Would Americans Be Healthier If They Spent More On Food?

Are their cultural reasons for America's obesity problem?

Working off an interactive inforgraphic, Cliff Kuang points out some interesting differences between the food budgets of Americans people in other nations, and what it might mean for health:

Your average American eats more calories per day than people in any other country in the world. No surprise there! But once you start delving in the data, the picture does indeed get a little weird: We don’t eat that much more than Europeans. But their obesity rates stand at 15%, while ours are double that, at 34%. What the hell?

(…)

For starters, Americans only spend 6.9% of their income on food. Compare that to a country such as Italy, which has a far lower rate of obesity. Italians eat only 100 fewer calories per day than we do–but they spend more than twice their income on food

That trend holds up all across Europe: The British, Germans, and French all eat almost as much as us, but spend between 50-100% more on food.

Granted, Americans don’t walk as much as Europeans do. But the obvious thing you have to conclude is that we simply eat cheaper food that’s worse for us. Again, that’s no surprise given the amount of fast food and processed food that Americans eat. The real question is why we eat like that. I’d place the blame squarely on the 1950s, and our wholesale embrace of mechanized food after World War II. In those days, fast food, canned vegetables, and cheap chicken became a sign of America’s progressiveness: Cheap food, in the days after World War II, were a marker of the roaring economic progress we were making. Cheap food, in other words, was a source of national pride before it became a national habit. Europe, by contrast, had no such industrial miracle. Instead, they simply held onto the food traditions that they always had–of home cooking, for example.

To flip it forward a bit, I would argue that Europeans are willing to pay more for better food because what they eat is so wrapped up with national pride and cultural identity. Why wouldn’t you spend the time to buy great ingredients for something homemade if that’s how your beloved great-grandmother did it? Americans, by contrast, have far less of a cultural attachment to the food we eat. We don’t have national dishes and food traditions that bind us together in the way of Italy or Greece. Sure, we have hamburgers, but can anyone argue that those matter as much as sardines and pasta to Souther Italians? Or fish and dolmas to Greeks? It’s no surprise that we’re so susceptible to cheap food: In some ways, it’s because food simply means less to us.

Assuming for the sake of argument the validity of the underlying data, it’s an intriguing phenomenon. Daily caloric intake doesn’t vary all that much between the United States and most of Europe, and yet obesity, diabeties, and heart disease, all of which are related to diet, are far bigger problems in the United States than they are across the pond. It’s also generally true that healthier food tends to end up being more expensive than the processed, frozen, and fried stuff that fills up American grocery carts on a weekly basis, especially for the average family of four.

I’m not entirely sure about Kuang’s explanation for this difference between American and European food buying habits, though. On the American side at least, I’d suggest that it’s not really the idea of cheap food that has become part of our culture as the idea of fast, easy to make, convenient food, whether it comes from McDonalds or a grocery store. It was the 1950s, after all, that saw the advent of the TV Dinner, the quick and easy substitute to the family dinner. As time has gone on and American life has become seemingly more busy, the appeal of convenience has come to dominate our food choices. Watch commercials for grocery products today and you’ll see that the focus is on easy and convenience of preparation, not so much on price. The fact that the convenient food ends up being cheaper, I’d argue, isn’t nearly as important as the fact that its easier to prepare. In a nation where two working parents and kids busy with school activities, it’s easy to see why that’s a major selling point.

I’ll take Kuang’s description of the European cultural attachment to food as true, but it’s also true that Europeans tend not to live the same kind of on-the-go lifestyle that Americans have taken upon themselves. Taking two hours out of the day to prepare a meal isn’t quite as big a deal under such circumstances, and the attraction of popping a frozen pizza in the oven not nearly as apparent. That, combined with the fact that Europeans don’t seem to be nearly as sedentary as Americans, is likely one of the main explanations for why they are able to equal our caloric intake yet not suffer as many health consequences.

Notwithstanding all the comments about how sedentary Americans are, though, it would be ironic indeed if one of the main contributors to America’s obesity epidemic is the fact that we’re just too busy to eat healthy.

H/T: Andrew Sullivan

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Health
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Ron Beasley says:

    The problem is Americans eat too much processed food which is full of high fructose corn syrup and has most of the nutrition processed out.

