Skinny People Shop at Whole Foods

By Jamelle Bouie

Researchers at the University of Washington further illustrate the link between poverty and obesity:

The percentage of food shoppers who are obese is almost 10 times higher at low-cost grocery stores compared with upscale markets, a small new study shows.

Researchers say the striking findings underscore poverty as a key factor in America’s growing girth.

In the Seattle area, a region with an average obesity rate of about 20 percent, only about 4 percent of shoppers who filled their carts at Whole Foods Market stores were obese, compared with nearly 40 percent of shoppers at lower-priced Albertsons stores.


“If people wanted a diet to be cheap, they went to one supermarket,” said Adam Drewnowski, a University of Washington epidemiology professor who studies obesity and social class. “If they wanted their diet to be healthy, they went to another supermarket and spent more.”

This study was limited to Seattle, but I’m sure you could replicate its results elsewhere. In my own shopping, I’ve noticed that people shopping at Kroger (the cheaper grocery store in the area) tend to be heavier than those shopping at Harris Teeter, and their carts tended to be heavy on processed and prepared foods. But that isn’t a surprise; the poorer you are, the more likely it is that your diet will be high in calorie dense but nutritionally poor foods, which is a recipe for obesity.


It’s not that healthier ingredients are absent or too expensive — even lower-priced supermarkets have plenty of fresh produce available — it’s that preparing those meals requires more time and energy than is available to most lower-income people. Cooking takes time, and after a long day of hard work in low-wage employment, parents want to relax, and the incredible ease of fast and processed food is a powerful lure. Indeed, if there’s any advantage to lower-income grocery stores Kroger or Wal-Mart, it’s that calorie dense foods — cookies, frozen pizza, Easy Mac — are cheap and readily available.

That said, if there’s anything I’ve learned from watching my friends attempt to navigate the kitchen, it’s that cooking isn’t obvious. Unless you’re familiar with the basics of preparation and cooking, the act of taking a few ingredients — some cornmeal, a bushel of greens, an egg — and making a meal is mystifying. Poor people are simply less likely to have access to that kind of knowledge. Moreover, eating habits are generational, and if you grew up in a home where food was prepared from fresh ingredients you’re far more likely to know what to do in a kitchen. By contrast, if you grew up eating processed and prepackaged food, then those are the first things you’ll reach for when you’re on your own.

Which is why I’m not convinced that food taxes and subsidies are enough to make a dent into the nation’s obesity and nutritional crisis. As is the case with most problems, better, more comprehensive education is critical to moving forward. We need to show kids and adults that cooking isn’t hard, and that’s possible to eat well on a limited budget.