Saturday, 10 May 2014

Comment #24: -- Eating For £1 A Day

Date Started: 28/4/14                   Date Completed: 10/5/14                   Date First Published: 10/5/14

Inspiration: 'How To Eat For 1 Pound A Day'

I shall commence by pointing out, presumably to MSN's chagrin, that the popular claim is actually that millions of people live on less than $1 a day. That's US$1. Not pounds sterling, which is a larger amount, and therefore has greater purchasing power. In other words, you can buy more with a pound than you can with a dollar. It is the purchasing power of a dollar, in the USA, that was translated to other currencies, to form the statistic in the first place. So if $1 could buy a bag of food, then that same bag of food, if bought in Namibia, Pakistan, or Guatemala, would be said to be worth $1.

It is true that huge numbers of people do live on very little financial income. And that number could be said to equate to ~1.2 billion people, living on an equivalent of ~$1 a day. If you were living in the late-80s, from when the figure derives, and was accepted by The World Bank. It has since been revised to $1.25, and has been kept so, to this day.

So $1.25... that's about £1, isn't it? Not so fast, because the people in question don't spend all of their money on food. They spend 60% of it on food, and 40% on pleasure. You know, the stuff that makes life feel worth living. So it's actually only 60p* that MSN's guest correspondent should be buying food with!
{*Remember this - we'll come back to it, later}

Let's take a look at this <£1 a day diet, though. The generic idea of which, by the way, is abused
so excoriatingly, to vilify the poor who have the good fortune to live in the most developed countries, such as the UK, where relative poverty is less harmful... but still worthy of sympathy.

It's pretty clear that it is possible to buy £7 worth of food, and then limit yourself to it for a week, and not die of starvation. And as demonstrated by the shopper who wrote this article (and ability to shop does indeed seem to be her principal qualification) you can buy a large bulk of food... as long as you're willing to go without anything you'd actually want to eat!

But there's an important point to call into our minds, at this stage... It's not that this diet's used to vilify the poor in supposedly 'developed' countries; it's not that those countries should be good enough at maintaining their populations that they should have no use for such a diet; it's not even that she'd said she'd live off a fiver but then spent £6.09; it's that this diet is immensely unhealthy!

Just look at its contents: "4kg onions for £1.50; 2kg potatoes for £1; 8 carrots for 50p; 500g lentils for 59p; 2 x 400g plum tomatoes for 78p; and 6 bananas for 63p (I hate bananas but beggars can’t be choosers). I also nab 10 beef stock cubes for 20p, 500g pearl barley for 55p and 120g sardines in tomato sauce for 34p, all from Tesco."
The prep (© Jane Duru)

A dietitian would squirm at this diet. What happened to the medical mantra of "eat a healthy, balance diet"? This is all carbs!

Five portions of fruit and veg a day, and she'd have run out by Tuesday evening!
{Presuming you start your week with Monday, and also presuming you try to keep to 5 portions, when the ideal would be at least 10. Dietitians say "5", because they think persuading people to eat 10 would be a hopeless venture!}

And where are the minerals? Those sardines aren't going to go very far. It's the minerals in food that are important for digesting the next meal, as well as for many other bodily functions. There is also a phenomenon known as 'rabbit starvation' or 'mal de caribou' where lack of fat in the diet causes worrying morbidity. Fortunately, carbs get converted into fats, and this diet has plenty of carbs; but the point is made, that your diet needs variation, to be healthy.

It is not, however, starvation that costs lives, around the world, as the 'one child dies of hunger, every 15 seconds' mantra claims. It's undernutrition.

"If you look at the people especially in South Asia who live on $1 a day - huge malnutrition." - Professor Abhijit Banerjee, of MIT.

Poorly-fed bodies host poorly-functioning immune systems; and poorly functioning immune-systems mean increased susceptibility to disease.

In vast swathes of modern India, it is still sexist cultural practice, for women to dish out the most nutritious foods to the men of the house, and for the ladies to get what's left. They do this by their own volition, and consequently, the statistics show that women have higher mortality rates to diseases like diarrhoea and pneumonia.

One week of a nutrition-poor diet is not going to pull a happy-go-lucky Northern journalist under the dotted line of poverty's effects on health!