  2. michael reynolds says:

    We have no robust cultural controls on what we eat. It used to frustrate the hell out of me when we were living in Tuscany* but meal times and meal contents were rigidly defined. People ate essentially the same few things at exactly the same times, every day.

    We’d go to the IperCoop — a massive Super Wal-Mart size department store and grocery store — and they would have literally a hundred different sausages. But only six spices. Tons and tons of fresh fish, meat, produce. And one type of chicken nugget.** Choices were vast within the cultural idiom of Italian food, and all but non-existent beyond that limited range. Frozen was much less common than fresh, local more common by far than foreign.

    *Yes, I know that sounds obnoxious.
    ** Very good nuggets, actually.

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    Another problem: we’re not Europeans. We’re not genetically the same as Europeans. There’s no particular reason to believe that non-Europeans eating a European diet will have the same results as Europeans.

    In addition we don’t walk nearly as much as Europeans. There’s a comprehensible reason for that: generally speaking we don’t have the population density here in the States that they do in Europe.

  4. Dave Schuler says:

    In summary:

    we eat too much
    we eat the wrong stuff
    food is cheaper here
    we don’t walk enough
    we aren’t Europeans

  5. Tim says:

    I’m not so sure sedentariness has anything to do with it. The idea that maintaining healthy weight through energy expenditure > caloric intake (over the long term) is a fallacy. One’s body will always seek an equilibrium either through down-regulation of metabolism or a drive to expend more. There are studies that show fat people on the whole don’t consume more calories than slender people and in fact, burn more calories in a sedentary state. In any case, it is the type of calories consumed that matter. Processed carbs are the worse because of their impact on insulin (which prohibits the burning of fat as energy) and satiety – never feeling full. Price is an important factor on these convenient processed foods. Look at all the corn and soy-based ingredients. The government is basically subsidizing crap.

  6. Lomax says:

    Cheap food prices indeed. The other day I went to a warehouse store and spent $200 for half a grocery cart of basic food staples: milk, bread, chicken, crackers, peanut butter, etc. I am not obese. In fact, the doctor told be to gain a few pounds. Anyway you turn it, food prices are way too high and have increased dramatically in the last 2-3 years. I used to pay $1.88 for a bag of Doritos. Now it is close to $4 for a smaller bag! Soft drinks: 50 cents for a can drink a few years ago. Now it is at least $1. Weird, ridiculous. Gouging to the extreme!

  7. @Dave Schuler:

    Um, I’m pretty sure genetically european americans are getting more obese over time.

  8. I think it is processed foods + lack of walking, with the walking thing being huge.

    Anecdotally , when I lived for a year in Bogota, Colombia* and did not own a car and therefore walked everywhere (and taking cabs and buses, sure, but walking a ton), I lost weight and ate whatever I wanted.

    *Not as cool as living in Tuscany 🙂

  9. I follow food/exercise articles with a fair degree of attention. It isn’t as well defined as you’d think it would be, given a hundred years of study. I did note a couple recent factiods.

    One was a re-commitment to simple calories in/out, to explain wait loss (over more extreme lo/no diets).

    The second was a report that RNA from foods can cross to influence the eater. This would imply that we are what we eat in secondary effects.

    Those are kind of at odds … but I think the idea of less processed food and more exercise is a good one.

  10. JKB says:

    So it seems like the solution is to

    work less
    produce less
    get the women back in the kitchen cooking for hours on end
    force people into dense urban environments
    force them to walk
    to pay higher prices as small groceries rather than economy of scale retailers
    oh, if you are poor, your food is to be brussel sprouts and arugula. No chips, dips, snacks, sodas, frozen pizza, etc.

    Yes, America’s crime is that our food is to cheap, to tasty, to convenient and to readily available. We suck.

  11. @JKB:

    Lolz. You can pull frozen broccoli spears from the freezer, put them straight in a stove top steamer, add a little cooked chicken, and have good eats in 10 minutes.

  12. mattb says:

    To some degree @JKB: actually does identify a couple cultural shifts that occurred post WWII that did help lead to the obesity issues. One of the bigger ones was the suburbanization of the US. That move led, in many places, to a commuting lifestyle and to an increase in car culture. It also changed the demographic makeup of small and midsized cities, which in turn, shifted the location of and type of food stores available in both locations.

