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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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January 21 2009

The Recession Diet

By Worker Bee

Over the last year we’ve brought you tips on keeping your primal eating strategy in line with your budget. It’s been a tough year after all. First, gas prices (among other influences) sent food prices soaring, and lately we’ve all been living under the cloud of an economic downturn that seems to be settling in as comfortably as an unwelcome, clueless house guest.

But as the country shores up for hard times ahead, the “recession” analysis has found its way beyond the money section and into the lifestyle pages. According to some experts, the economic trend has done more than alter grocery shopping habits; it’s spawned a dietary drift worthy of pop cultural commentary and a classification all its own: the “recession diet.”

It’s typically the triumph of calorie over (nutritional) content. Processed food – with its sugars, refined grains, and added fat (the operative word being “added”) – edges out natural “whole” foods when it appears (a financial delusion worthy of David Copperfield) that the processed items are a “better buy” pound for pound.

Sure there’s the “comfort food” association. When times are tough, there’s the inclination to lean toward items that make us feel warm and cozy on some deep cultural or hazy psychological level. But the concept of “stretching your dollars” at the grocery store, for many, begins to take on some pretty fuzzy math. For these consumers, nutritionists are saying, they’re getting what they’re paying for. So what are the big winners in the grocery aisles these days? Totino’s frozen pizza, Yoplait yogurt, Progresso soup, and Betty Crocker dessert mixes. (Moment of awkward silence.) Want more news (that probably doesn’t feel like news)? Only two Dow Jones stocks had a positive upturn last year, and McDonalds was one of them. Pardon us, but we don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Though the message overall may be as discouraging, some are at least taking a lighter tone when it comes to analysis of the recession’s gastronomic reach. We have to admit we let our primal hair down a bit to enjoy the somewhat guilty pleasure of this ABCNews video on the “unsinkable American burger,” apparent notable star of all economic downturns. Unfortunate in many ways, yes, but still amusing. A sample snippet on this supreme American staple (care of featured figure, Josh Ozersky, national restaurant editor for “It can never be weakened. It can never be slowed down. It can never stop its ever-increasing growth and popularity. It’s the most single powerful force in the food universe.” We admit that we’ve never thought about burgers in that light before, but it’s hard not to be convinced of their special “recession” role after watching this feature story. And forget burger as simple fast food or backyard grill fare. Even top restaurants, it seems, are hopping on the burger bandwagon with new black label blends made from dry aged steaks. “Burger bling,” they call it. Turns out the distributors can’t sell the steaks themselves. In response, they’re giving the restaurants what they want, who then are giving the people what they apparently want and can afford on the menu.

But back to a serious note… Nutrition experts are genuinely concerned about a confirmed link (time and time again) between bad economy and bad health. (Though we have our beef with many of these same folks on many an occasion, I think it’s safe to say we’re in agreement on something finally.) Adam Drewnowski, who directs the Center for Obesity Research at the University of Washington in Seattle, has conducted numerous studies on the connection between income and diet/obesity. In one such study of California’s population, he found that a 10% increase in poverty correlated with a 6% rise in adult obesity rates.

It’s true that consumers are often dragged down by their own conscious/unconscious ignorance and/or emotional agendas that they allow to trump even the most basic nutrition sense. We’ve had plenty to say on that in the past. Nonetheless, healthy foods are, indeed, more expensive. In a 2004 essay for Nutrition Today, Drewnowski and Anne Barratt-Fornell of the University of Michigan confirmed that processed “energy dense” foods cost less calorie-for-calorie than their more nutrient-rich counterparts. It’s hardly reason to load up on junk food, but you can see where the fuzzy math begins to cloud one’s head. And, as anyone knows who’s stepped foot in a grocery store lately, the processed options typically far outnumber whole foods when it comes to market space as well. In some neighborhoods with only corner “catch-all” markets rather than true grocery stores, this imbalance is painfully apparent.

When it comes to nonsensical market forces that impact every region and neighborhood, experts are also pointing the finger at agricultural policy that artificially reduces the cost of processed, nutritionally empty foods and simultaneously inflates the price of whole foods like fruits and vegetables. Drewnowski cites government subsidization programs of so-called commodity crops (wheat, corn, soybeans) that actually stipulate a condition banning farmers from also growing vegetables or fruits on their land. (Absolute insanity, we know. Feel free to insert your own expletive.)

