How Does Income Affect Diet?

By Jim F


The British Food Standards Agency have just released their findings from a large survey of low-income households. They conclude:

For many foods, the types and quantities eaten by people on low income appeared similar to those of the general population.

The findings were unexpected as many believed a lack of cooking skills and access to good food prevented poorer households from eating healthy.

Not so.

  • Men and women with a lower level of educational achievement tended to have a ‘less healthy’ diet than men and women with more education. Men and women with less education ate fewer vegetables and more chips, fried and roast potatoes. Less educated women also consumed less fruit and fruit juice.
  • 30% of men and 29% of women reported that price/value/money available for food was the most important influence on their choice of food. Thirty-five percent of men and 44% of women wanted to change their diet.
  • 91% of women reported they could cook a meal from basic ingredients without help; for men this was 64%.

Some of the differences between low-incomes and the average household

  • Higher levels of smoking and alcohol consumption, together with lower levels of activity within this low income group.
  • Less likely to eat wholemeal bread, but drank more sugary drinks and consumed more table sugar

Cigarettes? Alcohol? Neither are particularly cheap.

The mean weekly spend on food and drink (excluding alcohol) was just £30 (US$61) per person.


  1. harry kilson

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  2. Amelia

    Are you serious? Are you trying to tell me that because I can’t afford to go back to college I’m too uneducated/incapable of buying good food? I love cooking and took several nutrition classes.
    My parents are upper class and we ate decently, not extremely healthy, they worked too much for that. I’m married now and I know that low income is hard. I’m sorry but if it comes down to Ramen and power, or a bunch of fresh veggies once a week what do you think I pick? Yes eating better would keep us healthier but the government says we don’t qualify but we don’t make enough to buy all the fresh food I’d love to. I wanted to go to culinary school,but it’s not going to happen anytime soon.
    If I could get my hands on an EBT card I can imagine loading my cart with fruits, in season veggies, whole grain bread and flour to make fresh pasta, lean meat and fish (I haven’t had fish once this year, it’s just too much). We share one car (we’re lucky to have it) and I go shopping after my husband gets home, I’m tired, he’s tired and twice a month I go fight the massive crowd at the commissary on post to buy us something moderately healthy. What do you consider low income anyway?

  3. david

    in my cuberds 2 12 pks top ramen mac n chease rice hamberger helper and other cheap boxed dinners then caned goods soup ,beans ,corn,stew n chili all made at the care n share local people who help the poor my fridge is usualy bare with milk we get hole milk and add watter we have butter eggs and a few condements and lunch meat golore not the fresh meat at the deli and some times chease the frezzer has totinos pizzas tv dinners french fries all are a doller each corn dogs like 6 lb of beef some time we have chicken breast we get anything on sale and its not just becase we cant aford thease things its there isent any time my mom dosent want to cook after a 10 hour day she dosent evan want to stand so its to the microwave we go my dad dosent live with us anyways i dont know why im here im looking for a cheap way to get on a diet of some cheap ideas for meals that are healthy so i can loose waight

  4. Rose

    This is a FACTUAL article cause I see it in real life w/myself and friends. Before I entered college and got educated all I ate was fast food and easy quick fixes now I enjoy a nice bowl of hot oatmeal in the morning instead of sugary junk like pancakes.Friends I personally know who had NEVER set foot in college can’t afford to eat healthy let alone know what healthy food is who are obese. Sure eating healthy is somewhat expensive but,it’s a hell of a lot cheaper than medications,heart sugery,hospital trips, and burial costs combined !

  5. Pat

    I think low income doesn’t necessarily mean poor diet. There are lots of cheap fruits and vegetables a low income person can afford. We don’t need those expensive supplements to be healthy.

  6. Kailash

    Terri said:
    I think it applies to reality. Since most people with low level of educational achievement are satisfied with a normal life, their knowledge about a health also stops there.

    Good point. The uneducated are typically more incurious than the better educated. Direct correlation, with a statistical outcome as seen in this survey.

  7. Terri

    I think it applies to reality. Since most people with low level of educational achievement are satisfied with a normal life, their knowledge about a health also stops there.

