Wednesday, January 11, 2012

What a Deal! Obesity for Only 7% of Your Income

A very interesting study conducted by the Food Service Warehouse plotted worldwide food consumption levels and compared these with income levels. When you put the highest and lowest countries side by side, the outcome is rather striking:

The green line is the recommended daily allowance of calories (typically between 2000 and 2500). A quick glance confirms that western nations are well above the recommended caloric intake, which is no surprise when we consider their overly abundant waste lines. The fact that these are averages means that approximately half of Americans and Canadians consume more than 3800 and 3700 calories a day respectively. That’s a lot of food and/or a lot of really crappy food (i.e. high calories with low nutrients)!! Even France, a country once considered highly disciplined in the eating habits, is not immune to this trend.

Interestingly, the lowest consuming countries are not that far from the recommended daily allowance. This is despite the fact that many of these countries suffer from severe malnutrition, which suggests that much of the food these countries are consuming is likely unhealthy. It would be great to see these statistics over time to see if there is any heterogeneity by country in growing consumption rates. If not, then one has to wonder if the quality of the food available to the entire planet has eroded over time. Indeed, when considering our aggressive agricultural practices, research has shown that nutritional value in global soil levels have eroded over time meaning that we need to consume more of a given unit of food than we did decades earlier.

It gets more interesting when the study authors cross-reference the above data with the percentage of income spent on food in the graph below. With the exception of a few outliers, it’s fascinating that there is a direct and negative correlation between food consumption levels and the amount of income spent on food. With the exception of Romania, all of the biggest eaters dedicate little of their income to food. Fast Company attributes this to the fact that a majority of the high consuming nations consume mostly processed, unhealthy food, which is dramatically less expensive than “real food”.

But when you think about this in more depth, another explanation emerges. What strikes me most about the second graph is that the seemingly educated, more affluent countries are those that are not spending much of their disposable income on food. This goes against the view that we need more disposable income and education to eat better. If this were the case, then what’s going on here? Canadians are one of the lowest in the amount of disposable income that goes to the consumption of food – around 7%. That seems bizarre to me! That’s $2,240 spent on food out of $32,000 annual income. That’s $186 per month or $6.14 per day. Yet we manage to turn this $6 into 3700 calories. A quick glance online and the only foods that can muster such a caloric-bang for the buck include things like animal fat, vegetable oils, salad dressings, junk food, processed meats and fried food. Notice that many of these are highly dependent on caloric-intensive corn derivatives, a point I'll get to later.

On the one hand, Canadians seem to be doing everything they can to minimize the percentage of their income spent on food. As if eating is a necessary evil, it appears that Canadians are doing whatever is possible to leave available disposable income for other things; things that are more important than what we put into our bodies. In 2009, Canadians spent about the same on recreation as they did on food and double on transportation as they did on food. Canadians allocated three times the amount we spend on food to a place to live and a third of what we spend on food for alcohol and tobacco products; meaning that if we lumped tobacco and alcohol under food, they would represent 25%. Perhaps most ironic is that we pay just as much on personal insurance payments and pension contribution as we do on food. Yet food decisions lead to short- and long-term implications for our health. The more we compromise on food the higher our personal insurance fees, and the greater pointlessness of contributing to our pension!

But consumers are not the only ones to blame here. There is an inherent motivation on the part of processed food companies to inject as much processed, caloric-intensive food into the food system as possible. And because a majority of the ingredients in this food are highly subsidized, the price is quite low relative to real food. The fact that a 2 liter bottle of Coca-Cola costs less than the equivalent amount of water is a good illustration of this. This is not to mention the fact that processed food frees us from the seemingly burdening task of making our own food, which would actually encourage us to 1) pay attention to what’s in it, 2) consider eating as a substantial part of our day, and 3) eat slower and therefore not over-eat. Add the billions of dollars spent on marketing processed foods as convenient and complementary to a busy lifestyle and voila, you have people in the West who consume 3700 calories a day for cheap, nutrition-empty food yet with only a tiny portion of their budget. Together, this trend is incredibly frightening because we’ve relegated food to the level of a commodity similar to filling our vehicles up with gasoline. We eat at the office desk, in the car, on the go as if consuming food was as inconvenient as learning that your car is approaching empty.

There is a whole host of interpretations coming from these data. I’d be interested in hearing what you think these two graphs are telling us.


  1. I think the mystery of how we can eat well on $6/day can be solved...COSTCO!

  2. I like to see this nice post. This is a batter idea of the business community. There is a process into as many calories dense foods, processed foods as much as possible the food system as part of the company's intrinsic motivation.

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