    Additionally commuting changed the rhythm of everyday life and meals. And, at the same time, housewives began to be identified as a marketing category — not to mention that women increasingly entered the work force.

    The net result was a move towards convenience. Though, contra Doug, I think if you look back at the marketing of manufactured food from the 30’s and beyond, cost was always a key marketing factor (there’s a reason it was called home economics).

  13. Modulo Myself says:

    The thing about processed foods in general is that they are made to satisfy infantile appetites that can’t conceive of outside tastes. .

    If you had told a ten-year old me that one day both McDonalds and Kraft Mac/Cheese would be unappealing I would not have believed you. I could have survived, at ten, on these happily, along with hot dogs, fries, chips, soda and Tastycakes.

    But then had you gone on to say that as an adult I would love foods ranging from Tuscan kale and brussel sprouts to sweetbreads and liver pate I would have been completely bewildered. My gastronomic calculator simply could not compute the future.

    And I’m not the only one who has made this jump. You notice that in Europe, as surrounded by consumerism as it is, nobody really thinks that in the end, if there were no restrictions on diet, everybody would be eating Doritos non-stop while washing it down with Diet Pepsi. Whereas in America the idea that craving is exactly as degrading as that would be has a certain logic to it.

  14. @mattb:

    To some degree @JKB: actually does identify a couple cultural shifts that occurred post WWII that did help lead to the obesity issues.

    How many people even bother to Google “fast cheap healthy meals” and how many people just give in to the fast food craving?

    You know, one of the strange memes coming out of the Paula Deen story are people saying “only the rich can be healthy,” when in fact that isn’t true. Good healthy vegetables are cheap in the frozen food aisle. There is even the argument that, frozen at peak of freshness, they are better for you than badly treated fresh foods.

    It would be kind of sad, if unsurprisingly human, if people did the fast food, and then blamed someone else for it.

  15. Lomax says:

    @Modulo Myself: I don’t know about you, but a Big Mac and shake are still very appealing, delicious, but have gone up too much in price. The same for a nice salad.

  16. Ron Beasley says:

    The problem isn’t just Doritos and Pepsi. If you eat minute rice or instant mashed potatoes all you are eating is sugar. Even regular white rice has had most of the nutrients polished off.

  17. Ron,

    And that kind of gets to the convenience argument I was making. Why wait the 40 minutes or so it takes to cook brown rice when you can have it ready in a minute? This seems to be a cultural ethos.

  18. @Ron Beasley:

    Brown rice is cheap and healthy. Cooked in an inexpensive rice cooker, it’s easy as well.

    Throw some black beans in the crock pot and you’ve got two good sides down. Add some frozen vege, and 3 oz lean meat, and you’re in.

  19. @Doug Mataconis:

    No more than 5 minutes labor though.

    If we get down to 15 minutes being too much work for a good dinner, we are all doomed.

  20. @john personna:

    I don’t disagree at all, but you can’t deny that the ‘fast and easy” thing seems to be a big seller.

    Of course, using a crock pot, you can do a ton of health cooking and have it ready when you get home from work.

  21. @Doug Mataconis:

    I actually have a split position. On the one hand, I think eating healthy can be easy, if we just give it a little thought. On the other hand, I know our monkey brains often go for the easy, the sweet, the fatty.

    So, while I encourage personal action, I recognize a role for social … nudges.

    I disagree with those who think bad diet is “revealed preference” and therefor should be a protected freedom. Paula Deen did not plan on diabetes. It wasn’t her revealed preference. She got there by accident, as do millions of others.

  22. Ron Beasley says:

    @john personna: @Doug Mataconis: My crock pot is my best friend. Yesterday I cooked a whole chicken with some carrots and onions in my pot and I now have soup which I’ll freeze and chicken for other dishes and sandwiches. Today It was split pea soup flavored with a ham shank which will also be frozen in meal size portions. Tomorrow I will make some soup with lean stew meat onions, tomatoes and barley. Prep time was very low and I have a couple of weeks worth of lunches. Brown rice and black beans – one of my favorite meals.

