habits. Of the 702,308 adult deaths due to cardiometabolic diseases, 318,656 (equating to around 45%), were associated with inadequate consumption of certain foods and nutrients widely considered vital for healthy living, and overconsumption of other foods that are not. The list includes foods and nutrients long-associated with influencing cardiometabolic health. The highest percentage of deaths was linked to excess consumption of sodium, but clearly indicated is that processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages and unprocessed red meats were also consumed in excess. “Americans did not consume enough of some foods that have healthful effects such as fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, whole grains, polyunsaturated fats and seafood omega-3 fats.” This may have been an American study, but it’s similar story the world over where junk food is king.
Cost is not the only factor to drive consumer behaviour. Addiction, lack of time and lack of knowledge about food preparation or nutritional planning are other factors. Exploiting this, ready-made meals and junk food are marketed to us by Big Food as the convenient way around our challenges or lack of skills or knowledge. Then you get hooked – and you teach your kids to do the same, and it saves you time that you have very little of. But what if it didn’t save you money – or it destroyed your health and that of your family, long-term. Shockingly, that’s the reality.
Where does the ‘healthy eating is expensive’ notion come from?
The short answer is: from studies using cost per calorie. These conclude that healthy food is more expensive. Unfortunately, this methodology doesn’t consider the difference between energy-dense and nutrient-dense foods, for example between potatoes or broccoli. It also doesn’t take into account the cost of the food, or the portion or amount being consumed.
To illustrate this, it’s very easy to knock back 100 calories (kcal) worth of potato crisps; it’s not even a whole 25g packet. But to get the equivalent amount of calories from broccoli you’d need to wolf down 2 or 3 heads worth — in one sitting! Yet, the broccoli is giving so many more nutrients that are essential for health, cancer-fighting sulforaphanes and fibre, along with DNA-supporting folate, to name just a few. The physiological and biochemical effects of the two different 100 calories worth on your body are profoundly different!
Having been long-time advocates of diet and lifestyle interventions to support optimal health, we can confidently say that it’s not all about calories. The quality of the food you eat, the composition of the macro-and micro-nutrients in it, how frequently you eat and the way you then use the fuel in your body, are often far more important factors affecting your overall health and resilience.
Is junk food really cheaper?
To test this hypothesis, we’ve looked at three scenarios:
- A Food4Health guideline compliant Mediterranean-style dish of chicken, vegetables and a bit of sweet potato. A few berries were added for afters. We’ve designed the meal to comply with our guideline macronutrient ratios that, when calculated as a proportion of total energy, are approximately 50% energy from healthy fats, 30% energy from complex carbs and 20% energy from quality protein. We then included representative fruit and veg from all 6 phytonutrient colour groups. Pricing and ingredients came from the UK supermarket, Walmart-owned ASDA. We did our nutrition calculations using SELFNutritionData. The meal was made for 4, so the figures had to be divided by 4 to deliver the per person prices and nutrition information.
- Ready-made meal. The meal was a microwaveable ‘Roast Chicken Dinner’, also from ASDA, with a remarkably low cost of £1.50 (€1.73) for a single portion. The ready-made meal was then followed by a Muller Light Fat Free Strawberry Yogurt.
- Junk food meal. Yes, you’ve guessed it: we ran with a McDonald’s meal, including a Big Mac, Fries, a Coke and a McFlurry to follow.
As you’ll see from our infographic, the supermarket, microwaveable, ready-made meal and the Food4Health plate end up being comparable in price, per portion, with the supermarket meal and yoghurt coming in around 20p less than the wholesome Food4Health meal.
Amazingly, the McDonalds, that many see as the cheap option, is around double the price of eating at home in either of the other two scenarios.
But here’s the rub. The supermarket meal and yoghurt option delivers far too little in the way of healthy fats and under 500 calories (kcal), less than half of the energy of the other two meals. It also delivers just half of the phytonutrient colour groups the Institute for Functional Medicine recommend – as per the Food4Health guidelines. The macronutrient composition is bang on song for the UK eatwell guide (i.e. 50% carbohydrates), but it’s this way of eating that we (and many other nutritional scientists) believe is driving metabolic disease in our society.
The ready-made meal also means degraded nutrients and a bunch of additives. Eating like this regularly means a loss of kitchen and food preparation skills. Perhaps even more importantly, it opens the door to snacking. It wouldn’t be uncommon for someone eating a meal like this to dive into a chocolate bar, a sugary beverage, a pastry or some other high sugar ‘delight’ an hour or two later to appease the hole in their stomach.
The very process of filling up on carbs, especially when linked to snacking, is at the heart of the obesity epidemic.
The health problems linked to eating junk food are very well known. The tiny amount of vegetable matter in the Big Mac was hardly a saving grace, the amount being so trivial as to not have any significant impact on health. Protein was down compared with the supermarket meal and the fat represented a very unhealthy balance of polyunsaturated and saturated fats. Carbs and sugars were far too high (in fact they were 20% above the SACN recommended limit of 5% of total energy), as one would expect, being several times over the government advisory limit. Eat food like this regularly at your own risk!
The real sting in the tail for Big Food is that the supermarket meal was the most expensive meal by quite a margin when looked at in terms of cost for a given energy value (we priced the meals per 1000 kcal; see infographic above). The supermarket meal worked out at around twice the price of the Food4Health guideline meal for the same energy value – and the McDonald’s meal was around 1.5 times the cost of the Food4Health guideline meal in this respect.
Should we be surprised that eating largely unprocessed foods, nevertheless bought from a low-cost supermarket, offered the best nutrition and value for money? We don’t think so – someone has to pay for all that processing and all those food additives. In the case of McDonald’s, there’s the restaurants to pay for and the advertising as well.
Our scenario analysis has shown that Big Food and governments are lying to us or they’re ignorant when they say healthy eating is too expensive.
It’s the knowledge that is not there – and the food preparation skills needed to make healthy food cheaply are being lost at an alarming rate.
That’s why we engage in so much education.
For UK practitioners wanting to learn more about how they can teach their clients about meal planning using the ANH-Intl Food4Health guidelines, that’s one of the many areas we’ll be training on at our practitioner training event on 7 October at the Sheepdrove Eco Conference Centre near Hungerford, Berkshire, UK.
Contact our practitioner liaison, Melissa Smith at Melissa@anhinternational.org to find out more and book your place.
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