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Obesity Linked to Low Food Prices

It is no mystery to anyone reading this site that two-thirds of the U.S. population is overweight. Now researchers have shown that the very low cost of energy-dense foods may be linked to these rising obesity rates. We have the cheapest food supply in the world in terms of what we spend on food as part of our incomes. Yesterday I returned from a week-long cruise to the Western Caribbean and I can fully appreciate this observation. For one full week one has 24/7 access to unlimited amounts of incredible tasting food. The average person gains about 4 pounds on a cruise. If the entire country had access to this type of food with no regard for paying for it, I would venture to say well over 90 percent of the country would be overweight.

The researcher carefully explained that it's a question of money. 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.

Many strategies for health promotion over the years have presumed that good nutrition was simply a matter of making the right choices. Access to healthier diets could be sharply limited in low-income neighborhoods simply because of the food environment and the nature of the available food supply. It is the opposite of choice. People are not poor by choice and they become obese primarily because they are poor. Continuing to recommend costly foods to low-income families as a public health measure can only generate frustration among the poor and less well-educated. Americans are gaining weight while consuming more added sugars and added fats. They urge that issues of food costs demand attention.

American Journal of Clinical Nutrition January 2004 6-16

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