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What is the Cost of Eating Healthy Foods?

Posted By Mark Sisson On March 9, 2011 @ 9:06 am In Health | 272 Comments

A couple years back I highlighted [7] a Time Magazine photo essay [8] called “What the World Eats.” It was a fascinating visual comparison of what – and how much – representative families across the globe consumed in a given week. (Several obliging MDA readers later shared photos of their own rations [9].) Revealing on yet another level, the Time feature included the cost of each international family’s provisions. Expenses varied radically as you can imagine with weekly expenditures ranging from $1.23 in Chad to more than $500 in Germany. The three American families, incidentally, reported spending $159 (California), $242 (Texas), and $342 (North Carolina) each. With the talk about rising food prices looming in the headlines again, I found myself thinking about Primal food [10] costs. Is anyone seeing the jump yet? Are Primal folks more or less affected by these periodic fluctuations? Do we, as a Primal group, really spend more than the average American on our food?

As many experts and commentators have noted over the years, Americans as a whole actually spend less on food than any other country when it comes to percentage of income. In the U.S., our average food expenses constitute about 9-12% of our income (depending on the source (1 [11] (PDF), 2 [12], 3 [13]) you consult). [12] In 1949, it was 22% [12].

By contrast, much of Western Europe today devotes 14-17%+ [14] of their total household budget to food. In Pakistan, families spend an average of 46% of their income on food [15].

On top of this, there’s the breakdown of food spent for “at-home” consumption (i.e. groceries) versus “away” (i.e. restaurants, fast food). Of the roughly 10% of income Americans spend on food, more than 40% is spent eating out (PDF [11]). (In Belgium, for example, that number is 25%.) That means a mere 6% of our income is spent on the weekly supermarket/farmers’ market haul. When you look at it this way, we see that average at-home food costs are roughly equal to [16] average health care costs, utilities, entertainment costs, and vehicle purchases costs. That’s not combined, folks.

A few more facts? (PDF [17]) The groups that spend the most on food per person are the most affluent households, one-person households, and older households (55-64). (Probably no surprises there.) Among the groups that spend the least are households headed by single mothers. Larger households and those with kids spend less per person, and smaller households spend more eating out. Northeasterns and Westerners spend more on food (both total food expenditure and eating out costs) than Midwesterners and considerably more (especially in terms of at-home food) than Southerners. Affluent homes devote a lower percentage of their (more substantial) income on at-home food but a higher percentage on eating out than lower income and middle income homes.

More income, however, doesn’t necessarily translate into better food purchased. Although the amount spent on items like eggs, pork, and vegetables rose in higher income homes in Belgium, for example, in the U.S. the items prioritized with increased income were fish, cheese, and sweets. In another international comparison, higher incomes in the U.S. were associated with a higher percentage of the budget spent eating out, whereas “away” food expenses stayed fairly level as income rose in Belgian households. (PDF [18])

The information, I think, opens the door for a million questions and observations. Today, however, I’m interested in how the Primal community compares to the average American when it comes to expenses. The University of Iowa Extension Program offers a calculator [19] that tells you how much you should spend on food to achieve the USDA’s Low Cost Food Plan [20] (their version [21] (PDF) of nutritious of course). (The department also offers calculators for “moderate” and “liberal” eating plans.) Doing the calculation for a “typical” four person family with two teenagers at home and no meals out, my number came up at about $815 per month. Does a good Primal bounty exceed the USDA’s low cost estimate?

Let’s do our own bit of informal research here. (The polls are completely anonymous.)

Approximately how much do you spend on at-home groceries (counting CSAs, meat shares, etc.) per month per person in your household?

View Results [22]

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Additionally, how many meals, would you say, do you eat away from home each month?

View Results [22]

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Finally, I’d love to hear your other thoughts. What’s your thinking on the income percentage picture? How do you work it? I know Primal folks bring a lot of creativity to the table when it comes to foraging for the best deals (as well as the best nutrition). How much does resourcefulness save? Have you gotten thriftier over time, or have you consciously increased your outlay for food as you’ve travelled down the Primal road, so to speak? I’ll look forward to reading your feedback. Thanks for reading today.


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[8] Time Magazine photo essay: http://www.time.com/time/photogallery/0,29307,1626519_1373675,00.html

[9] MDA readers later shared photos of their own rations: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/contest-results-show-your-groceries/

[10] Primal food: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/primal-blueprint-shopping-list/

[11] 1: http://agriculture.wallonie.be/apps/spip_wolwin/IMG/pdf/Gblx.pdf

[12] 2: http://www.ers.usda.gov/Briefing/CPIFoodAndExpenditures/Data/table7.htm

[13] 3: http://www.visualeconomics.com/how-the-average-us-consumer-spends-their-paycheck/

[14] devotes 14-17%+: http://www.ers.usda.gov/briefing/cpifoodandexpenditures/data/Table_97/2006table97.htm

[15] 46% of their income on food: http://allafrica.com/stories/201102280086.html

[16] at-home food costs are roughly equal to: http://www.forbes.com/2006/07/19/spending-income-level_cx_lh_de_0719spending.html

[17] PDF: http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/aib773/aib773.pdf

[18] PDF: http://agriculture.wallonie.be/apps/spip_wolwin/IMG/pdf/Gblx.pdf

[19] calculator: http://www.extension.iastate.edu/foodsavings/plan/foodspendingplan/

[20] USDA’s Low Cost Food Plan: http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/usdafoodplanscostoffood.htm

[21] version: http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/Publications/DietaryGuidelines/2010/PolicyDoc/ExecSumm.pdf

[22] View Results: #ViewPollResults

[23] Learn More: http://www.primalblueprint.com/get-certified?utm_source=mda_footer&utm_medium=link&utm_campaign=mda_footer_cert_text

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