Sunday, May 15, 2011

"I Can't Afford to Eat Healthy" Might Just be Another Excuse

As a registered dietitian, "I can't afford to buy healthy food" is a response I hear all too often from people who have diets too high in calories, fat, sodium, or some other nutrient that should be consumed in moderation. I would be tempted to be empathetic if they were just 20 pounds overweight and not 50, or if they didn't spend so much money on cigarettes, alcohol or other "extras" like acrylic nail manicures and tattoos.

When the patients I saw in a hospital a few years ago regularly told me, "I can't follow this low fat/low sugar/low salt [fill in the appropriate healthy diet] prescription because I rely on assistance from food stamps/the local food pantry/the soup kitchen," I set out to rectify the situation in my own town: I signed up to volunteer at my local food pantry.

The other volunteers at the food pantry made me feel welcome and were excited to show me around. I explained that I wanted to help re-organize the standard food list to include special foods for people who had to follow diets for their medical conditions. "They should be able to have healthy options to choose from, like canned fruit packed in its own juice instead of in heavy syrup, low-sodium canned soups, and whole grain products," I informed them. 

"Oh, we have those," the staff told me. "All they have to do is let us know what they're looking for and we're happy to provide the alternative selections. We regularly stock cereals without added sugar, whole grain breads and rice, low sodium products and sugar-free beverages."

Through my weeks volunteering over a period of two years, I seldom found anyone who would ask for "special diet food". There were signs up announcing the presence of a Registered Dietitian to help guide the patrons for healthier choices depending on their diet needs, and occasionally someone would have questions about losing weight or lowering their blood pressure. For the most part, though, the staff would be frustrated at the poor choices made by the customers. While there were a range of varieties available (people couldn't be forced to take brown rice over white, fruit juice over punch, or chicken over hot dogs), the vast majority of our disadvantaged citizens opted for convenience over health. When local farms would drop off cases of fresh vegetables, they would pile up during the week until the staff took them home on the weekend in lieu of tossing them out because they grew rotten. "But I don't want to have to peel vegetables and cook them," the clients would complain. "I just want something I can open and serve." I'm not sure why they were too busy to cook, since the majority were unemployed.

Recently in the hospital where I work I had a 250-pound woman explain why she couldn't lose weight: "I can't afford fresh fruits and vegetables," she said.  I asked, "Can you afford canned fruit and frozen vegetables?" and she said, "yes." Okay, next excuse?
By the way, she also refused to stop buying her cans of cola because she 'had' to have at least 3 a day.

Just because you can get dollar meals at fast food restaurants doesn't mean "food that is bad for you is cheaper". How about foregoing soda and chips and using that money to buy fruit and vegetables? How about making choices that make sense, like drinking skim milk instead of fruit punch or beer?

Not being able to afford "healthy" food is a poor excuse for being overweight. Fresh food that is not processed and can be prepared to be low in calories, sodium and sugar does not have to be expensive; no one is suggested you buy organic milk or salmon steaks when non-fat dry milk and canned tuna provide similar nutrients and cost less than half as much.

Need help planning healthy meals on a budget? There are plenty of resources available. Don't have a computer to look these up? Your local library will let you sign on there for hours. Start with the USDA's "Thrifty Meal Plan" download which provides shopping tips, recipes, and menus on a budget.

Then think about what you can trade off to make purchases that are better for you. That's what will save you money in the long run.


Anonymous said...

I think this is a bit of an oversimplification. Although I can't imagine how discouraging it is to have clients who refuse to make healthy changes, it's unfair to knock them down for being lazy. Have free cooking classes been offered? It's entirely possible these people lack the skills they need to prepare a healthy meal.

I plan on becoming an RD, so maybe I am simply disheartened by this venting. I have learned already that not everyone is willing to change. Ideally, health professionals help people assess their lives and support them in making healthy changes. Denigrating people who don't value health as much as we do can only lead to frustration and feeling burned out.

Nicole said...

It's true that healthier food can often by pricier, but there is alot of healthy food that is fairly priced and compares to the price of junk food. If a person really wants to eat healthier they can usually find ways.

Molly said...

I have a website that gives a free, healthy menu each week plus a little teaching about nutrition, a shopping list, and even videos showing how to make some of the dishes. Maybe some of your clients could make use of it?? Check it out at

dOl said...

I am an atlete and I think that nutrition is crucial for be healthy. I am also one of those that think eat healthy it's expensive.
I found a great "trick" to make sure every time I buy groceries I get the healthy stuff. It's easy...there is a list of foods called: michi's ladder. this "list" has 5 ladders. well mixing the first 2 ladders, make almost a perfect diet!!
what i do is dont buy the most expensive foods and replace them with same similar( and cheaper) food that it has the same benefits....
well there is my trick!!

Carol said...

There are a lot of ways to eating healthy foods and being expensive or non affordability surely is not a hindrance. Buying bulk in season of fruits and vegetables is one good example of acquiring cheap healthy food.

Cars said...


Anonymous said...

Some people just don't know how, and that's your job to show them. You're being extremely judgmental to assume that everyone has had the same experience in life and is simply choosing to be unhealthy. It is your duty to be a kind and helpful person, since that is why you chose this profession. I don't eat healthy food, but I'm not overweight. People assume I'm healthy because of my weight, but I don't eat vegetables. I don't know how to prepare them. My family ate out every night, so I never learned to cook. Now that I'm in my 20s, I can't afford to eat out, but I also don't know how to feed myself nutritiously.

Rachel Page said...

I used to feel the same way. But I learned that it just requires a little more effort, a fraction more time and better planning on my part.