By Hugh C. McBride
In times of financial crisis, “down” seems to be a prevalent term. Housing markets are down, the stock market is down, job prospects are down … the list, sadly, goes on and on.
But as the United States and other nations slip deeper into recession, some numbers may be on the rise. And contrary to what you might think, this isn’t a good thing. As paradoxical as it may sound at first, more than a few health experts fear that a continued economic downturn may result in increased obesity rates.
Contrary to what some people continue to believe, obesity is not necessarily an affliction of excess. Yes, the United States is among the richest nations in the world, and, yes, the country is also experiencing record levels of overweight and obesity. But many people who are struggling with excess weight are doing so not because they’ve been gorging themselves on multi-course meals in high-end restaurants, but because they’ve been trying to make a dwindling food budget stretch as far as possible.
“Healthy foods tend to be more expensive, so when people have to cut back on their grocery bills, they end up selecting cheaper foods that are higher in sugar and saturated fats,” Meg Massie wrote in a Jan. 10 article on the WalletPopwebsite. “Things like fresh fruit and organic veggies become a luxury, and cash-strapped families turn to fast food dollar menus.”
This phenomenon was discussed in some detail in the January 2004 edition American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, where a review paper by nutrition experts Dr. Adam Drewnowski and Dr. S.E. Specter explored the relationship between rising obesity rates and rising food prices. The correlation, the experts noted, was due to the fact that the most economical energy-dense foods (which stave off hunger for longer periods of time) are often filled with “empty calories” and devoid of nutritional value.
This argument was explained further in a Jan. 5, 2004 article on the ScienceDailywebsite:
“It’s a question of money,” Drewnowski said. “The reason healthier diets are beyond the reach of many people is that such diets cost more. On a per calorie basis, diets composed of whole grains, fish, and fresh vegetables and fruit are far more expensive than refined grains, added sugars and added fats. It’s not a question of being sensible or silly when it comes to food choices, it’s about being limited to those foods that you can afford.”
Energy-dense foods not only provide more calories per unit weight, but can provide more empty calories per unit cost. These foods include French fries, soft drinks, candy, cookies, deep-fried meats and other fatty, sugary and salty items. The review shows that attempting to reduce food spending tends to drive families toward more refined grains, added sugars and added fats.
Previous studies have shown that energy-dense foods may fail to trigger physiological satiety mechanisms – the internal signals that enough food has been consumed. These failed signals lead to overeating and overweight. Paradoxically, trying to save money on food may be a factor in the current obesity epidemic.
As is often the case, the negative effects may be particularly damaging to young people, whose bodies are being denied necessary nutrients at an essential point in their development. Experts from around the globe agree that epidemic levels of childhood obesity represent one of the world’s most pressing health threats.
The good news is that the onset of tough economic times doesn’t mean the end of nutritious eating. There are a number of solid strategies for eating healthy on a budget – and though the effort may be a bit of a challenge at first, the results will be beneficial to both your wallet and your waistline.
At a time when thoughts of the nation’s financial future make for grim imagery, few could be forgiven for refusing to reflect upon the greatest economic collapse of the previous century. But in her Jan. 10 WalletPop article, Meg Massie noted that we can learn a lot – nutritionally as well as economically – from the way a previous generation fed itself during financial catastrophe:
“Looking back to the Great Depression, before poverty stricken Americans had the dollar menu, people survived hard times on a diet of cheap and nutrient-rich foods such as ground beef, beans, milk, nuts, cheese, carrots, potatoes, canned tomatoes, soups, and rice,” Massie wrote. “Maybe not as yummy as McDonald's, but if you're really trying to save money, this is definitely the best way to go. That dollar menu is going to cost you more in the long run.”