The Recession is Making Us Fat

Eliminating the health-wealth divide

A recent Newsweek piece cautioned that “one of the most insidious health effects of a downturn is in the area of diet. Eating healthily can be expensive and time-consuming—two qualities Americans currently have little appetite for.”

Earlier stories, like this one from MSNBC in September, already hinted that “Rising unemployment, higher food prices and dwindling savings may exacerbate the nation’s obesity problem, sending already high rates ballooning as consumers turn to cheaper, less healthful choices ranging from boxed mac ‘n’ cheese to fast-food dollar menus.” This is a simplistic, reductive, and speculative allegation, but it gets replayed with startling frequency. Newsweek does nothing to contest these moldy allegations, or back them up with facts.

It is true that most Americans might not be able to afford an entirely organic, Gourmet diet. But there are other, cheaper ways to eat healthy. Families that switch to weekday vegetarianism, for example, can save money and improve their health. But Newsweek doesn’t mention this, nor talk to nutritionists or public health to testify to the fact, only quoting those that agree with the thesis, for example:

“So often, making the healthy choice is the difficult choice. It’s imperative that we make it the easy choice,” says Harold Goldstein, the executive director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, which studies the state’s obesity epidemic and advocates for measures like mandatory menu labeling to better inform consumers about what they’re ordering.

However, while the ‘poor people will eat crappy food’ narrative is pervasive, the health concerns of the wealthy Americans are portrayed much differently, with specific emphasis on how the well-off proactively seek solutions to their problems, while the poor perpetuate their own problems themselves. The New York Times documented how mental health is affected by the recession:

With economic damage expected to last months or years, such reactions are becoming common, experts say. Anxiety, depression and stress are troubling people everywhere, many not suffering significant economic losses, but worrying they will or simply reacting to pervasive uncertainty.

The piece goes on to describe how yoga, therapy, meditation, and medication are helping Americans deal with the stress of the recession, some of whom aren’t even adversely affected:

Ms. Hubbard, knowing “financially we were fine,” said she believed “I shouldn’t feel like this, I’m lucky.” She cried visiting her primary doctor, who recommended therapy and medication, hard to accept, she said, because her Depression-era parents believed “you pull yourself up.”

“I felt like a neurotic middle-class, middle-aged woman too weak to deal with life on my own,” she said. “I should be stronger, it was simply money, and why do I have to take pills to not worry about money.”

Which is all fine, but it’s disappointing when the piece misses an opportunity to place its subjects on the reality continuum. Yes, some people have stress and can find relief in various therapeutic models, but many more can’t afford to seek those therapies.

Food writing itself often encourages a class divide, highlighting expensive restaurants, recommending pricey ingredients, and demanding unlimited time for preparation. And, articles that focus on the food habits of the lower classes frequently admonish people for the food that is affordable, without addressing the political realities how food prices are set, or why supermarkets are missing from poor neighborhoods.

Both the food and stress questions can be expanded to include all Americans by looking at the policies that support the two areas. Food stamps policy, for example, is one area where government influences dietary choices and can do more to help improve diet. And the public health care clinics that provide a tattered safety net for poor Americans should be examined for their readiness to support a more emotionally vulnerable population. Recognizing that members of all socioeconomic classes need help in maintaining positive physical and mental health would go a long way in shrinking the narrative gap between the haves and the have-nots.

This recession will certainly have an effect on what people are eating, but we’ve gotten our fill of tone-deaf stories. We’re hungry for solutions.

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Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.