Albertson's shoppers in the Seattle area are 10 times more likely to be obese than Whole Foods customers, a stark reminder that the social groups most prone to obesity are often invisible to those with more money and power.
According to MSNBC's JoNel Aleccia, a study by University of Washington researchers found that just 4% of Seattle-area Whole Foods shoppers were obese, compared with 40% of those shopping at Albertson's. Aleccia succinctly explains, "That's likely because people willing to pay $6 for a pound of radicchio are more able to afford healthy diets than people stocking up on $1.88 packs of pizza rolls to feed their kids." Lead study author Adam Drewnowski explains, "If you have $3 to feed yourself, your choices gravitate toward foods which give you the most calories per dollar." We've heard this before — and obviously Whole Foods isn't the place to get the most anything for a dollar, but Drewnowski's study does throw into sharp relief the class differences involved in obesity. It's also easy to see why Whole Foods CEO John Mackey might think that heart disease and cancer can be stopped with a good dose of personal responsibility, or that it's a good idea to base an employee discount on BMI — he just doesn't have that many customers who actually have to make a choice between what's healthy and what they can afford.
The obesity gap between Whole Foods and Albertson's may be indicative of another divide — many Americans who have the luxury of shopping at places like Whole Foods may not actually see very many obese people in daily life, or at least may not interact with them in meaningful ways. As scary editorials keep telling us, obesity is quite common, and perhaps even John Mackey has a "fat friend." But for many middle- and upper-class people, it's all too easy to associate obesity with otherness — another race, another socioeconomic station, even another grocery store.
Of course, there are a handful of very wealthy people who struggle with their weight. Jeannine Stein of the LA Times mentions the public weight fluctuations of Carnie Wilson and Oprah. She writes, "Celebrities who speak out about their weight are de facto role models, whether they embrace that responsibility or not." Celebs dieting publicly, Stein writes, "can be a good thing and a bad thing for both themselves and for us - good if the celeb takes the weight off sensibly and keeps it off, bad if she yo-yos and relies on crash diets to slim down." But of course, celebrity weight loss stories — whether told by the stars themselves or by relentlessly body-snarking tabloids — are always stories of personal effort. The most high-profile dieters are those with the most access to state-of-the-art diet plans and exercise techniques, and even though the fact that they often fail to keep the pounds off should clue us in to how complex weight and weight loss really are, we're instead repeatedly sold a narrative of stars who "try hard" getting thin, and stars who "slip up" staying fat. Is it any wonder that so many people still think weight loss is a matter of putting down that donut, or that obesity is caused by laziness? Maybe John Mackey, and American policymakers, should talk to shoppers in those Seattle Albertson's stores, so they can find out how difficult healthy choices really are on $3 a day.