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Healthy Eating Sometimes Not A Luxury For The Poor

August 4, 2011

An updated food pyramid released last year asked that Americans consume more foods containing potassium, dietary fiber, vitamin D and calcium. But if they did that, according to a study in the journal Health Affairs, they would add hundreds more dollars to their annual grocery bill, MSNBC is reporting.

For most Americans, however, healthier diet is more expensive than starches and sugars, making it difficult for Americans to meet new US nutritional guidelines, according to the study published Thursday which says the government should do more to help consumers eat healthier.

For a typical consumer, simply adding more potassium to your diet adds hundreds more dollars to your annual grocery bill, making it tough for many Americans to meet healthy diet recommendations during lean times.

“Given the times we’re in, I think we really need to make our health guidance, in particular the dietary guidelines, more relevant to Americans,” explained lead author the study, Pablo Monsivais, an assistant professor of public health at the University of Washington.

Monsivais and colleagues surveyed more than 1,000 adults in King County, Washington, to calculate the price tag on bridging the gap between current intake of key nutrients and the recommended “daily value.”

Subjects of the study consumed an average of 2,800 milligrams of potassium per day, the Associated Press (AP) reports, 700 milligrams below the recommended amount. To reach the recommended levels they’d have to spend an extra $1.04 a day, or $380 a year. For a family of four, that’s $1,520 annually.

“We know more than ever about the science of nutrition, and yet we have not yet been able to move the needle on healthful eating,” Monsivais told AP reporter Donna Gordon Blankenship. The government should provide help for meeting the nutritional guidelines in an affordable way.

He is critical of some of the marketing of a healthy diet, for example, the image of a plate of salmon, leafy greens and maybe some rice pilaf, a meal like that is not affordable for many Americans. Food-assistance programs are helping people make healthier choices by providing coupons to buy fruits and vegetables, Monsivais said, but some also put stumbling blocks in front of the poor.

A Washington state policy, for example, makes it difficult to buy potatoes with food assistance coupons for women with children, even though potatoes are one of the least expensive ways to add potassium to a diet.

Hilary Seligman, assistant professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, said Monsivais’ research is an interesting addition to the debate about healthy eating and food insecurity, her area of expertise.

Many people assume the poor eat cheap food because it tastes good, but they would make better choices if they could afford to, said Seligman, who was not involved in the Health Affairs study.

“Almost 15 percent of households in America say they don’t have enough money to eat the way they want to eat,” Seligman said. Recent estimates show 49 million Americans make food decisions based on cost, she told AP.

Adding to the cost of buying healthful food could be how far away from home a person needs to travel to get to a grocery store that sells a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. The government also affects food prices through the subsidies offered to farmers growing certain crops, she added.

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