Americans are obsessed with their weight and our “obesity epidemic” is as American as our apple pie. Every few years a new diet trend creates billions of dollars in economic activity by promising the answers to our weight and health problems. Remember the low-fat diets of the 1990s? The Atkins diet? The South Beach and Zone diets? Today the anti-gluten and no dairy diets are dominating American kitchens while the low and no carb diets are still popular. Paleo anyone?
The whole foods diet, while lurking in the background for a number of years, is now another popular diet trend. I heard about food as medicine 10-15 years ago from yoga practitioners and Eastern philosophers, but always considered it a practice for food elitists. However, after the birth of my youngest son, I struggled to lose the weight, so I began looking for diets that I could incorporate into our family’s lifestyle. After reading about several diets, I concluded the Mayo Clinic Diet, which endorsed a whole foods type eating plan, could be adapted to our current eating patterns.
As with most American diets the whole foods diet promises to help us lose weight naturally and significantly improve our health. A “whole foods” (also known as “real food“) diet consists of eating foods as close to their most natural state as possible with the idea that this will supply our bodies with needed nutrients frequently lost in processing and cooking. The most restrictive form of the diet is vegan but some practitioners are merely vegetarians while others eat some meat. Organic, in season and local are three descriptors I hear most often when describing a whole foods diet. Meat (pork, chicken, fish, beef, etc) and dairy (milk, eggs, yogurt, etc) should come from pasture raised or free-range sources without added hormones or fillers. Fruits and vegetables shouldn’t be exposed to chemical fertilizers. Natural sweeteners such as honey or pure maple syrup are preferred over artificial sweeteners or sugar. With the exception of water (drink lots of it), all other beverages should be consumed in moderation.
So in the name of losing weight and improving the family’s health, I dutifully began changing the way we ate and our grocery bill skyrocketed. The chart to the left provided by the University of Texas Department of Nutritional Sciences shows the cost of organic versus non-organic fruits and vegetables in our area. Looking at the bottom line, organic costs 55 percent more than non-organic.
This list only includes typical fruits and vegetables, so I decided to do some additional research at our local HEB grocery store. What I discovered is that there are organic options for almost everything. Non-organic food tends to come in larger packages, so I had to breakdown the price per unit to gain a real cost comparison. Needless to say, even with smaller package sizes, organic foods were still more pricey than their non-organic counterparts. Foods such as brown rice (535 percent), pancake mix (295 percent), frozen broccoli (181 percent), applesauce (154 percent), and cheese (114 percent) cost more than double the price per unit of their non-organic counterparts. There were a few surprises, though. Frozen mixed berries (16 percent), yogurt (19 percent), and top sirloin (21 percent) were within 25 percent or less of their non-organic counterpart price. Ultimately, after crunching all the numbers, I discovered that choosing all organic foods would increase our grocery bill by 67 percent.
Now some people would consider a 67 percent increase in their grocery bill the price they pay for staying healthy. Others would look at it and decide they cannot afford it. As for our family, we compromised with both organic and non-organic foods in our diet. For me, the point is to eat whole food even if it doesn’t meet the organic/in-season/free-range/pasture raised criteria. Ideally the (supposedly) better for you food wouldn’t cost so much more, and I suspect the price of organic foods is just another way our economy is taking advantage of this American diet trend. While we haven’t seen any noticeable improvements in our weight or our health in the eight months since we made the switch, I expect to continue choosing whole foods for the foreseeable future. Once we got a handle on the extra costs, preparing whole foods with minimal processing and cooking made for an efficient and comfortable routine that is easy to stick with.