While these sorts of underhanded agendas have slid through year after year time and time again, it seems they’re getting a bit more scrutiny these days, now that consumers are truly hurting and public health is quickly spiraling downward (all with added burden on the health care system). Gee, are these the chickens coming home to roost? Imagine that.

In that feather-ruffling vein, we appreciate Michael Pollan’s letter to the new “Farmer in Chief”. Written this past October and published in the New York Times, it publicizes the claptrap that has passed for sound agricultural policy in recent decades as well as other intersection issues involving health, environment and agriculture. Though we don’t find ourselves completely aligned with Pollan on every nutrition issue, his letter is a revealing and refreshing read.

We hope you enjoy the bits of news and entertainment on the recession diet trend. Send us your comments and additions, and thanks for reading!

Further Reading:

How to Eat Healthy and Save Money

Cheap Meat Round II: “Thrift Cuts”

Healthy Eating on a Budget

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35 thoughts on “The Recession Diet”

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  1. One of the most inexpensive, complete and whole delicious and unprocessed foods is eggs. I wonder why you don’t see egg consumption increase in a recession (maybe you do?). If I had to cut back on my grocery bill, you can bet I would be dropping some choice cuts and upping the eggs.

    The SoG

  2. instead of cutting back on too much stuff, i just make an extra effort to buy good things when they are on “special” – granted, i might have the same vegetable 3 nights in a row for dinner, but as long as i like it and know i’m feeding my body what it needs, i dont care… and soon enough it will be another vegetable for 3 nights 😉

  3. Chili! Chili, chili, chili, chili, chili. It’s tasty and cheap. Make a huge batch and it can last you a week. Canned tomatoes: $0.59. Chili powder: $2.79. Beef Broth: $0.89. 3 lbs of chuck: $14.99. That’s four days of eats for under $20.

  4. This i a time when some of us should consider vegetarian options. I am certainly not one, but if the situation calls I can certainly thrive on nuts, veggies, coconut and eggs. Lots of eggs and coconut in fact.
    As for Mcdonalds, just get yourself some salads from there and carry your own dressing! The salads might not be the best but they sure o beat “comfort foods”. Right now, good food is not a problem, and it hopefully won’t. There was a 15-day period in which all I had to eat was vending machine food, and the only things to eat were almonds and cashews!

  5. Furious Mittens:
    Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. One of my favorite Sunday brunch treats is a chili omelet with some chopped red onion and a little bit of guilty pleasure cheddar. Delicious and cheap.

  6. We made Mark’s primal chicken on Sunday and it was delicious. The store was selling 5 lb fryers for about $3 and if you add the celery, apple, and onions (for the “stuffing”) we were able to feed six people for about $6.00.

    I remember reading once about a man in India who said he wanted to go to America because he wanted to see a country where the poor people are fat.

  7. I’ve been reading Vegetable, Animal, Miracle and Kingsolver goes over all of these issues. Beginning to wonder where the safe beef, chicken, etc is sold locally around here? It’s time to support the local organic farmer and forget the freakin grocery store.

  8. The thing that struck me from this article was how the government actually prevents farmers from growing healthy food! I’m actually not surprised by this, but it’s still sickening (in more ways than one).

    – Dave

  9. Funny how the LA Times article compared the “calorie” cost of foods, such as the “sugar in fresh raspberries” compared to plain ol’ table sugar. Sorry, but I don’t buy raspberries for their sugar (calories), I buy them for the wonderful other nutrients that no one considers when buying the cheap stuff.

    Calories are meaningless, unless you’re deficient, to which very few are…protein, fat, carbs, vitamins, anitoxidants, minerals, and phytochemicals are how I compare the “value” of one food over another…I’ll gladly pay more for my health.

  10. Grok, my guess is because so many people have the wrong information when it comes to eggs to begin with. Way to many people still think eggs are bad for you and either just eat those fake eggs or none at all. I completely agree with you, and I think it’s unfortunate that such a healthy and affordable way to eat is covered with such false information.

  11. Where do Pollan and Primal Eaters part ways? I read his last two books and felt that he jives pretty well with this site.

  12. Yes to frozen veggies!

    How about CSAs? Community Supported Agriculture (?) sponsored by local food vendors/farmers.

    Or how about making a community vegetable garden or growing your own?

  13. We buy beef and pork in larger quantities at Costco- the cheaper cuts are only $2-3/lb, Cut them up or grind and store in the freezer til needed. It’s not pasture fed unfortunately, but more affordable than most grocery stores. Even the cheapest is good for stews and grinding, with a little trimming. You can usually get better prices on seafood, cheeses, nuts, milk, etc. too. The bulk veggies are great too- just not a huge variety (1 lb organic baby greens costs ~$5 and makes a lot of salads).

