Saturday, 17 December 2011

poor people can't afford to eat healthy food?

There has been another article in the Guardian stating that poor people cannot possibly afford to eat healthy food. They do this from time to time, there was one written a while ago by Julie Bindel. I know it is not true because I am a poor person and I eat healthy food. These are the three main points in the article.
  1. Cheap foods are fatty, and fat stops people from being hungry. Vegetables can't do that, and organic vegetables are especially poor value in this respect. There is nothing cheaper than fatty foods to stop hunger.
  2. People battling food scarcity tend to overeat when food is available.
  3. Poor people have to buy food that their children will eat. If children don't eat the food they are given then it will be wasted, and people can't afford to waste food.
I shall go through each point one by one.

1. The cheapest foods are not fatty. It is wrong for Zoe Williams - who wrote the article - to state that the choice for poor people is between fatty foods and vegetables. The choice is between fatty foods and things like bread, pasta, rice, potatoes and beans. Vegetables can bulk out these and so are valuable, in addition to providing vitamins and minerals. 1 kg of rice costs 40p from Lidl and provides 3,470 calories. A Big Mac costs £2.39 and provides 590 calories, more than half of them from fat. I have done some simple calculations, shown towards the end of this post, and it works out that healthy foods are on average about ten times cheaper than the unhealthy foods that Zoe Williams mentions.

2. I know what it's like to be on Job Seekers Allowance and to run out of money at the end of a fortnight before the next payment. You can buy 1kg of rice for 40p from Lidl and keep it in the back of a cupboard for if you might need it. Or use the loose change in your pocket or ask a neighbour to lend you 40p. You can live off that for days if necessary, especially if you have a few other ingredients in the cupboard. With a few beans and not much else you could make Rice and Peas, which is a traditional West Indian dish, or another rice dish. There's no reason for people to be 'battling food scarcity'. People with children have more money than single people on Job Seekers Allowance because the previous government was so keen to lessen child poverty.

3. When I was a child I had to eat what was provided for me or go without. In most parts of the world that is still true. Children don't starve themselves if they are not allowed to eat only their favourite foods all the time. If they leave food it can be eaten by adults and not wasted. It's wrong to think that children don't like healthy food. Baked beans on toast is reasonably healthy and is something that children like.

To understand the relationship between food and health, it is important to realise that we are talking about three separate things. They are not equally important.

1. Too many calories. Too much fat, sugar and salt. Too many calories results in obesity, which contributes towards diabetes, heart disease and strokes. Saturated fat contributes towards heart disease and strokes. Sugar and refined starch contribute towards diabetes. Salt contributes towards heart disease and strokes.

If people ate 10% less food their health would improve and they would save 10p in every £1. They can do better than that by getting a smaller proportion of the calories they eat from fat and sugar and more from the starchy staples. They can also increase the quality of the fat they eat as well as decreasing the quantity. Saturated fats should be avoided, but some unsatured fats can be a problem too. Trans fats should be avoided wherever possible. Most vegetable oils contain more omega-6 than is healthy. Omega-9 (also called monounsaturated) rich oils are good. Olive oil is high in omega-9. You may think that poor people can't afford olive oil but in fact both Lidl and Aldi have cheap olive oils that have won a taste test. Extra virgin olive oil from Lidl or Aldi provides a lot more calories per penny than a Big Mac or crisps. Omega-3 rich oils are good too.

2. Too little fruit and vegetables. There is evidence that eating fruit and vegetables helps with heart disease and cancer. They contain vitamins and minerals that are needed in small quantities. Some of these are antioxidants. They also contain other things that are valuable, such as lycopene. Beta-carotene (for example) can be obtained cheaply from carrots or green vegetables, or slightly more expensively from sweet potatoes or mangoes. This is why we are told that we should eat 5 portions of fruit and vegetables a day.

3. Organic food. The reason why people originally chose organic food was because nobody knows the long-term cumulative effects of small amounts of pesticides eaten every day. Pesticides and other agro-chemicals have been tested on animals, but animals don't live very long, vary in how they react to a substance, and don't have a cocktail of different substances in their bodies which interact with each other. Also, people are unhappy with certain aspects of modern agriculture, which could be ecological or animal welfare issues.

Today people may say they prefer the flavour, and there is some evidence that orgainically grown vegetables can be slightly higher in some vitamins. It is not essential for health for people to eat organically grown products.

What is important is that people reduce the amount of calories, fat, sugar and salt. It can save you money too. Eating more fruit and vegetables is of secondary importance. Eating organic vegetables is not important. So when Zoe Williams says that poor people can't afford organic carrots, or that they are not good value for money, she is not saying anything important.

People like Zoe Williams seem to think they are defending poor people against accusations of sloth. I don't think many people are making such an accusation. I'm certainly not doing that. I treat poor people the same as everyone else. People can use information to improve their lives. It isn't helping poor people to tell them that they can't possibly afford to eat healthy food so they might as well not try. It's not true. Such an attitude can only cause a large amount of ill health and suffering.