I have used a readily-available website to formulate this table of the '£1 a day' diet. It will inevitably belie high uncertainties, but it should just-about do. Let's imagine the big error bars... and that blogspot were congenial to formatting straight lines :-/

                          Calories     Calcium   Vit A     Vit C     Iron
                       (Daily Values figures - the amount an average androgyne should take)
4Kg onions:            1600        80%         0%       480%        40%
2 Kg potatoes:        1860        20%         0%       320%      120%
8 carrots:                240        16%      1632%       48%         8%
500g lentils:            580        10%         0%         10%        95%
800g tomatoes:       144         8%        136%       168%        8%
6 bananas:              540         6%        12%        102%        12%
500g pearl barley:    615         5%          0%          0%         35%
120g sardines:         223         29%      3.5%       2.5%      15.5%

Totals:                  5802       174%     1784%     1130%      334%
Totals daily ave.:    ~950       ~29%     ~300%     ~188%      ~56%
Rec. daily calorie intake for a woman:    2000 (2500 for a man)

And here's the 60p a day diet. Remember that that's what people living on <$1.25 a day actually spend on food; so i've revised all of the numbers down, by 40%, for vaguely gestural, demonstrative purposes.

                          Calories     Calcium    Vit A      Vit C      Iron
                       (Daily Values figures - the amount an average androgyne should take)
2.4Kg onions:           960        48%          0%       288%        24%
1.2 Kg potatoes:      1116        12%         0%       192%        72%
4.8 carrots:              144       9.6%       979%      28.8%      4.8%
300g lentils:             348         6%          0%           6%        57%
480g tomatoes:       86.4       4.8%        82%      100.8%      4.8%
3.6 bananas:            324       3.6%        7.2%      61.2%       7.2%
300g pearl barley:     369         3%          0%          0%          21%
72g sardines:         133.8      17.4%       2.1%       1.5%        9.3%

Totals:                  3481       104%      1070%       678%       200%
Totals daily ave.:    ~570       ~17%      ~178%      ~113%      ~33%
Rec. daily calorie intake for a woman:    2000 (2500 for a man)

As you can see, from the figures, vitamins A and C supply should be fine, as you would expect of a highly veggie diet. In fact, the vitamin A amount would be worryingly 'healthy' for pregnancy. But the calcium and iron are on the low side, which is more of a problem for women, because iron especially, is lost, through menstrual blood.

Low calcium causes rickets, osteoporosis, dental problems, heart problems, and poorly clotting blood, which can be bad news if you have an accident or need surgery.

Low iron causes anaemia, which in turn causes lethargy, palpitations, a deficient immune system (increased susceptibility to infection) and potentially heart failure. Pregnant women on this diet would also be affected by pre and post-birth complications.

The cases of people dying from veganism and vegetarianism that have happened, are mostly in women and children, who are most susceptible to the negative effects of a mineral deficient diet. Infant mortality is high in regions of high poverty. No prizes for spotting the link.

Also, the total calorie count is incredibly low. This is how veggie diets tend to be thinning - it's very difficult to consume so much veg that you'll take in more calories than you use - but the downside is that your body can wear down its fat stores, and then the only option left... is to consume itself! Side-effects of this commonly include muscle wasting, dizziness, lethargy, and depression. Starvation is very difficult to die of, as i have already said, because your own body will rather eat itself than go hungry. But there's a difference between a low-calorie nutritious diet, and a dangerously sparse dietary regimen!

On top of that, protein is low. The lentils and sardines are pretty-much the only sources, and they're not providing much, because there isn't much of them. Protein is important for breaking down into amino acids, which are used for building and repairing cells. Every one of the trillions of cells in your body needs amino acids, to exist; and the bigger you are, the more cells you have. This is why low-meat diets correlate with low height of populations, and explains how average height in many regions of the world - notably, China - has increased, in tandem with increased meat consumption.

So this £1 (60p) a day diet might leave you feeling smug that you saved so much money, and maybe snide that those sponging unemployed people take so much maintenance money when they could be living in abject poverty...

But to think that, you would have to be blind to the fact that this is a dangerous diet to be on, with permanency. But that is exactly how poverty is such a big problem, around the world. All the world's wars seem pathetic, compared to the number of people who die from preventable disease, in large part attributable to poor nutrition.
{Inevitably, these figures are going to be nebulous, but i think this hand-wavey point is worthwhile. I'd say it's ~0.5 million compared to >15 million, per year}

As the author says:
"It’s been a tough week but surviving on £1 a day is definitely doable, and if you think doing it for five days is hard, spare a thought for those for whom this is daily reality. As Gemma at Practical Action says, “I’m doing this so that the 1.2 billion people living below the poverty line can finally rise above it.”"

