What's the Real Reason Behind America's Awful Diet?

CC BY 2.0. Lars Plougmann

Many Americans say it's difficult to afford healthy food, but could the problem actually be that they like junk food more?

Americans have notoriously bad diets; nobody’s arguing about that. The debate, however, continues to rage about what’s causing it. Is it poverty? Lack of education? Food deserts? Inadequate kitchens? No time to cook? No ability to cook? Theories are flung back and forth across debate lines.

One columnist for the Washington Post has an interesting, and doubtlessly contentious, perspective. Tamar Haspel suggests that Americans like their junk food. It tastes good, and so they buy it. This is uncomfortable because nobody wants to admit that their taste preferences win over their nutritional needs on a daily basis; nor do policy-makers want to take a stance that could sound too much like victim-blaming.

Haspel cites a 2013 study that found that the cost of shifting one’s diet from unhealthful to healthful eating required an increase of only $1.48 per day. It would make sense, then, that well-to-do Americans would eat much better than poor Americans, since it requires relatively little money, but that is not the case.

“A 2013 study that attempted to quantify [the difference in diet quality between higher-income groups and lower-income groups] found that the lowest-income group did indeed eat less-nutritious diets than the wealthiest group, but if you compare the lowest with the next group up, the diets are extremely similar. It’s not until you get to five times the poverty level that diets improve, and even then it’s not a big jump.”

Haspel’s calculations found that it’s possible to eat well for $4 a day, which is the average benefit amount provided by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a.k.a. food stamps. The secret is to purchase raw ingredients—the ones that offer more caloric bang for your buck—and to cook from scratch. (To compare, I calculated my family’s cost per day. It works out to $5-6 a day per person, and I’d say we eat very well. Mostly everything, though, is prepared from scratch and we rarely eat out.)

That brings to mind another study about which I wrote for TreeHugger — a 2012 experiment that compared the cost of an economical version of the USDA’s MyPlate dietary guidelines to a plant-based Mediterranean diet rich in olive oil. The MyPlate diet ended up being $750 more per year than the Mediterranean diet. In other words, a nutritional diet doesn’t have to break the bank.

Tonja Nansel, a senior investigator at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, is quoted in Haspel’s article:

“Most people prefer the taste of ramen to brown rice. They prefer chips to kale. The fact that we would rather not have to look at some of those other reasons is part of [the] reason cost gets so much traction.”

Perhaps it is time we addressed matters of taste, which could go a long way toward improving one’s health. The American attitude toward healthy food, particularly vegetables and their fraught relationship with children, is unique. Other cultures, with their deeply ingrained and old food traditions, do a much better job at normalizing vegetables and other healthy foods than the U.S. and the U.K. do, as explained by Bee Wilson in her latest book, “First Bite: How We Learn To Eat” (2016).

It’s an awkward topic, and not one that will be resolved in this article, but Haspel is absolutely right that it must be questioned and examined more closely before the state of U.S. national health has a chance at improvement.