Abstract: Two studies reach different conclusions about the price for healthy eating. Let’s break them down.

Depending on what report you choose to believe, America is still the fattest country in the world. Or it’s a close second to Mexico. Or – in a rare bit of positive news on this topic — it has fallen to 27th, behind seemingly healthier nations like Iceland, Chile, and the small Pacific island of Kiribati. (Better than the days when the average American could actually eat the small Pacific island of Kiribati.)

These reports use different criteria to define obesity, hence the varying results. And that’s fine: As long as researchers clearly define their methods, it’s very acceptable to let the reader decide which finding is most credible. But here at Evolution, we are more interested in the “why’s” behind the numbers – which made us take notice of an article commenting on the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization report, the one claiming Mexico now ranks #1 in obesity. In this piece, the author cited rising average income as the main culprit, and in the very next sentence noted that the country’s poorer citizens are the ones becoming fat. We can probably blame this inconsistency on shoddy editing, but it does raise a question: What relation, if any, does income have on food choices, and by extension, obesity?

For many years, it was believed that a major obstacle in healthy eating was that foods high in nutrition tended to cost more than their unhealthy counterparts. This was most recently confirmed in a University of Washington study that collected prices on a market basket of 370 items in which – on a per-calorie basis – low-nutrition, high-energy foods were found to be significantly more affordable than healthy options. Indeed, the prohibitive cost of nutrition was a non-starter for many low-income families: They couldn’t afford to even consider healthy foods, creating a spiral in which poor eating led to obesity, resulting in a lack of exercise, lethargy, and long-term health problems.

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