Sales of cosmetics, chocolate and (shudder) Spam are up, but Americans have reined in spending on nearly everything else from cars to clothes to restaurant meals. But as the stock and housing markets hit new lows and we resort to shopping in the back of our closets, we may find a glimmer of a silver lining: Recessions can make us a little leaner–and greener.
“The bottom line is, people get physically healthier when times are bad,” says Christopher Ruhm, a professor of economics at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro who has studied rates of illness and mortality during recessions. For example, when cash is scarce, we eat fewer fattening restaurant meals and by not going out as much, we’re also responsible for fewer global warming emissions from transportation. Caveat: Ruhm only said, “physical health improves.” Faced with job and savings loss, “people feel mentally worse,” he adds. No wonder we’re buying more chocolate and lipstick!
A little knowledge can also help us cope better. Here’s a look at how your health, and that of the environment, may be trending during this economic crunch.
1. You’ll eat more home cooked meals (and be trimmer, healthier and likely happier for it). Some 71 percent of Americans are cooking at home more and eating at restaurants less frequently, the Food Marketing Institute reports. “Home cooking has fewer calories and more nutritional value than foods purchased outside the home,” says Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition at NYU. “So eating at home is always good value, not least for encouraging family cooperation and interaction through meals,” Nestle says.
2. You may buy less fresh produce (but you may already be buying more). When cash is scarce, shoppers tend to buy foods containing less water, which are less perishable, along with cheap staples like beans and rice, the New York Times reported in October. And more beans and rice, more canned foods and more pastaresults in less, well, regularity, because you’re getting less water in your diet. Thus far, though, the evidence countervenes the conventional wisdom: Also in October, Nielsen market polls showed an increase in unit sales of fresh produce versus last year.
3. You may also buy less red meat (a win for the environment and our health). The head of the International Panel on Climate Change (which shared the 2007 Nobel with Al Gore) urges people to cut back on meat in order to help stem the tide of methane, a potent greenhouse gas excreted by cows. People who eat foods high in saturated fats, such as red meat, are at greater risk of cardiovascular disease, according to the American Heart Association, as well as some cancers, according to the American Institute for CancerResearch. Animal fats, including dairy products, also have high levels of toxic dioxins.
4. You may continue to buy some organic food (reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated). While organic food sales have slowed, the organic marketplace is still growing, leading to continued benefits for our soil and water quality and those of us who prefer food without pesticide residues and added hormones and antibiotics, recession or not.
5. You may be buying more locally grown foods (if it’s not you, someone’s doing it!). The USDA announced a growth in farmers’ markets, whose number nationwide reached 4,685 in August 2008, a 6.8 percent gain from two years before. This news is better for the environment (fewer planes and trucks spewing pollutants and carbon) and for our health (fewer post-harvest preservatives and pesticides).
6. You may eat more Spam (and Bisphenol-A). Production of Spam, a staple from the Great Depression and World War II, is up a lot. It’s cheap, yes, but Spam comes in a can, and canned foods are the main source of hormone-disrupting Bisphenol-A in our diets. Plus, BPA leaches more readily into fatty foods (like you know what) or acidic ones (like tomatoes) so resist the temptation (if that’s a possible reaction to Spam!) and save pennies in other ways.
7. You’ll exercise more (and even if you hate it, it may cheer you up). Twenty-five percent of Americans said they’re coping with the recession stress by exercising more according to a recent health poll. “When people feel mentally worse, you wonder, what can you control? You can exercise more and eat healthier,” Ruhm says.
8. You’ll brew your own coffee (and/or tote a refillable mug). To save money, people are forgoing Starbucks in favor of brewing their coffee at home. In addition to saving money and thereby raising self-esteem (not to mention confidence in one’s ability to perform these basic tasks), home brewing will also help reduce the 28 billion disposable coffee cups we chuck a year, resulting in 100 million pounds of landfill trash.
9. You will probably buy less soda (yesss!). Unit sales of carbonated beverages are down more than 5 percent. Great for your health: Whether you were drinking sweet high-caloric drinks or artificially sweetened sodas, even diet sodas contribute to weight gain, according to a 2007 study. And, buying less soda is great news for the environment, given the growing waste and disappointing recycling rates associated with aluminum cans and plastic bottles (but switching from soda to bottled water is cheating!).
10. You’ll drive less, breathe cleaner air and have fewer accidents. Americans drove nearly 11 billion fewer miles from Sept 2007 to Sept 2008 than in the previous 12 months, the Department of Transportation announced in November. Despite the recent fall in gas prices, the trend continued into Thanksgiving when planned holiday car trips fell by 1.2 percent, the first decrease in years. “People go out less, drive less, so there are fewer traffic accidents and pollution levels fall, Ruhm says. This, along with the slowdown in industrial activity, means fewer greenhouse gas emissions and far less smog and particulate pollutants, which cause lung disease and lower birth weights.
11. Your recession baby may be more likely to be a girl (check back in a couple months). While most parents, of course, are equally delighted to be blessed with a child of either sex, this intriguing thesis reveals the possible physical outcomes of economic shocks. “After environmental shocks, sex ratio drops 3 to 4 months later. A recession is one kind of environmental shock. And dramatic downturns such as this one are so unusual–so dramatic and so fast,” says Ralph Catalano, a professor of public health at UC Berkeley who’s studying the affect of environmental stress on sex ratios, including a decline in male births in Germany during a past recession. Why? “There are two ways in which a depression or disorganized economy may affect sex ratios,” Catalano says. One, “You’re more likely to conceive females on more days of the month, a lot of evidence suggests, and stressed males have reduced libido and lower sperm counts, so where there’s less sexual activity it favors female babies,” Catalano says, adding that he doesn’t believe this argument. More compellingly, he says, “In animal research, females that are stressed tend to spontaneously abort offspring that are less likely to produce grandchildren, and so they’ll get rid of smaller males in utero.” When will we know if this is happening or not? “Given the current economy, we should see reductions in male to female sex rations by January or February of next year,” Catalano says.
12. You may splurge on a little makeup (count us in!). As is typical in recessions, cosmetic sales are going up and up (40 percent at last count)–a harmless indulgence, so long as you make sure your personal care products are free of the most toxic ingredients, such as phthalates in synthetic fragrances. “We are concerned about the effects these chemicals may have on many hormone-related processes such as sexual development in children,” says Luz Claudio, associate professor of community and preventive medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, who is conducting a long-term study of the relationship between girls’ development and the personal care products they use. In recent human studies, phthalates have been associated with feminizing traits in male infants. Happily, U.S. sales of natural personal care products are posting strong growth even in this weak economy, rising 12.5 percent in 2007, according to market researchers Mintel, who predict another increase from $465 to $513 million this year–better for your health, water quality and wildlife, all around.
All in all, we think you’ll have good green cause for optimism. Recent reports show that when Americans are buying anything, we’re looking for green options not only for the sake of our health, but also for the sake of the planet. We’re behaving greener and healthier, too, saving energy (which saves money), driving less and walking more, reusing and recycling. The environment remains American’s top social cause, a survey found in November, and nearly 7 out of 10 Americans say they’ll remain loyal to brands that support social causes, even in a recession.
Help is on the way! The new Administration is planning to invest in green energy, infrastructure and jobs to get us out of this recession. So, turn off the TV and socialize. That’s what the holidays are all about, being with family and friends. And, if you conserve energy by watching less TV, you may be less depressed and have more sex as a result. The sun still shineth, winds of change are afoot and like winter itself, this economic chill may precede green growth. As Granny always said, health is wealth!