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Healthy food has gone high end, but is the lifestyle trend worth the cost?
Now, more than ever, it's easy to find high-price, locally grown, organic produce alongside "superfoods" like pomegranate juice, acai berries and chia seeds. Toss it all together into a sleek $400 blender and you've got the cure for whatever ails, except for credit card debt.
The notion that premium foods and superfoods drive better health obscures the fact that adding plain old fruits and vegetables - organic or GMO - into your diet is one of the greatest steps any of us can take to improve our well-being.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables may lower blood pressure, reduce risk for obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, including heart attack and stroke, and more.
Superfoods are certainly within reach for upper middle class urbanites folks. They often live near cities and can get an antioxidant probiotic rich $12 kumquat or lemon cucumber smoothies in one of a dozen trendy bars. Also, if the have the money they can have Instacart or Fresh Direct bring virtually anything product fruit or vegetable right to their doorstep. But even an ordinary healthful diet is far beyond the reach of lower income Americans, based on price, availability, or both.
But is this lifestyle trend worth the cost? And is it the ideal to which we should be striving? Is our focus on superfoods hampering our efforts to improve the diets of those without the means to afford them?
We can say with a high degree of scientific certainty that you can eat healthfully without breaking the bank. Although media reporting vacillates widely on what is healthy, one thing we have known for decades is that a diet higher in fruit and veggies and lower in processed foods is the goal for optimum health benefits.
The successful selling of superfoods to the wealthy is creating an impression that premium foods and superfoods equal good health and that they are a necessary part of any effort to improve the healthiness of a diet.
Flax seeds and organic blueberries may or may not impact your health, especially when you have the resources and already have access to healthy dietary choices - not to mention yoga classes, gym memberships and disposable time. And the scientific evidence around the benefits of superfoods is mixed at best.
Unfortunately, precious few, even in the U.S., have steady access to basic healthy foods. So, while we wait for the next big thing to get the wealthy healthier, we are overlooking a much more far reaching problem. One in eight individuals live in households without consistent access to adequate food. People living in "food deserts" lack exposure and sufficient access to plain old vegetables.
The more our society uplifts the consumption of high-end foods available only to the few, the more it reinforces the assumption held by the many that healthy food is too expensive. As we exalt the amount of antioxidants in beet green pesto, we widen the gulf between those who have much and those who haven't been exposed to or can't access or afford broccoli. They say food can be a great unifying force, but only if we continue to have shared food experiences.
So, let's focus on the basics. Despite the flip-flops in dietary guidelines, and the ongoing battles over how much of anything should be in the diet, the benefit of eating more fruits and vegetables will remain constant and will never go out of style, and a non-organic apple will always be light-years better for you than a sugary snack food.
Everything in the produce aisle is a superfood, the rest is just window dressing. We need to start there and insure everyone has access to these, the basics of a healthful diet.
David S. Seres M.D., is the director of medical nutrition and associate professor of medicine, Columbia University Irving Medical Center. Nancy E. Roman is President and CEO of the Partnership for a Healthier America, which works with corporate America to create better food and more movement under the honorary leadership of Michelle Obama.