Study: During Sales, Spending Increases More on Unhealthy Foods

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Family shopping in supermarketAre you more likely to buy unhealthy foods when they’re on sale? If you’re like most people, you probably are, according to researchers in the United Kingdom. They recently published their findings in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

The researchers analyzed food purchase data from nearly 27,000 households in Great Britain. For every food item purchased, they assigned a healthfulness score based on the amount of calories, nutrients, fruits, vegetables, and nuts in the product. They were also able to determine which products were on sale and how much they were discounted by.

They found that healthy and unhealthy foods were equally likely to go on sale, and that people bought more of both types of food when they were on sale. Unhealthy foods tended to be more deeply discounted compared to healthier foods. However, even when healthy and unhealthy foods cost the same and were discounted by the same amount, people increased their spending on unhealthy foods by more in response to sales.

The authors speculate that this could be because unhealthy foods are more likely to be non-perishable (for example chips, candy, and sodas). Healthy foods include items like fruits and vegetables with a shorter shelf life, making it harder to “stock up” during a sale.

No one is immune to overspending when unhealthy foods go on sale– the authors also looked at differences by income level and found that both high and low income households increased their spending by more when unhealthy foods were on sale.

Choosing healthy foods and managing your weight are both important for cancer prevention. If you don’t buy unhealthy food, you’re less likely to eat it. So try these tips to avoid falling into the trap of stocking up on unhealthy foods when they go on sale:

  • Stick to your list. Realize that you are primed to spend more when unhealthy foods are on sale and resolve to avoid this trap. Try making a healthy grocery list and sticking to it. Make a conscious decision to avoid unhealthy foods at the store, even when they’re on sale.
  • Seek out healthy sales. Look for sales on your favorite healthy foods and take advantage of them. During sales, stock up on healthy non-perishables like your favorite whole grain cereal or frozen fruits and veggies. When buying perishable foods like produce or meat on sale, consider freezing what you can’t use immediately. Avoid buying more perishable food than you can use or freeze, or you’ll cancel out the savings.
  • Stick to healthy, budget-friendly staples. There are plenty of foods that are healthy and inexpensive even when they’re not on sale. Dried or low-sodium canned beans, brown rice, whole wheat pasta, oatmeal, and in-season fresh fruits and veggies are almost always inexpensive. Make these your go-to purchases rather than falling victim to sales.

This study was funded by the United Kingdom Department of Health Policy Research Programme.

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Author: Julia Quam

Julia Quam, MSPH, RDN, is a registered dietitian nutritionist in the Washington, DC metro area. Julia is passionate about nutrition education and communicating evidence-based information about nutrition and physical activity to improve public health.

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