I’ve been wondering how U.S. food price inflation and the sky-rocketing cost of gasoline might affect people who are on various diets. Food spending is somewhat discretionary. Sure, you have to eat. But you can choose filet mignon versus beans and rice. You can fix it yourself or pay someone else to do it. The same applies to dieting. Fix food yourself, or buy MREs (meals-ready-to-eat). You can pay a lot or a little. And high cost does not always equal high quality.
Forbes magazine ran a good article on January 2, 2008, by Rebecca Ruiz, “How Expensive Is Your Diet?”
Ms. Ruiz evaluated the first-week costs of seven popular weight-loss diets. She rightly notes that the first week’s cost typically requires the greatest financial investment. For example, you may have to buy a spice or condiment that you don’t normally have on hand, but it may last you for months. Her calculation of total costs also include the price of a book or other training materials, membership, and, in the case of the detox diet, a juicer. Subsequent weeks of the diets are expected to cost substantially less. Buying the various ingredients for two dozen distinct meals adds up. Following a single week of the Abs Diet required more than 75 ingedients, while the Weight Watcher’s Flex Plan required more than 100.
Here is what Ms. Ruiz found as the cost of these popular diets for one person, for the first week (in U.S. dollars):
How do these numbers compare with what you normally spend on food? Only you would know, but many don’t. The Forbes article says a weekly household grocery bill likely averages about $111, not including alcohol and fast food items. The U.S. Census Bureau 2008 Statistical Abstract notes that there are 2.57 persons per household (in 2006). So the average person spends $43 a week on groceries. [OK, I admit these numbers are already outdated.] Melinda Fulmer, in a recent article she wrote for MSN Money, notes that the average family of four (two adults and two young children in her case) spends $182 per week for food. That’s $45 per person.
Nearly all effective weight-loss diets involve caloric restriction of some degree: you eat less than usual. Wouldn’t you think you’d be spending less than usual on food?
Dr. George Blackburn, Associate Director of the Division of Nutrition at Harvard Medical School, told Ruiz that ”expecting an average consumer to consistently venture beyond their favorite meals or food can be cost prohibitive while also inviting failure.” Dr. Blackburn said, “We have our golden oldies…You can’t re-engineer these things. There are three or four favorites, and that’s how you eat most of your meals.” In my experience people usually have eight to 12 favorite meals that become customary for them.
Ruiz writes that ”Dr. Blackburn advocates developing a familiarity with cooking and meal preparation so that a dieter isn’t reliant on cookbooks, ready-made entrees or what some might call gimmicks.”
Many of the popular diets tell you exactly what you will be eating for the next two to six weeks. Whatever that is, it’s unlikely to be one of your golden oldies. One of the great things about the Advanced Mediterranean Diet ($17.95) is that it doesn’t tell you exactly what and when to eat. You get an extensive list of recommended foods available at your local grocery store, then you decide what to eat, and when. For example, if one of your golden oldies is pancakes for breakfast, you eat pancakes, but now made with whole wheat flour. You like sandwiches? You got sandwiches. Steak? Salads? Yes, those, too.
Forbes magazine is a fascinating financial/lifestyle periodical. Pick up any copy when you get a chance. It will be hard to put down, and you’ll learn something useful.
Steve Parker, M.D.