  23. JKB says:

    @john personna:
    Frozen broccoli!, you’re getting a call from Michelle Obama. And when did this chicken get cooked? Did the little woman remember to set things out in the morning so she could pop dinner in a few minutes, Oh, wait, that requires canned food.

    The point is, to eat at home takes planning, forethought and energy. To eat out is often cheaper for up to 4 people once you factor in the time, energy, cleanup, etc. Specialization, baby. Mom and dad can concentrate on getting one to practice, the other to the recital and still see they have food in their belly.

    Still it’s possible if you can get one or the other to devote their time and effort to getting dinner on the table and also a nutritious breakfast in the morning.

  24. anjin-san says:

    If you want to get a handle on what you are buying, get an app called Fooducate for your smartphone. Good stuff.

    http://www.fooducate.com

  25. anjin-san says:

    you’re getting a call from Michelle Obama

    Yea, Mrs. Obama is concerned about the garbage Americans eat and how it destroys their health. Awful woman. I bet she is worried about early onset diabetes too. What is wrong with her?

  26. anjin-san says:

    America’s crime is that our food is to cheap, to tasty, to convenient and to readily available. We suck.

    If you look at the systematic cruelty that is associated with factory farming, it should be a crime. Absolutely. If someone hurt your family pet, you would probably be ready to grab a baseball bat and send them to the ER. But if the suffering takes place out of sight and out of mind so that you can enjoy a bucket of KFC, that’s cool I guess.

    As a country, we have been programmed by the corporations that produce food to become sugar, salt, and fat junkies. Start looking at what is in EVERYTHING you buy at the supermarket. It is pretty scary. God only knows what the downstream health consequences of all those ingredients with names you can’t pronounce is. Why do so many people get cancer? Gee, I have no idea.

    If you don’t mind poisoning yourself, and being a good little doggie that drools and begs for tasty treats, well I guess that is your business.

  27. Lomax says:

    @Ron Beasley: That’s a bunch of crock!

  28. @JKB:

    I think cooked whole chickens are available across the country. Though I often fire up the Big Green Egg myself.

  29. (I guess JKB’s position is that health requires thought or effort, then only a liberal plot would support it. Stop a the market for a roast chicken? Socialism!)

  30. Ron Beasley says:

    The problem is not a simple one. We have gone from corner grocery stores to mega stores miles apart. I’m 65 and when I was growing up there were 4 or 5 grocery stores within walking distance of my house. They weren’t huge mega stores but they had healthy fresh food. If I were to go back to my old neighborhood today the closest full service grocery store is three miles away. Filling the gap are “mini marts” that have nothing but processed foods. If you can’t drive you don’t have access to healthy food even if you had the knowledge to know what healthy food was. The issue is both knowledge and availability.

  31. I know there are mini-mart wastelands, but I think most of us have at least a supermarket handy.

    I am fortunate here in the OC though, to have supermarkets tailored to various ethnicities within five miles. I have a Trader Joe’s and a Supermercado within a couple miles.

  32. Something interesting of brain-friendly foods here.

  33. Rob in CT says:

    In my case, it’s a simple matter of too many calories in + too few burnt via excercise. I’m sedentary and I love food & drink.

    We seldom eat out. I do 99% of the cooking, and what I produce for dinner is usually reasonably healthy. Over time, I’ve shifted more and more to whole wheat based things (pasta, bread) and tried to avoid overly processed ingredients. For meat, we mostly use chicken. If ground beef is called for, I usually use ground turkey (or lean ground sirloin). We eat veggies, though likely not enough that a nutritionist would be happy.

    The problem for me is that I then eat too much, or snack later, or have a couple glasses of wine with it, etc. My wife, who eats the same diet (but less of it), rarely drinks, and gets slightly more excercise (only slightly), is in great shape. There are genetic factors too, of course, but actually I think my genes are helping me rather than hurting me.

    So yeah fewer calories + more walking would likely = weight loss for me. That would require willpower I’ve yet to devote to the purpose (I use what little I have elsewhere).

  34. @Rob in CT:

    Here’s some friendly folks, Rob.

    It’s easier to hike along, yakking about whatever.