  8. rhoda

    Laura said:
    Another perspective:[…]

    Laura got it right on the nose.I live in a poor area and where I live, education doesn’t mean money. There are too many highly-educated people and too few highly-paid jobs for the two to be closely linked as they apparently are elsewhere. Those who make it often have little education but a good business idea at the right time, and work hard for years till they get there. So it’s easy here to see the difference between the effect of education and the effect of income. People who haven’t had the experience of getting into upper-division college classes (major level) and learning that they have now broken the tape between the lower half and the upper half of America in that one way, are more insecure. They are more suggestible and want more consoling. It’s that simple. they drink sugar-water all the time because it reminds them of childhood pleasures, taking them back to before they felt inadequate to care for their families, before they saw the future close. Even people with a house, front and back yard, recent car, and two years in college are in that category if they didn’t get a degree and don’t know how or when they ever will get one, and neither do their spouses. Whereas getting even a professional/associates degree can sometimes do a lot for the confidence and thus the willpower of someone who lives in a room in someone’s basement and walks a mile or two to the store because she doesn’t have enough for the bus. she can get herself out the door and stick mostly to that shopping list because her past says “you can” instead of “not you”.
    There are other ways to gain confidence, but education figures pretty big in this culture. It’s where a lot of Americans learn how to think of themselves.

  9. Laura

    Another perspective:

    “Men and women with a lower level of educational achievement tended to have a ‘less healthy’ diet than men and women with more education. Men and women with less education ate fewer vegetables and more chips, fried and roast potatoes. Less educated women also consumed less fruit and fruit juice.”

    From my experience, those who are less educated are far more susceptible to advertising. So when they see an ad for McDonald’s Salads, they think they’re eating healthy if they order a salad. They don’t make the connection that the salad probably has more calories and fat in it than a Big Mac, because they order “crispy” chicken, and then dump a ton of the dressing over the veggies. All they think is salad=healthy.

    There’s also the “I deserve a reward” mentality. Being poor is very stressful, and I can see a lot of lower-income people succumbing to the idea that they deserve a bit of a treat in their otherwise difficult lives. They do enough during the day, they don’t need the added stress of thinking about and cooking healthy food. Fast food joints have capitolized on this mentality, and it has resulted in an entire generation of people who figure “I deserve a break today”.

  10. E.

    Why is everyone lamenting the limited choices available to people in poor communities when the point of the study was that it’s education, not income, that drives healthy food choices?

    Someone made an excellent point about EBT cards and the types of foods people purchase with them. There are many government programs available (like EBT and housing assistance) so that low-income people don’t have to live on cheap, empty calories or remain in areas where there are more liquor stores than grocery stores.

    It boils down to getting the information out to these communities. Right now, the only companies I see making an effort to communicate with lower income areas are the snack food and fast food companies.

  11. top weight loss site

    I do believe you can still eat healthy even when income is low. It is everything in moderation and that is easier said than done.

  12. Different Nic

    This is a very real issue in the city that I live in. (Washington DC) In Northeast and Southeast there aren’t a lot of accessible grocery stores, especially for people who do not have cars. Many people have to shop at bodegas or similar small stores. These stores aren’t exactly brimming with fresh, healthy produce. At best you’re going to get some lettuce and some half-spoiled tomatoes.
    I agree that it’s very complicated, and I don’t have an easy answer, but I just get really irritated when people say things like “Well, just buy organic foods and go to a farmer’s market”. It’s not that easy for most of us.

    Never teh Bride said:
    Sure, whole foods prepared at home can be less expensive than processed junk. But let’s say you live in a depressed area of a city, and you don’t have a car or anyone to help you tote your groceries on two buses and a subway. Forget farmers markets…there isn’t even a grocery in your neighborhood. All you have nearby is convenience stores that sel[…]

  13. Bloggrrl

    I think you’ll find the opposite to be true in countries like Mexico. I lived there for several months and observed that everyone ate better quality food than in the United States, even people who would be considered “poor” over here. The wealthier people in Mexico, however, have access to McDonald’s and supermarkets, which I have a feeling is not going to turn out so well for them. There is something to be said for those mercados over there. We have definitely lost something. Our local farmers market (and I am not exaggerating) had three kinds of vegetables, no fruits, and numerous houseplants, candles, jams and t-shirts the last time I went.

  14. Ann

    One of the first things I thought was “well, tap water’s free … which is a lot cheaper than buying soda.” But then I realized that another big problem is that when you eat out at McDonald’s it’s cheaper (or the same price) to buy the value meal that includes a drink. And if you’re getting a free drink, most people would feel ripped off if they fill the cup with water instead of hundreds of extra calories of sugar water. That’s another big problem …

  15. CF

    So true. The amount of money one has, has a huge affect
    on whether or not a person is able to be the way he/she
    desires to be. Thank you for sharing.

