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The Connection Between Eating Habits and Earning Potential

When we think of earning potential, we usually think of factors like education, industry, and geography. These are, of course, major factors. But how often do we stop to consider the connection between strong earning power and healthier eating habits?

In fact, there is a fairly direct relationship between eating patterns and income potential. To an extent, this is a reciprocal relationship. Just as healthy habits can contribute to better earning potential, higher earnings can result in better dietary habits.

Such is to say that the connection between nutrition and earning potential is a two-way street. You can take steps to improve your professional outlook by adjusting your diet. But it’s also true that those with higher earnings have much greater access to opportunities for healthy eating than those with lower earnings.

But why is that, and is there anything that can be done to address this gap?

Let’s dig a little deeper to find out.

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Or read on to learn more…

An Overview American Dietary Habits

To be blunt, when it comes to eating habits, Americans have a lot of work to do. Granted, America is defined by its diversity. This means it’s impossible to describe American eating habits in broad and homogeneous terms. There are, however, a few features unique to American dining that most nutritionists would advise against. A number of cultural influences impact the way we eat, and not necessarily for the better.

Among them:

  • America’s working culture demands hustle. We are more likely to grab snacks from the vending machine or a quick greasy bite from a fast food restaurant than to take a full lunch. As we rush from task to task, eating at our desks, we are doing few favors for our digestive health.
  • When we do sit down to eat, Americans are somewhat notorious for large portion sizes. Nutrition experts suggest that portion control can play a major part in improving dietary health.
  • Americans eat a high proportion of processed foods–prepackaged items that are high in preservatives as well as artificial flavors and colors. Nutritionists say that fresh foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains carry far more positive health properties.

Indeed, according to STAT News, the American Heart Association characterized the “ideal diet” as one that “includes lots of fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, and fish, while minimizing sugar, salt, processed meat, and saturated fat. People who meet less than two-fifths of these goals were classified as having a poor diet; those in the range up to 80 percent were classed as having an intermediate diet.”

If you feel like you’re struggling to achieve that elusive “ideal diet,” don’t feel too bad. Researchers have found that, at best, roughly 2% of Americans have actually reached that rarified echelon. That’s lower than the percentage of applicants who get into Harvard every year…so don’t be too hard on yourself.

Besides, there’s actually some good news in this. Broadly speaking, American health habits are improving. So says STAT News, which reports that the number of Americans eating a poor diet fell from 56% to 46% in the decade leading up to 2012.

Collectively, we’re gaining a better understanding of what we should be eating and what we should avoid. And for consumers with some measure of purchasing power, the options are more varied than ever before.

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The Connection Between Diet and Socioeconomic Status

But there’s a huge catch. Improvements in eating habits have been highly stratified based on income. According to STAT News, mid- to high-income American families have made significant gains in terms of healthy eating habits. While low-income families have also seen some improvements, these gains have been far more modest over time.

And as a proportion of their respective populations, there are far more low-income individuals and families persisting on nutritionally poor diets than mid- to high-income families. Based on the standards established by the American Heart Association, just 38% of low-income individuals maintain an “intermediate diet.”

By stark contrast, 62% of high-income people maintain this standard. Worse yet, factors like pandemic-related career disruption and inflation have only increased the number of Americans who may be classified as low-income.

So while it would appear, on the surface, as though Americans are eating healthier, the truth is that healthy eating habits simply represent one more dimension in a widening gap between rich and poor. But why is that?

Well, it turns out there are a lot of reasons and many are clearly systemic. However, there’s also evidence that some of these differences are based on individual decision-making and lifestyle habits as well.

This is precisely why eating habits can be both a cause and effect of higher earnings. Let’s explore what this means with a bit more depth.

5 Ways Healthy Eating Habits Lead to Higher Earning Potential

In the simplest terms, there is extensive evidence that those who eat better also experience better professional outcomes. Of course, we’re not here to judge. We’re more likely to reach for the candy dish than a plate of carrot sticks when we’re in need of a late afternoon pick me up. But, it turns out that there are plenty of compelling reasons to reconsider this approach.

On the one hand, having a healthy heart and living longer are pretty compelling reasons. But in terms of sheer dollars and cents, investing in a healthy diet is also one way to make your money work for you.

Read on to find out how…

1. Nutrition Improves Productivity

A study from the British Journal of Health and Psychology found that there is a direct correlation between consumption of fruits and vegetables and the kinds of feelings and experiences that lead to positive workplace performance. According to the study, 405 adults who were exposed to increased fruit and vegetable consumption over a period of 13 days generally experienced more creativity, curiosity and well-being.

