When he’s not job-hunting, Al Brunner of Northbrook, Ill., likes to go on a different search—he looks for good prices on fresh fruits and vegetables.
Since being laid off from his job as a plant manager late last year, Brunner, 55, has decided that although he can’t change this dismal economy, he can control what he eats. “We are trying to budget, but at the same time eat smarter,” he says.
Indeed, nothing about what some are calling “the Great Recession” feels good. But if people are what they eat, they may be healthier than they think. While some undoubtedly turn to fast food and processed food in times of trouble, recent surveys about the food-buying and consumption habits of Americans point to a link between economic slumps and improved diets.
That comes as no surprise to economist Christopher J. Ruhm of the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, who has studied the rate of deaths from coronary heart disease during both good economic times and recessionary periods. He finds that such deaths actually decrease in recessions. Better eating and other recessionary trends, like a reduction in smoking and alcohol consumption, make hard times heart-healthier.
“It’s a diet of wealth that correlates with coronary heart disease,” says Katherine Tallmadge, author of Diet Simple (LifeLine Press) and a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. Indeed, Tallmadge argues that tight budgets and better diets can go hand in hand.
In fact, figures from the U.S. Commerce Department show that as the economy continued to plunge during the fourth quarter of 2008, Americans shopped for healthier foods than they did in the third quarter. Spending dropped 3.4 percent on beef and veal, for instance, 5.1 percent on sugar and sweets and 10.9 percent on alcoholic beverages. But spending was up 2.3 percent on fresh vegetables and 3.0 percent on eggs.
Ruhm says those numbers could be somewhat skewed by consumers choosing cheaper brands, but anecdotal evidence and other surveys confirm a number of budget-minded trends that nutritionists applaud.
For instance, even a small drop in beef consumption can have a dramatic impact, since red meat is a primary source of saturated fat, which can boost levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol and inflammation. Using eggs in a meal instead of beef “is a healthy source of protein with very little saturated fat in it,” Tallmadge says.
In its 2009 report, “The Power of Meat,” the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) finds 15 percent of shoppers surveyed say they are skipping meat to improve their diets. “If you’re cooking with rice or pasta to make meatless meals, it could be a good thing—as long as you’re eating whole grains, like whole wheat pasta or brown rice,” Tallmadge explains.
Another FMI report, “U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends 2008,” shows that 71 percent of shoppers surveyed in 2008 reported that they were starting to cook at home more and eat out less than they did in 2008. And 58 percent of respondents say they are eating more leftovers than in 2007.
Al Brunner has taken over more of the cooking and grocery shopping for his family, which includes his wife and three children, two still in college. The Brunners have virtually eliminated red meat, and when they don’t want to cook, they no longer opt for expensive takeouts or dining out. Brunner looks instead for a roasted supermarket chicken to bring home and eat with fresh vegetables. It’s all part of a more health-conscious pattern, where he’s running or walking four to seven miles daily, eating breakfast and going to bed earlier.
It’s easier now to cook with fresh vegetables, adds Brunner, because instead of one major weekly shopping trip, he shops more frequently at stores he’s discovered that have good prices on produce.
Poverty and nutrition
Yes, it’s possible to watch your food budget and make healthy food choices, but don’t make the leap that poverty is associated with good nutrition, says Geri Henchy, director of nutrition policy at the nonprofit Food Research and Action Center in Washington.
Many studies have shown that those in poverty who must stretch a food dollar across several meals look to quell their hunger with low-cost, calorie-dense foods, like macaroni and cheese, Henchy says. A 2004 study by researcher Adam Drewnowski, director of the University of Washington’s Center for Public Health Nutrition, showed a link between obesity and food prices. High-fat, energy-dense diets “are more affordable than are prudent diets based on lean meats, fish, fresh vegetables and fruit,” Drewnowski wrote in his report on the study.
Even when they do have a minimal food budget, many residents of low-income urban neighborhoods don’t have access to stores offering affordable fresh produce, says Jessica Shaffer, registered dietitian and cardiac nutritionist at Montefiore Medical Center in New York.
But there are some low-cost alternatives. “I tell them to look in the frozen aisle,” Shaffer says, to find good values on bags of frozen produce, which still retain nutritional value. Canned foods also tend to be less expensive, she says, although they can be high in salt.
Staying out of restaurants and cooking at home is one of the most common ways to cut back on expenses, a practice that can yield health benefits. “We know of several studies showing that eating out frequently isn’t healthy,” says Jennifer Ventrelle, nutrition consultant at Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center. That’s because people tend to eat what’s set in front of them, she says, and big portions with high fat content are standard fare at many restaurants.
Baltimore resident Ian Hochberg, 53, is one of those who’s now eating at home more often. The downturn in his Baltimore signage business gave him “the first reason to cook in many years.” Hochberg admits he was a stranger to the kitchen, eating out frequently since his divorce three years ago, and not cooking much during his marriage. But the expense of eating out regularly has simply become prohibitive. Now, his friend Joan Allen, a caterer, is teaching him some basics. The dish he’s most proud of: a wheat pasta with pesto sauce, topped with vegetables.
Ventrelle applauds people like Hochberg who are making a pronounced effort to take control of their health with better nutrition. “I think it’s a mindset of all or nothing. They’re trying to improve their finances or their job,” she says. “They want to improve their health and their eating, too.”
TO LEARN MORE …
AND FOR HEALTHY RECIPES YOU CAN AFFORD
Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, U.S. Department of Agriculture
Marilyn Kennedy Melia is a Northbrook, Ill., freelance writer who covers health and personal finance.