  14. Think winter greens. Cabbage costs 79 cents a pound and kale and collard are one dollar a pound. Canned greens cost even less, and low-sodium versions are available. Bright orange carrots add beta carotene and cost less than a dollar for a pound.

    Besides eggs, another excellent source of animal protein is bone-in poultry. I pay $1.40 a pound for turkey drumsticks, which I simmer for hours in a slow cooker, yielding tender meat and a delicious broth in which to cook those winter vegetables. Chicken legs and thighs are less than $2 a pound. I often buy meat that’s been marked down because it’s about to expire. As far as I know, the nutritional quality of meat, unlike most produce, does not decline much while it sits in the supermarket.

  15. My parents live on many acres of land and they do grow their own garden of veggies. This saves alot of money rather than buying it.

  16. I agree. I can follow a primal/paleo-ish diet on a budget by following these guidelines:
    1. Eggs!
    2. Buy meat when it’s cheap; including buying legs, whole chickens and bigger cuts, rather than just chicken breasts.
    3. Slow cooking stretches meals, requires little thought and showcases cheap veggies like cabbage, onions and carrots and canned tomatoes.
    4. I buy seasonal fruit: apples are cheap right now. Berries, not so much.
    5. I steal tips from websites like this.

  17. Your article is unfortunate, but I suspect it is true. I think the “comfort factor” has something to do with it though. When people are down they tend to want to curl up with a doughnut.

  18. I save money on my meat bill by buying goats and beef from local ranchers and then cooking up big batches (including pit cooking large sides of goat) and then freezing it and/or home canning of soups and meat. I seldom cook a roast, game bird, turkey or hunk of goat without simmering the carcas down and canning meat stock. The meat stock is great to add to soups and stews. Home canning takes some know-how, a pressure cooker and time. I view it as a hobby rather than a chore, though.

  19. This is simple…you ever see what coupons are for? BOXED CRAP. You don’t ever see a coupon for oranges, steak, or any of the really good primal type foods. I was elated to actually find a $1 off coupon on my bag of plain almonds today.

    You may find sales on wholesome foods, but you never find coupons. For that reason alone, manufacturers trick people into thinking they are saving money by buying those types of foods.

    Keys to the supermarket? Buy from the outer rims.

    Keys to good foods? Find co-ops or farmer markets. Find local producers.

    It is true, stress eaters go for what feels good at the time, most of the time a big old ball of carbs are fat. Look at what are “comfort foods” and what are boxed products. Macaroni and cheese comes to mind…

  20. By the way, turnip greens basically grow themselves (for you home gardeners like me), and are good for quite a long time. Plant them with radishes to ensure bugs don’t get in them and you have a great fall/winter treat cooked with bacon and onions. Dash of hot sauce on top and you are good to go!

  21. People are so used to the “lowfat” craze that they only buy boneless, skinless chicken breasts and cartons of egg white products. You can tell by what the butcher carries which items are their big sellers, and it usually is those types of expensive “convenience cuts.”

    The farmers’ market is of course the best choice, but Costco and Sam’s actually have good quality meats (not organic or grassfed necessarily) that are priced right and have good flavor. If there are ethnic groceries around, they really have the best prices and you will find the whole animal there, right down to the feet and snouts.

    Potatoes and other vegetables are cheap as long as you don’t buy the ones that are prewashed, etc. Cereal, on the other hand, is ridiculously expensive, and I’m glad to be off of it.

    This is my first year of buying into a CSA, so hopefully it will be a good experience. I shopped the farmers’ market all summer long and will never look back. Once you find where the local farmer’s are and which markets are which days, you can get most of what you need for the week. This weekend will be the first one since before Christmas, so I will get some more grassfed, organic meat. I missed the deadline for buying 1/4 or 1/2 sides of beef, but maybe I will catch it this year.

    Slow cooking the cheaper cuts of meat is the way to go.


  22. I believe growing your own garden has a lot more benefits than we all thought.

    You know where your food is coming from (because, well, you’re growing them right in your own backyard!). You save money and time, less visits to the grocery store. You’re being more environmentally-responsible too.

    Seeing those green things grow can be quite therapeutic and very rewarding!

  23. Over the summer a freind of mine was trying to shift some pounds. This guy had literally no money to spend and was totally cash strapped! he managed to narrow his diet down to Boiled eggs, Tinned tuna and black coffee, boy did he shift the pounds……….Not that his eating was healthy but it sure was a lot better than the junk he ate from McDonalds when he had more $$$ to spend…..

