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Time to short Jenny Craig?

Today's Wall Street Journal reports that consumer spending on food registered the steepest drop we've seen since the government started collecting statistics 62 years ago.  That's not just restaurant spending, although that did fall sharply, but a series of shifts towards eating at home, preparing cheaper foods, and buying cheaper brands of the same foods.  Cheap staples like milk and eggs rose slightly, while meat, sweets, and alcohol all fell.



The move towards "affordable luxury" foodstuffs has been one of the great trends of the last twenty years.  Grocery stores everywhere have gotten unbelievably better than they used to be, with produce and freezer sections exploding, and canned goods retreating in importance.  I'm always shocked, reading old cookbooks, to see ingredients now regarded as downmarket, like canned shrimp, appearing in recipes designed for formal dinner parties served by hired staff.  And one of my favorite cookbooks, the 1950 Betty Crocker Picture Cookbook, frequently makes references to recipes being "economical" in ways that don't make sense without hard thought.  When was the last time you saw a middle-class woman--the target market for the book--worry about the cost of the eggs or milk in an 8" layer cake?

In comparison to my grandparents, who rarely ate out and never bought a brand name if something else was cheaper, the normal life of a not-particularly-well-off urban thirtysomething seemed positively sybaritic.  Three restaurant meals in one week?  Drinks out every other evening?  Gourmet tea?  And what about all the prepared meals--the takeout, the rotisserie chickens, the $5 containers of Wegmans soup?  But without a wife at home, who has time to make meals from scratch?  

Lots of people, it turns out.  They also have time to make sandwiches for work instead of buy them, and comparison shop for better deals on what they do bring home. And looking at the list of what America is cutting back on, I wonder if we'll see a reversal of another trend:  America's growing waistline.    There is a school of thought which says that the reason Americans are getting fatter is not so much the absolute price of food as the kind of food we consume--what Seth Roberts calls "ditto foods".  These are commercially prepared foods which have high calorie density and are what some scientists call "hyperpalatable"--i.e. extremely flavorful.  They're also carefully prepared to ensure that they taste virtually the same every time.  The easy availability of these foods causes our bodies to kick up our "set point"--what our bodies naturally want us to weigh.  Our appetite regulation mechanisms do the rest

Home prepared meals are much less standardized, and not so fined tuned to hit the salty/sweet/fatty buttons over and over.  Also, much of the shopping is done for them when you aren't actually hungry, and so you're likely to pick healthier foods with lower caloric density--committing your future self to behave more virtuously than it probaby would decide to on the spur of the moment.  A leaner wallet may mean a leaner you.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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