New Research: Your Weight is a Reflection of Where You Shop

by Laura on June 6, 2010

in Blog

Recently, a friend passed along a news article to me that I thought was pretty interesting, Pricey grocery stores attract skinniest shoppers.” As the article explained, “The percentage of food shoppers who are obese is almost 10 times higher at low-cost grocery stores compared with upscale markets.” Albeit a small study, the findings underscore poverty as a key factor in our obesity epidemic.

The article continued with a note from the study’s lead author, Adam Drewnowski, a University of Washington epidemiology professor who studies obesity and social class, “That’s likely because people willing to pay $6 for a pound of radicchio are more able to afford healthy diets than people stocking up on $1.88 packs of pizza rolls to feed their kids.”

I agree that income is certainly a driving factor behind our food choices. And, when you’re stretching every dollar, you look for ways to cut costs at the store.

For years, the food industry has led us down the path to believing that prepared, packaged foods are more economical than buying fresh fruits and vegetables or even whole grains. Add to this, the marketing dollars spent in promoting a wide variety of convenient, fast, and low-cost options from pizza rolls and cinnamon rolls, to mega-sized burgers and pseudo-Mexican fare all at rock bottom prices, and why wouldn’t we ascribe to the notion that we’re getting a great deal on our food.

To me, it seems as if price is the main driving factor our food choices, especially when less-than-healthy food is offered at extremely reasonable price. With that thought in mind, I wonder what would happen if consumers were offered low prices for less of that same food for instance, $1.88 for one pizza roll? I’ll bet that there would be a rebellion, simply because Americans have been programmed to expect lots of food for very little money —regardless of how healthy it is for them.

But, low cost and massive amounts of food are only two pieces of the pie.

Knowledge and the value one places on food make up the other portions of the pie. Yet, knowing that certain food choices are better than others doesn’t mean that Americans are ready to make the change. What is required is a paradigm shift in the way we have been eating for so long. To break this low-price mindset takes more than raising our incomes, it takes raising awareness of our what we consume and how much of it we consume.

As I try to digest the findings from this study, I am drawn to the words Michael Pollan wrote in one of his books – and I will paraphrase – “eat better, whole foods, and eat less of them.” I agree with him. It is not an elitist attitude; instead it is an attitude grounde d in what I feel is best for my family and myself. I ascribe to this philosophy because I believe that our choices for food affect us today, as well as in the future.

Generally, my food choices are based on health, quality, taste, and of course, price. Convenience is an occasional factor, but certainly not an overriding one. The reason I choose the food that I do is because I have the knowledge about food, the knowledge about how to make healthier choices, and a lifestyle that embraces the connection between food and the health of our bodies, our minds , and our families. That isn’t to say we shun all unhealthy choices, it just means we make food choices based upon our lifestyle, our set of values and our knowledge about food.

This study highlights income as a driving force behind our food choices. It reinforces the notion that unhealthy food is cheap and healthy food is expensive. As reported, all of the stores in his study stocked a wide range of nutritious food, including plenty of fruits and vegetables.

So, why are the shoppers choosing foods like pizza rolls?  The study contends that the reason is because healthy, low-calorie foods cost more money and take more effort to prepare than processed, high-calorie foods.

In fact, in a separate study two years ago, Drewnowski, estimated that a calorie-dense diet cost $3.52 a day compared with $36.32 a day for a low-calorie diet. Now, I’m not so sure about that price difference, because if I fed my family of 6 for $36.32 each a day, I’d be spending more than $1,500 a week on food! That is an alarming message that we need to stop sending to consumers. I do n’t spend that much for food in a month!

The current study found that (in the Seattle region), the average market basket at the three high-priced grocery stores (which included Whole Foods) cost between $370 and $420. By contrast, at the area’s three lowest-priced stores, including Albertsons, the same basket of food cost between $225 and $280.

Too often Whole Foods is referred to as Whole Paycheck. But as I have found in my recent grocery shopping experiment (as reported in a recent Family Eats blog), I actually spent more money shopping at Safeway than I did at Whole Foods. (And a friend recently confirmed she found the same to be true).

Today, I mix my shopping between Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods and I spend between $170 and $210 a week for a family of six—less than the average market basket at the three lowest-priced grocery stores in the study.

(I did a cost of living analysis between San Francisco and Seattle, and it revealed that San Francisco is indeed a more costly place to live – so if you factor in the 31% higher prices where I live, then I really did a better job at shopping).

To some extent, price may factor into our food choices, (for instance, I opt to hold off from buying certain fruits and vegetables if I feel the price is just too high), but I think for the most part, we’ve been brainwashed to believe that eating a healthy diet is too expensive for us.  Instead of highlighting the relationship between eating healthy and the amount of money we have—or don’t have–in our wallets, perhaps we should highlight how easy and relatively convenient it is to prepare great tasting and healthful meals from scratch using whole foods. To do this, we don’t need a degree from theCulinary Institute of America; instead, we need a reminder of how delicious, nutritious and easy to enjoy whole foods are. After all, how hard is it to pick up an apple and bite into it?

Supermarket Obesity rates: Seattle Researchers ranked supermarkets according to the obesity rates. A body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher indicated obesity.

  • Whole Foods: 4 %
  • Metropolitan Market: 8%
  • Puget Consumers Cooperative (PCC) : 12%
  • Quality Food Center (QFC): 17%
  • Fred Meyer: 22%
  • Safeway: 24%
  • Albertsons: 38%
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