The Recession Diet

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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