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Myth: Junk food is cheaper than healthy food

It may be cheap but it's definitely not appetizing....

TRUTH: Many people succumb to this myth and I don’t blame them.  When you walk into a fast food restaurant, the price is clear.  Sometimes, it’s even in the name (i.e. ‘The Dollar Menu’).  At first glance it would seem that there’s no burger you could make for $1.00 – especially not a healthy one!  However, it’s simply not the case that highly processed meals are less expensive than a home cooked meal.

I don’t want to re-hash an already well written statement, so for the purposes of simplicity, I’ll refer you to Mark Bittman’s article.  My post is not a lame excuse for an article, but wise professors have often told me that if you can’t say it better, quote the original.  I might not be able to say it better, but I can say it more concisely.  So, here are the major points:

  1. Actual Dollars and Cents:  The average cost to feed a family of four at a fast food restaurant is about $28.  And that includes medium and small sizes of items (if you got larger sizes, the cost would increase).   If you roast a chicken at home and serve seasonal vegetables (say, as a salad) with water or low fat milk, the cost would average about $14.  If you feel you’re missing a starch, servings of rice are cheap, so you’d have to add less than $1 for 4 servings of rice.
  2. Cheaper calories for better nutrition: Some argue that fast food is cheaper when you consider it calorie-for-calorie.  In other words, you get more calories for your buck.  Absolutely true.  The aforementioned meal will definitely be higher in calories.  However, we have an obesity problem in this country so I don’t think our issue is that Americans, particularly low income Americans aren’t getting enough calories.
  3. Most people can afford healthy food: If you can’t afford it on income alone, there are a lot of government subsidized programs that provide additional monies to purchase for your home.  For example, SNAP (formerly Food Stamps), WIC, Senior Citizens Benefits, School Breakfast and Lunch Programs, among others.
  4. Americans have plenty of time to cook:  You think you don’t, but the average American, regardless of income, spends at least 1 ½ hours watching TV every day.  Why not put the TV in the kitchen?!  (I’m not actually suggesting that you do this – I think it’s a terrible idea).
  5. Highly processed foods can be somewhat addictive:  The frequent consumption of fast food signals a release of dopamine in the brain, which makes us feel good (if you want more info, click here).  So first they get you hooked and then they pop up on every street corner, like drug dealers before cell phones.  You know exactly where to go when you need a fix.  It’s easy and they make it easier.

BOTTOM LINE: Fast food is not cheaper for our wallets or our waistline.  The only way to change this perception is to start acting like we care about our health and our food.  If we put half as much time into cooking a meal as we did watching TV, we could have a delicious meal and leftovers for lunch.  Instead of making excuses about the ease and quickness of fast food, make demands for a higher quality meal.  That, like many changes, begins at home.

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

  1. Marion Nestle: Does it Really Cost More to But Healthy Food? http://www.foodpolitics.com/2011/08/does-it-really-cost-more-to-buy-healthy-food/
  2. Letters to the NY Times Editor.  People raise some interesting points, definitely worth a read.

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