These feelings contrast strongly with the findings regarding employees with less nutritious dietary habits. Here, we can see that the impact of unhealthy eating habits is quite profound. A Population Health Management study of nearly 20,000 employees conducted jointly by researchers from Brigham Young University, the Health Enhancement Research Organization (HERO) and the Center for Health Research at Healthways found that those with unhealthy habits were 66% more likely show a loss in productivity relative to employees whose diets included fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

Interestingly, it’s not just what you eat, but when you eat that can have a direct impact on your ability to be productive at work. For instance, a 2021 study in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that negative eating habits at night can contribute directly to diminished productivity the following day.

The study tracked 97 full-time employees over 10 days. The findings revealed that employees who “ate unhealthy foods the night before work were more likely to avoid work-related situations. They were also less likely to offer help or go above and beyond for their teammates and supervisors.”

The study noted that these employees were both disengaged and less productive relative to their colleagues with healthier eating habits. In other words, these employees were less likely to do the kinds of things that one must do in the workplace to advance, to be considered for new job opportunities, or to receive promotions and pay raises.

2. Better Nutrition Results in Fewer Sick Days

This isn’t the only reason that employees who eat fruit tend to earn more. There is also a clear correlation between dietary habits and overall health. The better you eat, the less likely you are to miss work for any number of reasons.

According to Healthy People 2030, there is a long path of historical evidence indicating that those with healthy dietary patterns experience positive health outcomes in the full spectrum of wellness categories. Those who eat fruits and vegetables are less susceptible to excess weight gain and obesity, less prone to diabetes, strokes or cardiovascular diseases, less prone to certain cancers such as breast and colorectal cancer, and more likely to have positive bone, joint, and muscle health.

Altogether, this means that certain foods can actually help keep you in the workplace, or improve your chances of returning quickly to the workplace after illness or injury.

At the risk of sounding callous, those who show up for work have the best chances of advancing in their careers. While your colleagues may show empathy for your chronic ailments, those sick days will be a consideration when the hiring manager looks to recruit from within your company for the next big promotion.

Illness or injury can be unpredictable and, at times, unfair. Even those with healthy lifestyles may experience unforeseen medical setbacks. However, healthy eating habits can significantly lower your risk of such setbacks. This, in turn, can substantially improve your long term earning potential.

3. Healthier Eating Improves Mental Health

The connection between eating habits and well being is about more than just your body. Your dietary habits also have a direct connection to your mental health. Those who eat fruits, vegetables and whole grains report feeling improved focus and energy. A healthier diet can lead to better rest, a more active lifestyle, and an altogether better outlook on your current job responsibilities.

The Centers for Disease Control notes that mental health is itself a root factor in numerous other health risks. According to the CDC, “Mental and physical health are equally important components of overall health.  For example, depression increases the risk for many types of physical health problems, particularly long-lasting conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. Similarly, the presence of chronic conditions can increase the risk for mental illness.”

Such chronic conditions may include obesity, diminished mobility, and respiratory illness. All of these factors can erode your mental health and negatively impact your workplace performance. Those who eat well tend to feel better, and consequently, perform better.

4. Improve Your Career Longevity

Maintaining a healthy diet isn’t just about your day to day energy level at work. It’s also about your professional future. Just as a better diet can result in fewer sick days, it can also lengthen your professional lifespan. If you’re the type that likes to plan ahead, you can start with your diet.

Because your daily intake of healthy foods can reduce your susceptibility to chronic illness, it also reduces the likelihood that your career will be prematurely ended by illness, injury, or death. Naturally, the longer you are physically and mentally able to do your job at a high level, the more cushion you’ll build in your retirement bank account.

It probably goes without saying that the same is true for those who live longer. If longevity isn’t, by itself, a great motivator for you, just think of how much it could help your bottom line.

5. Reduce Peripheral Medical Costs

Part of fulfilling your earning potential is finding a balance between your earnings and your cost of living. Those who spend more upfront on healthy dietary habits are likely to spend less on long-term health expenses. Eating healthy foods in combination with other healthy habits like regular exercise, consistent sleep, abstention from smoking, and avoidance of excessive alcohol consumption can all reduce your likelihood of landing in the hospital for an extended stay.

Better overall health also means fewer unscheduled visits to the doctor’s office, reduced expenses on medications or other medical support devices, and the potential for lower insurance premiums. All of these factors can contribute to a better bottom line both now and in the future.

5 Ways Higher Earnings Lead to Healthier Eating Habits

Of course, we recognize that healthy dietary habits may be more accessible to some workers than others. Such is to say that there is a reciprocal relationship between a good diet and strong earning potential. Just as eating well can help advance your career, earning more does make it easier to eat well.

The reverse is also true. Earning less makes it harder to maintain a healthy diet, especially in light of the cultural factors that we outlined at the beginning of this discussion. Those in lower-income groups may be particularly susceptible to the types of scheduling demands and cultural influences that lead to poor dietary habits.

