Are Good Diet and Exercise Available to the Poor?

Vern Scott
5 min readDec 17, 2021


THE GOOD NEWS IS THAT ITS RELATIVELY EASY TO BE HEALTHY THROUGH A GOOD DIET AND EXERCISE, BUT CAN THE WORKING POOR AFFORD THIS? An emerging health consensus is that diets heavy in fresh fruits/veggies/whole grains and lighter in dairy and unprocessed meats, along with at least 30 min a day of exercise, is the pathway to good health. But can the working poor afford this fresh produce, let alone gym memberships?

A gym membership is nice, but a great workout can be accomplished at home with no gym equipment

The rich can afford gym memberships, avocados, fresh berries, and free-range meats, plus they have the time to devote to these things, but does this make them healthier? The health irony in many countries was once that the rich led sedentary lives and ate meat, while the poor were forced to work hard and eat beans, grains, and vegetables scrounged from their gardens, thus gaining a health advantage over their overweight and gouty overlords. Is this still the case? Let’s examine modern health trends and the ways they’re affected by socioeconomics.

Sadly, the working poor are no longer as healthy as their feudal peasant forebearers. They are just as likely to eat at fast-food joints and watch TV as they are to work out and shop at farmer’s markets. But all is not lost, as a) Fast food places are adding healthy choices (including salad substitutions for fries, fruit snacks, and some healthier beverages), b) Some are engaged in sports and c) Supermarkets are also offering healthier choices. While the upper-classes are continuing to eat high on the food-chain (steak and not chicken, swordfish and not tilapia) and lead lives of relative leisure, the middle classes are hitting the gym and the organic section at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. Does this give the middle class an advantage? Perhaps but not so fast!

Gyms and high-priced organic food may be over-rated in the health business. First, it is rather well-known among athletes that simple exercises (without equipment) can yield extraordinary results. The simple push-up, sit-up, and four-count burpee can do wonders, despite the fact that no equipment is involved. Add a simple chin-up bar and perhaps some running, and you almost have the makings of a complete workout. In fact, Hershel Walker swears by these exercises, and has seldom used gym equipment (well ok, his brain could use a little more exercise). The time is takes for all this? Those no longer in schools (where exercise is often required) need only take 30 minutes out of their day to remain healthy, according to studies. Surely, most people have this kind of time, and if they don’t they need to make time. (Going To The Gym is Overrated (, n.d.)

Sure farm direct produce at the local outdoor market is great, but any grocery store produce section is nearly as good. The key is to avoid packaged food and to buy bulk legumes, whole grains, some canned or frozen fruits and veggies, and cheaper cuts of fresh unprocessed meat

Organic foods are certainly a good thing, and they have generally come down in price to be about 20% more than conventional foods. The really good thing to remember about organic produce is that it is grown using sustainable farming practices (often using non-chemical fertilizers, no pesticides, and no GMO). However, is organic food going to make or break your health? Well that depends, according to several studies. There seems to be an advantage for produce whose edible surface is directly affected by pesticides and other chemicals, let’s say leafy vegetables and fruits such as apples and berries. For fruits and vegetables that have a covering (bananas, corn, oranges to name a few) perhaps the advantages are less. When fruits and vegetables are canned, there is a further loss in nutritional quality, but not a huge loss. Let’s say that uncovered organic fruits and vegetables are 15% better, covered ones 5% better, and that canning provides a 5% loss in nutritional quality. Your 20% premium in cost for uncovered organics would be worthwhile compared to the canned product, but not so much the covered product. In any case, the canned product would seem to be a relatively good buy, and a relatively healthy choice (since any fruits and veggies, even non organic ones, are still much better for you than the alternatives). (Is Organic Food Better for You? (, n.d.), (Brown, 2020),

Am I saying that gyms and organic farmer’s markets are overrated? Well, yes kinda. They certainly provide value for those who can afford them, but generally about a 5–10% value added product for about a 20% price differential (have you checked out famer’s market prices lately? Ouch!) There is also the “inconvenience factor” of the farmer’s market, but heck, if you have the time and like the atmosphere, by all means go to farmer’s markets and gyms. I’m just saying that the overall health benefits they offer may not be worth the price, and there are simpler and cheaper options.

Many Latin Americans (and college students on a budget) practically live on rice and beans, a surprisingly complete diet.

So what is a low-income Mom (and Dad) to do? Well first, be smart about using the local grocery store. Avoid the packaged things (they are pricey and almost always loaded with sugars and salts). Buy the fresh fruits and veggies (celery, carrots, potatoes, corn, lettuce are particularly good values) and try growing the expensive stuff your family likes (especially tomatoes, peppers and onions which are pricey at the store but grow easily). Second, buy the unprocessed meat, looking for value in the stewpot chicken and beef varieties (takes longer to cook but cheaper and nutritious, plus leftovers make good soup stock). Third, load up on beans, rice, and oat cereals…think like a college student! Last, this may be hard if you have kids but, generally avoid the soft drink section in favor of milk. Milk is MUCH better for you and cheaper than soft drinks. Add the eggs (great for you if you are exercising) and you’re done. Oh and if you’re buying chips, stick with the tortilla kind.

See? Not so hard and if you go to Costco (and have a membership) many of these things you can buy in bulk at really low prices. Make sure your kids are in sports at every opportunity and set that 30 min per day exercise example…see? Anybody can do all this, and you’ll be grateful when you’re done!



Vern Scott

Scott lives in the SF Bay Area and writes confidently about Engineering, History, Politics, and Health