Now, here’s Chart 2. It looks where Americans are eating — fast food, restaurants, at home — from 1977 to 1978 and then again from 2005 to 2008:
Check out both charts and here’s the basic pattern: when we go to the supermarket to buy things for our house, we buy way too much sugar and frozen stuff, and not nearly enough dark green vegetables, legumes, or fruits. This isn’t necessarily breaking news. The flip side is that cooking at home, generally, is going to be a little bit better for you than eating out will be — but since the late 1970s, the percentage of eating in fast food settings has quadrupled, whereas at-home eating has dropped about 15 percent. Phrased another way, “you’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t.” This would logically explain the obesity stats you frequently hear about.
There are different reasons for all this, obviously. The one that’s easiest to cite and be aggravated about is money. Here’s a study on how much big food companies spend to market their products, and here’s the pullout you need to know:
“The biggest advertiser, McDonald’s, spent 2.7 times as much to advertise its products ($972 million) as all fruit, vegetable, bottled water, and milk advertisers combined ($367 million).”
The other problem — which we collectively discuss less — is that while, yes, Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s and joints like that can be expensive by the time you get to the register, it’s actually not that expensive to cook fairly healthy food for a family of 4-5 on a budget. Some estimate the difference between healthy eating and unhealthy eating is only about $1.10 per day, or maybe $500 a year. That seems like a lot for a low-income family, but consider that they probably spent 3-4 times that on their TV and general entertainment set-up. Point is, it’s doable — but while most people view the whole thing as futile (“fast food will always be around!”) or want to throw money at it (subsidies), the actual issue could be as simple as educating people about how to shop for food and prepare food. A lot of people honestly don’t know, because unless you came from a very specific type of family, it’s probably not something that was tangibly passed down. I learned to cook when I was 29-ish, and I come from a generally upper-middle-class to maybe even affluent family. You can learn, and it’s not that hard. They have programs like this in Houston, in Boston, in Philadelphia, etc. There’s even a thing called Cooking Matters, which has ties to Wal-Mart and Pinterest. You just need some money, some restaurant donations, and accessibility to a supermarket/farmer’s market. In some places that’s a bit more challenging, but the key is to educate people about choice. Also, if we’re really breaking this down all the way, here’s what people need to know: if a piece of food/a brand is being advertised, it’s likely bad for you.
Look at this! They even have a YouTube of a healthy, affordable grocery store tour!
Is this problem huge? Yes. Can it be fixed by the end of this week? No. Does it involve time management and laziness and cultural connections and other challenges? Of course. But does it have to be hard? No. This — Americans shifting their diet to progressively worse and worse crap — is something we can fix (and there’s not a lot in the world you can say that about).