The High Cost of Cheap Food

Posted on 10 February 2018 by Joseph

After nearly a month of self-imposed dietary restriction, I've come to a conclusion. In order to build a healthy relationship with food, we need to recognize it for what it is: beyond being a necessity, food is often an indulgence. By accepting and internalizing that fact, we can rebuild the way we eat to produce the outcomes we really want - fitter appearance and better health.


Every luxury comes with a price tag, whether monetary or not. That price tag is often the only criterion used to evaluate the transaction. You see something you want, you check your bank account, find you can afford it, and buy it. Great right? Unfortunately, with every transaction comes second-order effects, indirect costs that can be difficult to evaluate, even if we already know about them.

That new pair of shoes costs you hours of your life. The shiny new car extends your working years, pushing retirement further into the future. The mortgage on the big house puts you and your family closer to subsistence, making it harder to recover from a loss of your job or any other financial setback. When evaluating these types of transactions, we tend to focus on the outcome (you, behind the wheel of the new car, turning every head in town) and the immediate cost (whew, $40,000 seems pricey, but if i finance it...), while ignoring these second order effects.

I'd argue that this is the definition of an indulgence: something we crave, but that comes at a disproportionate cost to our future selves, or those around us, or the environment, or anything else - again, monetary cost and impact is just an easy example.

Food as indulgence

In the context of this definition, food's inclusion in the category of indulgences is clear. The essence is well captured by the saying "once on the lips, forever on the hips": the second order effect of our lax dietary choices is obesity, metabolic disorder, heart disease, and everything else we already know about.

Food is unique in one way, though, and I think the distinction is what makes unhealthy eating so commonplace in America: food has almost no upfront cost at all. Soda, cookies, candy, fast food - these things are all abundantly available at a price point that boggles. Double Stuf Oreos, one my sweet tooth's favorites, clock in at a whopping 4200 calories per bag, with each bag costing under $3! For what is effectively pocket change, you can eat a phenomenally delicious taste explosion that contains roughly twice a full day's healthy calorie intake. I think this is part of the reason you see Hardee's and other fast food joints crammed with contractors and other laborers: after a morning of physical labor, you want the dopamine rush from eating delicious foods, and they are available at a price even the poorest among us can manage.

Coupled with the gradual onset of the second-order effects of a bad diet, these low prices put any and all food within reach of most Americans. The outcomes we're seeing are stark: adult obesity rates over 65% and increasing, with worsening rates among children as well. Perhaps worse, data suggests that poverty and obesity are closely related. Put another way, the people who will suffer the worst impact from the second-order effects of a bad diet are the most susceptible. For the most impoverished among us, life is largely devoid of luxury and food offers a beacon of comfort, perhaps the only one within reach. This thesis offers some insight into why the relationship between poverty and obesity might be causative; the psychological toll of being poor itself may encourage worse eating habits.

Though they may get the worst of it, it's not only the poor. The phrase "comfort food" perfectly captures the idea. When you're sick, or sad, or generally feel down, food offers a portal back into happiness and luxury. Though the focus thus far has been primarily focused on the way our relationship to food may be tied to widespread obesity, the very same concepts are what make food universally amazing beyond its prosaic position as a requirement to sustain life. This is precisely why we need to become more mindful of the relationship, though. If we let our fast thinking make the decision for us, we end up ignoring the knock-on effects. Beyond combating bad diet habits, an intentional relationship with food can make the joys of food that much better.

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Copyright © 2018 Joseph Turner