Junk Food Costs More Than Real Food: 4 Reasons We Keep Eating It


Junk food is not actually cheaper than real food, the New York Times’s Mark Bittman argues. He’s seeking to combat the common notion that one reason people eat so much junk food, and are therefore overweight and in danger of health problems including high blood pressure and diabetes, is because “a bag of chips is cheaper than a head of broccoli”; because it’s cheaper to feed a family of four at McDonald’s than to make them a home-cooked meal. Actually, says Bittman, it’s hyperprocessed food” that remains more expensive than food cooked at home and “the fact is that most people can afford real food.”

Bittman finds that a “typical order” for a family of four at the Golden Arches costs $28: two Big Macs, a cheeseburger, six chicken McNuggets, two medium and two small fries, and two medium and two small sodas. In contrast, for half the price, you can roast a chicken with vegetables and also have a salad and milk. For even less ($9), “substitute a meal of rice and canned beans with bacon, green peppers and onions.” So why do people keep giving their money to McDonalds, Taco Bell and the like?#1: Convenience

mcdonalds sign

Photo by bradleygee

First of all, fast food is convenient: “There are five fast-food restaurants for every supermarket in the United States,” says Bittman. No matter where you look, you’re liable to find some sort of fast-food.

Tucker McDonald's

Photo by Pasa47

#2: Good Marketing

Fast food companies forked out $4.2 billion on marketing in 2009 to get you to put your fork into, or rather your fingers around, their offerings: Is it possible for any of us to make it through a day without seeing an ad for fast food of some sort, or passing a McDonalds or Dunkin’ Donuts?

Tempel der haute cuisine

Photo by laufmaschine

#3: Addiction

A 4th reason why we keep slimming our wallets, though not our waistlines, due to fast food:

…the engineering behind hyperprocessed food makes it virtually addictive. A 2009 study by the Scripps Research Institute indicates that overconsumption of fast food “triggers addiction-like neuroaddictive responses” in the brain, making it harder to trigger the release of dopamine. In other words the more fast food we eat, the more we need to give us pleasure; thus the report suggests that the same mechanisms underlie drug addiction and obesity.

This addiction to processed food is the result of decades of vision and hard work by the industry. For 50 years, says David A. Kessler, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration and author of “The End of Overeating,” companies strove to create food that was “energy-dense, highly stimulating, and went down easy.

Taco Bell XXL Chalupa Box

Photo by theimpulsivebuy

#4: Cooking is Too Much Work

A 4th reason for why fast food is a staple of too many people’s diets is that our culture has come to equate cooking with work. Turning on the stove, chopping vegetables, beating some eggs, washing the dishes and scrubbing the stove are seen as taking simply too much effort when compared with the ease with which you can speed-dial the local pizza place or visit the Dunkin’ Donuts drive-thru.


A stop at Dunkin Donuts

Photo by redjar

Bittman calls for political and cultural action to change what have become deeply ingrained habits. Some of his suggestions:

  • celebrate real food
  • raise children in an environment that doesn’t “program them for fast-produced, eaten-on-the-run, high-calorie, low-nutrition junk”
  • limit the marketing of junk food, especially to children
  • acknowledge that “advertising for fast food is not the exercise of free speech but behavior manipulation of addictive substances”
  • make sure real food is affordable and available to everyone

Personally, I can’t bear to eat anything from McDonalds, and I try to cook as much at home as I can. My son does like the occasional McDonalds “burgers ‘n’ fries” — he is a teenage boy — but I know he eats only a tiny fraction of the junk food I’ve seen college students pack away. Our refrigerator is stocked with lots of fruits and vegetables; the cabinets have crackers and other processed items, in moderation. As the best way to get my son to do something I’d rather he not is to tell him “don’t do that” (i.e., if I say “don’t eat all the French fries,” you can be sure he’ll try), I tend to be blasé rather than insistent about him eating fresh fruits and vegetables — and lately, while he still likes those fries, he does eat the grapes, apples and even a bit of salad I put out for him.

We in the US only have ourselves to blame for creating junk food and turning ourselves into junk food junkies. Fast food is costing us not only more money but also our health. Would it kill us to try to spend some more time not “slaving over a hot stove” but enjoying cooking our own food?

Recipes for Healthy Kids - Sante Fe

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Betsy M.
Betsy M.8 months ago

Wow, we really have no idea how some in our world live. These ideas muddy the water more than they shed light.

Karen P.
Karen F.11 months ago

Great advice from Luna D! Stop watching tv, stop being reminded of the junk stuff, and reclaim your life. Excellent.

Karen P.
Karen F.11 months ago

I am constantly amazed by the extremely high price, considering the complete lack of anything but water, sugar, preservatives and a bit of flavour, of carbonated beverages.

Duane B.
.2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Scott haakon
Scott haakon2 years ago

Crazy economics and examples. If the end user is exposed to growth hormones then is not that a cause for "overweight"? Plus the BMI is still used. BMI is useless wasteful and misleading. It is easy to use but brings a false sense of reality. For health the waste hip ratio is much more accurate.
The real problem is hunger. Go to your grocery store and think how much a person really would consume. Remember the power to cook also costs! Your time is also worth money. I myself can eat a whole chicken in one sitting. When I was in sports I would eat two full dinners at night. So these "examples" are not real world.
I myself think that there are issues that have not been examined properly. With the sides stuck in ideological conflict there is little hope that anything constructive will be done.

Kathy P.
Kathy P.3 years ago

Our lives are so busy. But it is so important to take the time to do the best for our bodies. If not, we will regret it later in life. Eat more veggies and less of the junk. It is hard, as I know, but take the time.

Carole R.
Carole R.3 years ago

I think a lot of people get fast food because it is easier. They're tired at the end of a long work day and just don't have the energy to cook a big meal. People ate better 50+ years ago mainly because the woman was at home and she had time and energy to cook a big, healthy meal. She considered it part of her day's work and most of the time enjoyed, or at least didn't mind, doing it. Times have changed, be it for the better or the worse, and a quick, easy meal just suits the bill. We need more healthy choices for take-out.

SeattleAnn S.
Ann S.4 years ago

I like Burger King's veggie burgers. It's nice that one major chain actually gives you options.

Naomi M.
Naomi Miskimins4 years ago

I think slowing down and little and taking the time to just cook and eat will really help with this problem. It works for me--I'm more likely to eat well when I do this

Mary Winter
Mary Winter4 years ago

I don't eat fast food. I grow up eating and cooking from the garden. I honestly don't understand
why people eat the stuff. I worked 50-60 hours per week and still cooked all our meals from scratch. I would batch cook either one night of the week or one day of the week when I was home.