Lifestyles

As America becomes more unhealthy, are individual citizens really to blame?

Studies continue to critique the choices of the masses, but not the system that limits them

By: Catherine Gilliam

As millionaires like Gwyneth Paltrow commodify health, it becomes more and more inaccessible. Credit: qz.com

According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s 2013 report card for the Changing American Diet, things aren’t looking good. Americans are still consuming too much red meat, milk, dairy products, grains, fats and oils, and sweeteners, while not having enough fruits and vegetables (cspinet.org). 

Overall, we’re consuming “450 calories more per day than we did in 1970” (cspinet.org). The question is why?

There are a lot of different answers, but an often ignored one is the fact that healthy lifestyles are not as affordable as unhealthy ones. This is generally thought of through consumption of fast food, but research shows that the middle class is more likely to eat fast food than the lower class, the latter of which are only a little more likely to eat fast food than the upper class (theconversation.com). 

Despite the similarity in this realm, a study from this year shows that not only do rich people live longer, but they get eight or nine more “disability free” years after age fifty than their poor counterparts (nytimes.com). There is a discrepancy somewhere; the question is where should we really look.

Cornell University’s director of the Healthy Aging Laboratory, Dr. Corinna Loeckenhoff has a few things to say about this — where there’s more wealth, there are less barriers to getting to your appointments, as well as more “access to additional services”; health is also impacted by stress, which higher levels of have been connected to poverty; and, while she says that the “biggest recommendation is to exercise and eat a healthy diet”, even that might be harder for someone with less wealth (nytimes.com). 

The most obvious place to start is with healthcare, but the most insidious is the commodification of health. We know that exercising and eating healthy can be expensive, but why?

Starting with eating healthy, low-income communities already have massive roadblocks. In some regions, the only available grocery store is a dollar store. It’s hard to find clear examples of such food deserts locally, as these tend to occur in more rural areas, but that doesn’t mean that low-income people in New York City aren’t similarly affected. 

Even locally, dollar stores are pushing out local businesses in Brooklyn and the Bronx, while across the country, “30,496 dollar stores rang up $33.8 billion sales in food and household items in 2016”, which brings it up over 10,000 more stores and over double the sales from the previous decade (nytimes.com). Dollar stores thrive in New York City due to the way they can target the poor; it continues to meet their needs while more people begin to live paycheck to paycheck and the rich continue to get richer, with little in between. 

Meanwhile, “organic” stores like Whole Foods are inaccessible to those same people. Even with the recent Amazon acquisition, Whole Foods in particular remains the most expensive grocery retailer, even when compared to its counterparts. When Sprouts Farmers Market and Kroger were compared to Walmart, the former had an eight percent basket premium while the latter had a seven percent one, while Whole Foods had a 39% percent premium — a roughly 30% difference from the other two comparable stores (foxnews.com).

Health has an inextricable status to it, which comes with added expense. This can be demonstrated through the example of Whole Foods and their short-lived attempt to sell $6 asparagus water, as well as other products they’ve sold with more success — $10 pints of cold pressed juice, $9 mayonnaise with flaxseed oil, and $10 little pots of raspberry jam, to name a few (theguardian.com). While the asparagus water has since been written off as an accident, it is certainly not out of place. 

This is seen even better outside of grocery stores. For example, a growing market for “self care” profits off of wellness, which began to gain traction after the 2016 election. What can be something as simple as “check[ing] in with yourself and allow[ing] yourself the mental space you need” is exploited by companies like Lululemon, the Lake, and Goop (theglobeandmail.com). The idea that pushes “the commodification and overcomplication of wellness” is that certain products can “enhance or legitimize the experience” of self care (theglobeandmail.com).

There is no worse offender of this than the aforementioned Goop. Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle brand, which survived losing a lawsuit over one of their products, has built a brand off of bastardizing non-Western healthcare and reselling it for a pretty penny. While their effectiveness remains to be seen, Goop continues to sell products like a $90 pack of pills called “Why Am I So Effing Tired?” to help reduce stress while people who could never afford them and have to nickel and dime their way through survival in New York City get scapegoated for whatever the new health epidemic is.

 

SOURCES

https://cspinet.org/resource/changing-american-diet

https://theconversation.com/do-poor-people-eat-more-junk-food-than-wealthier-americans-79154

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/16/science/rich-people-longer-life-study.html

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/13/nyregion/dollar-stores-thriving.html

https://www.foxnews.com/food-drink/is-whole-foods-americas-most-expensive-grocery-chain

https://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/style/article-self-care-is-valuable-but-it-doesnt-have-to-be-commercial/

https://www.theguardian.com/business/2015/aug/05/whole-foods-customers-asparagus-water

 

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