  16. Spectra

    It’s very possible to eat a healthy diet on a low income. My inlaws raised 5 kids on a small farm where they grew mainly oats/hay to sell. My father in law had a low paying job selling tractors and my mother in law didn’t work at all. They had very little to spend on groceries, yet they ate a very healthy diet. How did they do it? They bought no soda, not a lot of junk food (my husband remembers that they SOMETIMES got a bag of chips or store bought cookies if they were on sale), no white bread, and no name brand cereals. What they did buy was a lot of potatoes, in-season produce, apples, skim milk, eggs, beef from their neighbor (grass-fed Angus), and chicken. They had a garden and grew lots of their own lettuce and tomatoes and stuff. My mother in law canned a lot of that and saved it for winter.

    I think education level has a bigger part to play in food choices. I worked with a woman that didn’t have a college degree and was very overweight. She bought into “false healthy” foods…things like energy bars, energy drinks, very processed desserts, etc….things that LOOKED healthy, but in reality weren’t. And let’s be honest, everyone has a different priority as far as how much they want to spend on food. For some people, buying all organic, top quality food is very important and if they have to cut back somewhere else, they will. Other people feel that food is not a big deal, so they try to live on Ramen noodles and mac and cheese and spend their money on things like cigarettes or booze or video games.

    When my sister worked as a checker at a grocery store, people who had EBT cards (government food assistance) often bought lots of junky foods and very rarely bought healthy foods. It really made my sister angry…she felt that if you are getting free food, you should be taking advantage of that to feed your kids GOOD foods, not soda and pizza and mac and cheese.

  17. cheri

    I live in Cleveland, Ohio. It has been the poorest large city in America for most of the last ten years. detroit had us beat a couple years ago, but after losing 3 of our largest employers in a short period of time we gained the honor back. In the poorest area of town, there is the Cleveland Food Coop, Which sells a decent selection of organic foods. I found it by looking in the phone book. real food isn’t hard to find, you just have to be willing to look. I agree with Kailish, it’s about your mentality. I got on the bus and carried bags of groceries home when I couldn’t afford a car.

  18. Debbie

    Until poorer communities have access to healthier foods at a price they can afford, the debate as to whether the people in these communities would eat healthier or not is moot.

    In general, though, I think it’s been proven again and again that money does buy better health.

  19. Kailash

    No doubt everyone should have access to healthy foods. But people need to make healthy choices as well.

    My last statement wasn’t in a defeatist tone. Do you know what karma means? It doesn’t just translate into English as “fate”. The word also translates as “action” and “choice”.

    Every second of every day we are forced into action, making a choice, which creates our fate. Our fate in turn presents us with the next set of choices, and we are continually forced into action.

    It starts when some small difference in the choices that one makes. Eventually, we are fated to succeed, rather than to fail. Like removing the screws that hold us down, which were tightened in clockwise fashion, we must turn the screws the other way. It becomes easier to turn the screw as it leaves the wood, until eventually it falls out.

    The best time to start was one year ago. The next best time to start is right now.

  20. Never teh Bride

    It’s attitudes like that, Kalihash, that give people an easy out. “Well, they don’t care about themselves, so why should we care?” Here’s a great quote from a BBC article:

    Smoking is an escape for many poorer people, and they also can’t afford things like nicotine patches to help them give up like richer people can.

    How much people smoke or drink is an entirely separate issue from whether or not they have access to good nutrition. It’s at best a straw man aside. But perhaps if they had better access to the healthier pleasures the rest of us regularly enjoy, they’d spend less money on the unhealthy vices. We won’t know that unless we do what is necessary to help ensure everyone has access to healthy foods.

  21. Heather

    My groceries cost more than eating healthy than processed craps. My SO used to eat all process crap and he balked when he saw the price after I took over– until he realized it was much better tasting and feeling.

  22. Kailash

    Perhaps the lack of grocery store accessibility explains why those in poorer communities choose junk food diets. But what explains their increased consumption of cigarettes and alcohol? It can’t be the prohibitive cost.

    I think poorer people typically care less about themselves. It’s a mentality and a vicious cycle. And that mentality lends its power to keeping them poor and keeping them unhealthy.

  23. Never teh Bride

    Sure, whole foods prepared at home can be less expensive than processed junk. But let’s say you live in a depressed area of a city, and you don’t have a car or anyone to help you tote your groceries on two buses and a subway. Forget farmers markets…there isn’t even a grocery in your neighborhood. All you have nearby is convenience stores that sell pre-packaged foods.

