APTE: Poverty makes healthy lifestyle unattainable
Opinion Column: Under the Microscope
In my last column, I discussed the why we should care about the recent dietary guidelines. I’m not sure how many of you actually ate the recommended amount of vegetables, fruits, dairy, grains and protein today, but I’m sure many of you did not. So the question is: Why do so few Americans actually follow these guidelines and eat a healthy, balanced diet?
One proposed answer is that poverty can prevent individuals from buying and consuming healthy food, as it is a commonly documented phenomenon that wealthy individuals eat healthier diets than poor individuals. As college students with limited budgets, I am sure many of us are guilty of finding the cheapest burger and fries rather than spending slightly more on a fresh salad. We want the most value for our dollar, and we want to feel full, so with a limited budget, it makes sense that many of us would choose a meal from the dollar menu. So the question is: Why exactly do high-income individuals eat healthier diets than low-income individuals?
There have been many studies conducted on this phenomenon and one common argument is that healthy food is simply more expensive than junk food. One study, for instance, found a positive correlation between the nutritional value of food and the cost per calorie. There are many experts, on the other hand, that argue that it can be quite easy to prepare a healthy meal that costs as much as a McDonald’s meal. However, there are multiple problems with this argument. First of all, for many people in low-income neighborhoods, food outlets with fresh fruits and vegetables are hard to come by, and fast food restaurants are abundant. Many low-income individuals also do not have private cars and may have to rely on public transport or walking, which can make it much more inconvenient to travel to a fresh food outlet. Second of all, low-income individuals, who find it difficult to simply get by and survive, must work long hours and have an abundance of stress in their lives. As a result, many low-income individuals do not have the time to prepare fresh meals from scratch and end up consuming fast food, prepared meals and packaged foods that tend to be high in sodium, preservatives, sugars and fats. Therefore, while it may be true that some healthy meals can cost the same amount as some unhealthy meals, the confounding issues of time and physical accessibility of fresh foods complicate the issue and make direct costs a less relevant concern.
Another reason poor individuals are more likely than wealthy individuals to have unhealthy diets is the difference in education. Because many poor individuals may not have an adequate education, they may not be aware of the negative health consequences of consuming unhealthy foods. However, when researchers tested this hypothesis, their results were surprising: Low-income individuals were just as likely as high-income individuals to have healthy food preferences, which indicates that many low-income individuals are aware of the necessity of eating a healthy, balanced diet. What did differ between low and high-income individuals was healthy food taste preferences and healthy food consumption rates.
Thus, this research indicates an interesting phenomenon: high-income individuals are more likely than low-income individuals to like the taste of and to consume healthy food. A recent study suggested a possible reason for this observed effect is low-income individuals are more concerned about wasting food, so they are more likely to purchase foods that are guaranteed to taste good. I don’t know how many of you genuinely enjoy the taste of brussel sprouts or kale, but I’m sure it is not many of you. The reality is that these healthy foods have an acquired taste and thus, must be purchased several times before one finds them tasty — a privilege only the wealthy can afford.
So how do we fix these issues? It is a commonly studied fact that tastes and preferences are acquired during childhood, so perhaps we would need to focus on exposing children at an early age multiple times to fruits and vegetables. Maybe the best way to do so is through school lunch programs. If low-income children have the chance to sample healthy foods several times in school, then they may start to enjoy the taste of healthy foods and their parents may be more likely to purchase and consume healthy foods at home. We also need to push for legislation that makes fresh food vendors more physically accessible to low-income individuals and for legislation that subsidizes fruit and vegetable farms. Both laws would make healthy food more physically and financially accessible to the poor. It is not enough to simply have guidelines in place — we must ensure that Americans actually follow them.
Vandana Apte is a School of Environmental and Biological Sciences junior majoring in biotechnology with a minor in women's and gender studies. Her column, “Under the Microscope,” runs monthly on Fridays.
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