Poverty and poor diets go hand-in-hand

Not exactly a nutrition bonanza, but they're tasty, filling, and cheap.

Not exactly a nutrition bonanza, but they're tasty, filling, and cheap.

Poor people can’t afford to buy nutritious food. This is hardly a revelation, but according to a study from the University of Washington, nutritionists have long placed the onus of responsibility for poor diets on those who can least afford to eat well.

Many nutritionists insist that Americans have equal access to healthy foods; they simply need to make an effort. Focusing purely on nutrient needs while excluding social context often leads to low-income consumers receiving recommendations for high-cost foods. A more realistic approach would take food prices, preferences, and social norms into account before issuing dietary advice to the public.

“Can low-income Americans afford a healthy diet?”, written by Adam Drewnowski and Petra Eichelsdoerfer with the University of Washington Center for Public Health Nutrition (UWCPHN), concludes that low-income families can’t afford to buy the nutritious foods they need. Even more damning is the statement that many public health officials and nutritionists are providing recommendations that are little more than useless for those struggling to make ends meet and still put good food on the table.

The ability to follow a healthy diet depends on having sufficient knowledge, money, and time. Low-income families often lack these basic social and material resources. Limited access to healthy foods may be one reason why low income Americans suffer from the highest obesity rate.

So what is a more realistic approach? Ideally, it would be recognizing that people with less schooling and less money are more likely to consume less nutritious foods because they have fewer options. In another study, also from UWCPHN, Drewnowski points out that nutrition-related diseases such as diabetes and obesity are more common among low-income Americans than among people with higher incomes. Food that is nutritionally rich costs more. Or, as the first study notes: “Promoting luxury food items to low-income people is a questionable strategy for public health”.

“As food prices go up, the natural tendency is to fill up on inexpensive sweets and fats,” said Drewnowski in a press release from University of Washington’s press office. “We need to make affordable nutrient-rich foods available to every American household”.

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