Unthinkable Way to Save Money: Eat Less

There are many ways to save on food during these lean economic times. But if you want to turn lean times into lean bodies, you might be better off shunning the typical advice of clipping more coupons and looking for sales and instead just buy less food.

This is blasphemy, of course, in America, where many denizens consider cheap food a constitutional right. Barry Popkin of the University of North Carolina School of Public Health has heard this charge and more in his call for a tax on unhealthy foods and drinks.

But unlike in centuries past, few Americans are starving as a result of food being scarce or too expensive. This week, Popkin and his colleagues have published yet another paper questioning the availability of cheap food. As relayed in the current issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine, the risk for obesity and diabetes in a community goes down as the price for fast food and junk food rises.

The reason appears to be simply because folks consume about 1 percent fewer calories from junk food with every one percent increase in the price. Conversely, when these prices fell, body weight and diabetes rose. This is based on data from more than 5,000 participants followed for 20 years in the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) study.

Save now, pay later

We are fooled into buying bad foods with the notion that we are saving money, when in fact we are losing money by grooming our bodies for obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer or some other chronic disease.

Consider coupons. They are great for saving money on soap. But how often do you see a coupon for apples? In my local paper, The Baltimore Sun, the vast majority of food coupons are for cookies, cakes, sodas and various forms of packaged goo. In fact, the healthiest foods I find in the coupon section are frozen vegetables with the aforementioned goo, some buttery cheese concoction. Note that I do not consider canned soup with corn syrup and over a thousand milligrams of sodium as healthful, despite being labeled a healthy choice.

The coupon section itself reflects the supermarket and the community as a whole, where the vast majority of food is unhealthy. There are never coupons for anything that I consider healthful: fresh vegetables or even frozen ones without the goo, whole grains and lean meats and fish.

Price of health

According to the USDA, an average family of two in the "thrifty food plan" category spends over $75 a week on food, and a family of four with young children spends over $110 weekly. This was the lowest of four categories; a family of four in the "moderate-cost" next-to-highest category spends nearly $170 weekly.

I find that astounding. My family of three spends about $50 a week on food at the most expensive supermarket in the city, Whole Foods. We simply buy whatever fresh fruits and vegetables are on sale that week, then move to the sections offering bulk grains (including rice), canned beans and tomatoes, milk, eggs and maybe a piece of meat or fish. We spend far less at Whole Foods when we are able to purchase these items at a farmers' market.

When I was young, my family purchased inexpensive food out of necessity. I say "inexpensive" and not "cheap" because this food was relatively nourishing but packaged without flare, so-called generic products with black and white labels stating the name of the item and the words "no frills." I was forever embarrassed at the checkout that our cart resembled a giant Othello board.

I have a choice today. I could probably lower my weekly food bill by purchasing generic foods. Yet I sense I'd spend more money if I follow the calling of the largest food manufacturers with their lure of coupons and Big Mac dollar days. It's hard to beat homemade soup and bread for lunch at about 47 cents a serving.

In this respect, Popkin and his colleagues might be incorrect. A tax on unhealthy food might not be needed to discourage unhealthy consumption. People just need to understand that a healthy diet already is cheaper than the typical American diet.

Christopher Wanjek is the author of the books "Bad Medicine" and "Food At Work." His column, Bad Medicine, appears each Tuesday on LiveScience.

Christopher Wanjek
Live Science Contributor

Christopher Wanjek is a Live Science contributor and a health and science writer. He is the author of three science books: Spacefarers (2020), Food at Work (2005) and Bad Medicine (2003). His "Food at Work" book and project, concerning workers' health, safety and productivity, was commissioned by the U.N.'s International Labor Organization. For Live Science, Christopher covers public health, nutrition and biology, and he has written extensively for The Washington Post and Sky & Telescope among others, as well as for the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, where he was a senior writer. Christopher holds a Master of Health degree from Harvard School of Public Health and a degree in journalism from Temple University.