Poor people aren't just the British working class. They are also people from other continents where poverty is much greater and where people know how to cook cheap food. I have nothing to teach someone from Africa or India in that respect. Poor people are also many middle class people who have recently lost their jobs and are trying to survive on Job Seekers Allowance. We all need to know how to survive these difficult times, and people like Zoe Williams aren't helping.

These are two key statements made by Zoe Williams in her article. I have shown in this post that they are both factually incorrect, and below I have done the calculations to prove it.

"It's more palatable to blame diabetes on lifestyle than accept the fact that, on a penny-per-calorie basis, a Big Mac is simply cheaper"

"Once you accept crap food is an economic choice you have to accept that 24,000 deaths a year aren't related to sloth"

First let's calculate the number of calories per penny for some healthy foods such as rice and olive oil.

White long grain rice from Lidl costs 40p for 1kg. 1kg of rice is 3,470 calories (kcals). That works out as about 87 calories per penny.

White basmati rice from Lidl costs £10.99 for a 10kg bag. That works out at about 31.5 calories per penny.

Italian short grain brown rice from Whole Foods Market in Kensington costs £1.79 per kilo. That works out (assuming the same number of calories per kg as above) at about 19.5 calories per penny. It's probably more than that because I have been using the figure of 347 calories per 100g (read off the back of a packet of basmati) when the figure (looking on different places on the web) could be 350 or 360 or even more.

All of the types of rice above have a medium GI and so don't cause higher blood glucose and insulin levels that contribute towards diabetes. Some forms of rice have a high GI and are not so good.

Extra virgin olive oil from Lidl costs £2.25 for 750ml. Olive oil has 823 calories per 100ml. That works out as about 27.5 calories per penny.

Now let's compare this with the unhealthy forms of food mentioned in the article.

A Big Mac costs £2.39 and has 590 calories. That works out as about 2.5 calories per penny.

A McDonald's cheeseburger costs 99p and has 295 calories. That works out at just under 3 calories per penny.

A packet of Walkers ready salted crisps costs 30p for 25g. Each pack has 134 calories. That works out as about 4.5 calories per penny.

It can clearly be seen that all of the healthy foods above provide more calories per penny than any of the unhealthy foods. Even brown rice from Kensington High Street and extra virgin olive oil will assuage hunger pangs for less money than either a Big Mac or some crisps. Not only is extra virgin olive oil cheaper than a Big Mac in terms of calories per penny, it is more than 11 times cheaper.

Of course, the number of calories per penny (or penny-per-calorie as Zoe Williams would put it) is not the most important criterion for healthy food. But she has talked about how much it costs to overcome hunger. She believes that Big Macs and crisps are better for that and thinks that is why poor people eat these things. She's wrong.

I wouldn't expect anyone to eat just rice, there are so many ways to have rice with other things, including other cheap things. For example, rice with dal and vegetable curry. Dal is an Indian dish made with lentils (about 19.5 calories per penny). We're not talking austerity here. I would prefer to eat food from around the world than foods whose main flavours are fat, sugar and salt. I'm not expecting people to be vegetarian or vegan, there are cheap ways of eating animal protein too.

Even organic food can be cheaper than McDonald's or crisps. Lidl sell a 500g bag of organic whole durum wheat farfalle pasta for 84p (about 20 calories per penny). If you average out the calories per penny of the 6 healthy foods and the 3 unhealthy foods mentioned above then the unhealthy foods are about ten times more expensive.

Talk about poor people should be educated, it looks as if Zoe Williams needs to be educated. Talk about sloth, couldn't Zoe Williams be bothered to do a few simple calculations before saying something incorrect? Does she not think that the health of poor people is important? Has she not considered the effects of her words? Zoe Williams sees things in black-and-white. Either poor people are eating organic carrots or they're eating Big Macs. Either the poor are are totally responsible for what happens to them or they have no responsibility at all. The truth as always lies somewhere inbetween these two extremes.

See my table comparing cheapness of foods.


  1. Your ideas are great unless one can't eat beans or rice or potatoes or pastas because one is diabetic. The outlook for those people who are living on a poor man's salary is very dim. All of those foods are very high in starches which convert to sugars and fats which the body stores. So your version is great for you but not for all.

  2. The NHS advice to diabetics is to "Eat plenty of starchy carbohydrates with a low glycemic index (low GI)". If I had type 2 diabetes I would be tempted to go on the Atkins diet (or my version of it) which is very low in carbohydrates. However, small amounts of pasta would be OK because (contrary to public opinion) pasta has a low GI. People tend to think it is high GI because they think it's a refined starch. However, it's not that refined and there are many factors that affect GI such as protein content and particle size. Pasta is 40p a kilo and as such is one of the cheapest sources of calories. Rice, unfortunately, is medium-GI. That's any kind of rice, even brown rice. I would avoid potatoes including sweet potatoes. Potatoes are high GI, and sweet potatoes are medium GI (again public perception is wrong). Most bread is high GI although it should be possible to have low GI bread if it is milled to have a bigger particle size and wholegrain. Pulses are low GI. So sensible amounts of pasta and beans should be OK if you have diabetes.