Well, if your poverty line had actually been calibrated to the amount people spend on food, rather than the greater amount of £1/$1,25; and if you'd actually had to feel the long-term negative health deficits of such a diet; then maybe you'd have an even better idea of what it's like to live below the poverty 'line' that people are supposedly going to be lifted above by your harrowing experience.

Undernutrition is a global health problem that is barely touched on by some yuppy journo's five days of grumbling tummy. "definitely doable", indeed! The problem is far too far-reaching for this oh-so-touching 'personal human experience' story to appreciate. I don't know about you, but i find this kind of shallow false-sympathy nauseating!

Do i sound cynical? I'm not surprised. I write this while feeling hungry, and because of that, slightly irritable. But i have the privilege to finish this paragraph, go downstairs, and put something nutritious in me. And as i do so, i'll be thinking not only of the people who have to live with undernutrition, but also of the self-righteous naturalismists who deliberately propagate malnutrition-mimicking fad diets.

Perhaps the most annoying thing about this non-story is that it serves to undermine efforts to encourage deeper understanding of the situation. Instead of familiarising people with rigorous science, and the complexities of identification of cause and effect, this piece has sold the idea that you can understand what a billion people are going through, just by eating funny for six days.

It also perpetuates the idea that there is a discontinuity between compassionate movements, and scientific ones. I am well aware that there are people in the world that will think that the analysis you have just read is 'cold, hard science' and 'reducing people to statistics'.

To that, i say: "Bollocks!"

It is not possible to adequately appreciate the good and bad of the world around us, without this scientific attitude. And i claim the subject of this mini-essay as an example.

MSN's guest scribbler would have left you with the impression that poverty is like a "tough week", but anyone can easily "rise above it". Whereas my analysis has elucidated the fact that poverty is a problem that runs deeper than that - a problem that is simple but profound and far-reaching - and a problem that exacerbates myriad others. Attack poverty, and you attack extensive problems with disease, and thereby the socio-economic problems of inequality, which in turn makes it easier to resolve further problems.

There has been serious criticism of the vulgar simplification inherent to the $1-a-day statistic, simply because it has become a tool for charities', and thereby politicians' marketing practices, rather than actual poverty resolution:

"Instead of promoting prosperous economies, it's about 'How do we identify and target and get transfers to the few people under this penurious line?' which just isn't the way, historically, anybody has ever eliminated poverty."
- Lant Pritchett, an ex-World Bank economist, who is now at Harvard University's Kennedy School.

As money inflates, the purchasing power of 1 dollar decreases, and so fewer and fewer people will count as 'in poverty' by this measure. Also, moving people from just below $1 to just above $1 doesn't at all resolve the fact that living just above $1 is still poverty!

Ultimately, the whole problem, oriented around this $1-a-day statistic, is one of unhelpful use of proxy values. Money isn't what people really need - food is what people need; education is what people need; medicine is what people need. Money is just a medium of exchange that can, sometimes, buy these things.

You can count up the money people have now, that they didn't before, but if they can't buy anything better with it, they're aren't any better off.

Poverty is not just a money thing - the real-world phenomena that actually matter to people, are epistemic, cultural, dietary, and medical health. And the really sad thing about this article, is that it encourages people to give up the last of these things - the dietary and medical health - for the sake of the proxy value that doesn't necessarily matter - the extra money.

The economies that we live in, operate under exactly this principle - make sacrifices, for the sake of money. This is what careers are about, we're told - whether we're MEDCers cutting back on our social lives to work overtime, or work an extra job, or contemplating whether to have a family at the expense of our career, the primal pursuit is money. And it's this ideology with which our businesses operate. The biggest of which simply do this more effectively than the small-fry - the little shops, with the little shop owners, who put their profits into local communities, because it's where they live, so they have no other option.

The biggest businesses can do this - pull money out of societies - on the biggest scale, while straddling the globe. And so they export huge amounts of money across local, regional and national borders. It is because of this behaviour, that charities exist, and are trying to put that money back again, where it came from! If our economies weren't ideologically selfish, then such charities wouldn't be necessary, and determined change could be made, to actually resolve modern poverty.

I think one of the biggest steps toward this is the current movement toward unitary tax, as reported monthly, by the Tax Justice Network. If the biggest businesses can be made to pay tax, to the countries where they actually do their business, then that profit reaped can be returned to the people who need it. And then it will exist in sufficient quantities, and in the (hopefully) right hands to be used on the things that really matter - epistemic, cultural, dietary, and medical health.

{When i say money (and i do, a lot) what i usually mean is 'capital' which can take monetary form, but is also equatable as the goods that can really matter to people - foods, books, medicines, etc}

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