    I’ve lived in such neighborhoods and thus lived among those who had to choose between a four-hour round trip ride on public transport for groceries or a walk to the corner store for something quick and easy. I’m lucky in that I had a car and friends with cars, but not everyone is so fortunate.

    It’s not enough to say, “Buy whole foods…cook at home, you’ll save money.” People like JoLynn Braley need to become more aware of the nutritional circumstances faced by people living in poor and depressed communities. If developers could be convinced to open groceries in these places…if the city council encouraged farmers markets to come to them once every few weeks, people would buy better food. The health of the nation really is at stake.

  24. JoLynn Braley

    I cannot honestly say that I am familiar with shopping options in very poor communities. I can say that I spend much much more $$ when I am eating processed, packaged, pre-made food than when I buy whole foods (including protein and produce) to tote home and make my own meals from.

    I think it’s easy to think you aren’t spending a lot of $$ when you’re eating processed and fast food because it’s 5.00 here, 20.00 there, and over and over throughout the week. However when you go to the store and purchase your whole foods in one shot, it looks like it’s a lot of $$. You have to keep all of those receipts during your week for every little bit of fast and processed food (including Starbucks), add them all up, and then compare. It’s not cheap to eat a diet full of processed food.

  25. Crabby McSlacker

    It does seem like poor nutrition in low-income communities is a really complex problem with no easy solution. Because just repeating the messages about eating more healthy food and less junk doesn’t necessarily change behavior.

    If you live somewhere where the good stuff costs more, isn’t easily available, doesn’t taste as “good” (to those raised on McDonalds) and isn’t what all your friends are eating, it’s easier to find excuses to ignore all those warnings about the long term consequences of a junk food diet.

    How do we change all that? Heck if I know. Seems like we could at least be doing more in school lunchrooms to help low income kids both get a healthy meal, and to normalize healthy eating so it doesn’t seem like something only “rich” people care about.

  26. Nadine

    Here the cost to eat healthy is almost a luxury. When I see the cost of produce in the grocery store I cringe. I’m lucky that I own a car and can drive to a discount produce seller. The price of eating healthy is costly. Go into any convenience store, or better yet a corner store in a poorer neighborhood and the “colored sugar water” is only $0.50.Chips and snack cakes as well. A bottle of water is over a $1.

    Let’s not get started on the quality of the produce in grocery stores in these communities.

  27. Dawn

    Interesting reading. Especially the link to “Healthy Food …”

    I work in the public school system and have to wonder about the food that is selected for our children. I’ve gained too much weight this year because of my hectic schedule, and my unwillingness to think ahead. When I haven’t thought about taking something with me for lunch, my selection (the same thing the kids are served) in the cafeteria is always terrible. Even if I chose the salad bar -the only lettuce offered is iceberg, and the rest of the offerings don’t amount to much. Is the food so awful because they purchase their food based on the money they have available and the money the families are willing to spend on their children’s meals?

    Two of my children were hopsitalized this past year and had to consume hospital food. One had been in an accident and had a horribly broken femur. He lost a lot of blood and so they put him on iron supplements and told me to feed him a diet rich in green leafy vegies and lean beef etc. He had to be in the hospital for a 4 days. Surprise, surprise when he received his meal trays. I remember one tray where he got about a 1/4 cup of white iceberg lettuce with some tomatoes for a salad, frozen fish nuggets, that smelled so much like a rotting aquarium, I immediately had to have the tray removed from the room. I went down to the cafeteria for the staff and families and was able to make and purchase a wonderfully varied field green salad with fabulous vegies from the salad bar to take up to his room. Other meals had processed white bread with no substance, and over processed canned vegetables. Why is it that the sick patients receive the sick food?

    The other child had his tonsils removed and I was told no red dyes etc. so that we could tell if there was bleeding. Can you guess what his first meal was .. a red posicle with red jello. If I am fanatical about anything my kids eat, it is to stay away from the artificial dyes. When we got home, I was able to give him the dye free popsicles, but again, like whole wheat bread and romaine lettuce and field greens, they are more expensive.

    it makes little sense to me, but perhaps I should be thankful I live in America where at least the patients in the hospitals are served some kind of food.

    Perhaps it is the instutional setting. I am sorry if I strayed from the topic, but I think this goes along with people trying to feed people for as little as possible, and they end up with a sorry excuse for a healthy meal. It does seem that it is cheaper and easier to buy in bulk, canned and frozen.