  24. Even if “processed “energy dense” foods cost less calorie-for-calorie than their more nutrient-rich counterparts” (and I don’t think this is true for all foods) I still don’t think it’s a good excuse to eat poorly if there is such a strong correlation with poverty and obesity. Surely if you can afford to eat so much junk food that you gain weight in situations of poverty, then you can afford to consume smaller portions of healthy food which would also benefit your waistline?

  25. Ground meat, frozen veggies, and big less popular cuts. I can eat of 3lbs of pork butt at $2.99 roasted off on a Sunday for a week. Throw it on a bed of defrost frozen spinach and munch on some thawed or still frozen berries for dinner. Oh, and buy nuts in bulk.

    There are always ways. It comes down to desire and creativity.

  26. I finally got my husband to go primal last week, after buying one way for him and another way for me for months now. Our grocery bill for the past two weeks has remained pretty much the same since we have removed all of the sweets and grain products, although this week it did seem to be a bit less. My husband has been on unemployment since late November, so we really have to watch our budget now. We buy meats & produce on special as much as we can, and I agree that buying canned tuna & eggs helps to stretch our budget further. I also agree that there are never many coupons for fresh meat or produce items. I have always kept a file folder for my coupons, but now I have pretty much only coupons for household & beauty items.
    Since I went primal in March of 2008, I have lost 45 pounds. In just 10 days since my husband has changed, he has lost 10 pounds! We both have health conditions brought on by poor lifestyle habits in the past, so we are considering that adopting a primal lifestyle will actually SAVE money for us in the long run, because our overall health will be better & will save on health care costs!

  27. My recession comfort food:
    1 can pumpkin, 1 can coconut milk, 1 can broth (store bought or homemade) – simmer with seasonings for about 20 minutes.

  28. I’m not SB, but I use chicken broth and season with turmeric, cumin, curry powder, cloves, and a little salt and pepper to make a delicious curried pumpkin soup. Sometimes I add minced garlic and a small ,seeded, diced hot pepper if I want to give it some kick. If I have fresh cilantro on hand, I put a few sprigs on top. However you season, chicken broth definitely goes better with pumpkin and coconut milk than other meat broths. A seafood broth might work, too, but I’ve never tried it.

  29. Having recently lost my job, this is a timely post. I am growing veg and fruit in the back garde, you can grow a lot of tomatoes, potatoes and carrots in a small area. It really makes a difference in the budget.

  30. Well… my husband and I have been trying to cut our food costs as well, while still maintaining a healthy diet and voting with our dollars for well raised meat. So now I have a new day-off tradition. We’ve been fortunate enough to find a local Chicago Polish deli that sells outstanding poultry and pork from an Amish farm a 100 miles or so away… so if you live anywhere near the Amish, they’re cheaper than Whole Foods *or* the Organic Farmers Market! That said, go support your farmers market and csa’s are great.

    Every other Monday (i work weekends) I roast two five pound chickens together in the oven in two cast iron pans. I reserve all giblets except the liver for stock. The livers I chop up with some some salt parsley or chervil and shallots or onions and pan fry in butter as a light snack. Pan juices and fat from both roasted chickens are strained into a container and put in the fridge. A layer of fat will form on top keeping this good in the fridge for a nice good while. This fat is great for roasting veggies and adding flavor to other things

    Once the roast chickens are done, we eat the drumsticks for dinner with whatever sides we please, and save the gnawed on bones. Then we cut and pick (fingers work best for the small stuff) ALL the meat off the bones of both birds. What we can eat in the next two days is refrigerated, mostly the choicer larger pieces such as breastmeat. The rest of the chicken goes into the freezer, portioned out in bags. All the bones, the giblets and the gnawed on bones are then made into a soup/stock that same night or the next day. very easy. Basic soup veggies cut into small pieces and the bones of both chickens, cold water, simmer at lowest setting for 4 hours. Strain, toss the spent veggies and bones, and keep the stock in the fridge or, if you have a lot, freeze part in portioned containers and it will last you for months in the freezer.

    In this way two chickens and some veggies provide many many meals, soup, and they are ready to thaw and eat without needing too much time for prep, just thaw and reheat.

    Sorry for the long post and somewhat basic nature of what I’m saying, but hopefully someone will find this helpful. Also, OFFAL OFFAL OFFAL. That will save you some money.