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Stomaching the Recession

Stomaching the RecessionWhat the slumping economy will mean for the American diet

The language of a tough economy calls for "trimming the fat” and "downsizing” for "lean times." If only our bodies went along with the metaphor. For nutrition researchers, the big recession question is not whether we will have to tighten our belts, but whether we’ll be able to squeeze into our pants. This very serious concern stems from two facts. First, the United States is struggling with obesity in epidemic proportions. And second, Americans who have low incomes are more likely to be overweight or obese. Logic predicts that shrinking paychecks will only exacerbate the obesity problem. And as weight increases, so will diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.

As grim as the data look, as destined as we seem to pack on more pounds, some experts who follow America’s battle with weight say it is more complicated than that. Food prices and dietary habits will play a role, but so will personal priorities. Some Americans will become savvy shoppers, while others will look at their 401(k) statements and forget everything they knew about portion sizes.

"How people respond will depend a lot on who they are as individuals," says Professor Jeanne Goldberg, Ph.D., G59, N86, director of the Nutrition Communication Program at the Friedman School. "A lot will depend on the importance people place on their personal health and the health of their families."

If we look to history for clues as to what size jeans we will be wearing in 2011, our past recessions serve as imperfect precedents. The Great Depression may be the closest equivalent to the current economic crisis, but the nutritional landscape was very different then. "There were no televisions; levels of restaurant consumption were vastly lower; processed food consumption was much lower; and levels of physical activity were higher, especially among lower-income people," says Parke Wilde, Ph.D., a food economist and an associate professor at the Friedman School.

A better comparison may be 1982, when joblessness reached a high of 10.8 percent. People didn’t slow their food spending (it increased by 5 percent), and in fact, new-fangled "health foods," including low-fat and low-sodium products, did quite well. But at the time, the percentage of obese adults was only 15 percent. It is now closer to 34 percent.

"Something has happened in the last 30 years that the whole middle of the distribution has shifted in weight upwards," Wilde says. "And so you really need to look at things that are characteristic of the last 30 years."

One thing we’ve discovered during that time is that hunger has a relationship to obesity. In 2006, Wilde and Friedman School doctoral student Jerusha Peterman, N11, published a study showing that women who have difficulty putting food on the table every day are 58 to 76 percent more likely than other women to be obese or gain weight over time. Other studies have drawn similar conclusions. One found that toddlers whose families have gone hungry are three to four times as likely to be obese.

The reasons behind this nutritional paradox are unclear, but it is no secret that junk foods filled with calories, refined grains and sugars are a cheap and easy way to fill up. This has spurred Wilde to get to the bottom of a question that has plagued public health officials and shoppers alike: Does it simply cost too much to eat a healthy diet?


To help answer this, Wilde and two graduate students, Joseph Llobrera, N09, and Flannery Campbell, N08, created a software program called the Thrifty Food Plan calculator. It is based on the data the USDA uses to determine food stamp benefits. With the disclaimer that the application is geared toward food policy wonks ("It's an analysis tool rather than a self-help tool," he says), Wilde feeds it some information about how much he eats from different types of food groups each month, and it spits out an average daily food cost. He can ask it to follow either My Pyramid personalized eating plan recommendations or the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. But he can add other constraints, such as how many servings of whole grain he's willing to consume, and how many calories he wants. The calculator also measures how closely the meal plan tracks the typical consumption patterns of low-income Americans.

Stomaching the Recession

According to the calculator, eating nutritiously is not inherently expensive. But the closer one tries to adhere to the typical American diet, with significant amounts of meat and dairy, the more expensive it becomes.

Wilde plugs some new variables into the calculator, and presto: If people are willing to get some of their protein from legumes rather than meat, and some of their calcium from vegetables rather than dairy, they can fulfill all their nutritional requirements on less than $5 a day. This mirrors Wilde's experience in his own neighborhood, where he and his family have hosted some community meals in an experiment to see how they could spend less without feeling deprived. Some 40 people attended a dinner in February, where the menu was chicken curry, lentil dal and coconut black-eyed peas over large volumes of white and brown rice, with carrot sticks on the side and fruit salad for dessert. The cost was a mere $1.40 per person.

Of course, just because people can cook nutritiously for a buck and half, doesn't mean they will. This leads some researchers to believe that in the United States, price is not necessarily the deciding factor when it comes to food purchases. Taste and convenience seem to be much more influential in people's food decisions.

Take fruits and vegetables. In September 2008, Wilde gave a briefing for House of Representatives staff in Washington, D.C., on the topic of rising food prices, in which he noted that the prices of fruits and vegetables have risen at a higher rate compared to other food categories.

And yet, according to the Economic Research Service of the USDA, having more money doesn't necessarily translate into shopping bags full of produce. Nearly all households—not just low-income households— consume low amounts of fruits and vegetables relative to Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommendations. A household making $10,000 to $15,000 a year spends about $50 a month on fruits and vegetables; a household making five times that spends only $57 a month, or $7 more, on produce. (continued)

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Story written by Julie Flaherty, Editor, Tufts Nutrition, the magazine of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts

Photos by Vito Aluia

This story ran online on June 22, 2009. It originally appeared in the Spring 2009 issue of Tufts Nutrition.