Myths about healthy eating

The latest 5 myths takes on myths of healthy eating.  These largely sounded about right to me, as I think people have been pushing just a little too hard on how hard it supposedly is for poor people to eat healthy.  I found #3 most interesting:

3. Eating healthy is too expensive.

A dinner of hot dogs and Devil Dogs is undeniably cheap. But a bowl of beans and rice with a banana on the side is cheaper. A survey by the USDA found that, by weight, bottled water is cheaper than soda, low-fat milk is cheaper than high-fat, and whole fruit is cheaper than processed sweet snacks. Preparing a big pot of lentils for the week may be not be glamorous, but it’s much cheaper and not much more time-consuming than cooking up frozen pizza or mac and cheese.

The New York Times’ Mark Bittman — no fan of Frito-Lay — writes that the idea that junk food is cheaper than real food is “just plain wrong” and that blaming unhealthy habits on cost is incorrect. People who eat lots of unhealthy food aren’t doing so because they lack cheap, healthy options. Instead, it’s because they like junk food. Making junk food comparatively more pricey by tacking on taxes — a proposal that has been revived manytimes by Yale’s Kelly Brownell (and recently made into law in Denmark) — mostly means that people will pay more taxes, not eat more kale.

Good points, (and there’s similar ones), but it was interesting to note at the end that the author is the editor of Reason– a libertarian magazine.  Interesting that taxes and prices are assumed to dramatically affect human behavior until it comes to a liberal idea to tax junk food.  This very well may be too much government paternalism, but if junk food costs more, won’t people eat less?  And if people pay more taxes on junk food, might that not offset some of the externalities that come with a less healthy population?  I do think that is an important point, though, that unhealthy food is not cheaper.  It is easier, though.  And if you’re life is tough enough from poverty, easy matters.  I eat a lot of fresh fruit these days (mostly apples) and I love the fruit, but it would still be so much easier to just grab a few handfuls of pretzels than to slice up an apple (yeah, I know I don’t have to, but they are much more enjoyable that way) or to make a salad– even with the bagged lettuce.  Surely, that’s got to matter.

Finally, as far as policy goes, this seems the ideal place where we should want not government telling us what to do, but where a nice Nudge could be very useful.  I never gave Nudge it’s full due, but I give it a brief mention here.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

2 Responses to Myths about healthy eating

  1. I also eat healthy but object in the most stringent manner taxing any food, junk or otherwise. People who buy junk food with food stamps don’t pay any taxes and they are demographically higher eaters of junk food. I would have more patience withe government denying junk food to food stampers just like they do booze. There are a lot of morbidly obese people on food stamps, junk food being a primary reason.

    John Wilder

  2. Jared Wiener says:

    I think the final point you make about the limits of time is extremely important. Assuming for a moment that people make rational decisions, two of the most important considerations are money and time, both of which are finite. The combination of the two, along with the immediate gratification of good-tasting junk food, likely play a large role in the decision-making process.

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