As we’ve noted throughout, nutrition and socioeconomic status are closely correlated. It’s important to acknowledge that this correlation is due, at least in part, to rigid socioeconomic stratification. The widening gap between rich and poor is reflected in numerous areas of American life. Dietary nutrition and food access reflect this inequality in stark terms.

1. Healthier Can Food Cost More

Research suggests that, on average, most households can afford a diet based around fruits and vegetables. However, that average really only tells part of the story. In truth, the cost for healthy options may actually be higher for those living in low income neighborhoods, especially as compared to more widely available options like fast food.

According to Healthy People 2030, “A summary of recent research on this issue indicated that “low-income residents who shop for food in their neighborhoods may pay more, on average, for produce (apples, bananas, oranges, carrots and tomatoes).”

The reality is that it’s simply cheaper to eat poorly. And this is especially true in low-income areas, where the number of fast-food restaurants and convenience stores typically dwarfs the number of supermarkets offering fresh produce.

Research suggests that low-income households are typically further from a fresh grocery store than high-income families by an average of more than a mile. This results in both limits to access for those who rely on public transportation and a concentrated scarcity of certain foods that can drive up the prices of fresh produce for those with the least spending flexibility.

This generally means that it is far more affordable for an individual or family in a low-income neighborhood to choose less nutritious food options.

2. Low Income Households Spend A Higher Percentage of Income on Food

It may be tempting to suggest that spending a bit more on healthy foods would be worth the investment. Indeed, the evidence in the section above seems to support this idea. But the truth is that low-income families already spend a higher proportion of their household income on food than do those with more spending flexibility.

According to a recent study from BMC Public Health, the reason that “lower income households purchase less healthful foods compared with higher income households” is because many of these households are already experiencing significant budgetary strains in the face of current food prices. The access and cost issues associated with healthier food options would threaten to even further erode the tight margin by which low-income families survive in the U.S.

Indeed, the USDA says that “food prices pose a significant barrier for many consumers who are trying to balance good nutrition with affordability. The Thrifty Food Plan (TFP), commonly cited as a model of a healthy low-cost diet, achieves cost goals by relaxing some nutrition constraints and by disregarding the usual eating habits of the American population.”

In other words, the USDA views a healthy diet as so cost prohibitive that it actually adjusts its standards for healthy eating downward to promote a diet that is attainable for low-income families. To be blunt, this is a discouraging approach, but it does underscore just how difficult it really is for low-income Americans to afford healthy foods.

3. Education, Earnings, and Nutrition are Highly Correlated

Affordability isn’t the only obstacle to a healthy diet. Many Americans simply don’t know how to maintain a healthy diet. Health education plays a major role in helping individuals understand the risks associated with poor eating habits, the benefits of eating nutritious foods, and even just recognizing which foods are healthy and which are not.

This, again, speaks to the various dimensions of American life in which there is a gap between rich and poor. There is a clear and close correlation between household income and educational attainment. Those living in low-income areas may have more limited access to quality public school education, healthcare, or adults after whom to model healthy eating habits.

These obstacles to education may also stand in the way of healthy eating habits. Regardless of your socioeconomic status, the first step to achieving a healthy diet is knowing how to do so. Healthcare education and nutrition outreach could theoretically help low-income individuals make better dietary decisions.

4. Low Income Workers Have More Time Constraints

Still, there are systemic issues that simply make it harder for low-income individuals to eat well. Many low income workers must meet demanding work schedules with limited flex time and few days off. Workers with limited income are also more likely to struggle to find childcare.

These factors can make it extremely difficult to operate on a standard breakfast, lunch and dinner schedule. Tasks like shopping and meal prep can be extremely demanding and stressful.

This is why, for many working class Americans, meals are all about expediency and convenience. These imperatives often take the place of healthy eating, which can require more preparation. According to the National Library of Medicine “when incomes drop and family budgets shrink, food choices shift toward cheaper but more energy-dense foods. The first items dropped are usually healthier foods – high-quality proteins, whole grains, vegetables and fruit. Low cost energy-rich starches, added sugars, and vegetable fats represent the cheapest way to fill hungry stomachs.”

Options like fast food and snacks from the vending machine make for an efficient substitute in the place of actual meals. While eating poorly may negatively impact actual productivity, for many workers, the imperative to simply remain in motion may outweigh these health considerations.

5. Low Income Communities Have Fewer Healthy Options

Earlier, we discussed the higher cost of healthy foods for low-income families, both relative to lower quality foods and as a percentage of total household income. But there is another critical factor that makes it extremely difficult if not totally impossible for some low-income families to access healthy foods.

The reality is that some low-income neighborhoods qualify as what sociologists refer to as “food deserts.” These are neighborhoods—often in urban areas—without supermarkets or grocery stores. Chain supermarkets often avoid establishing stores in these low-income neighborhoods. Indeed, according to Week And, “higher-income neighborhoods can have as many as twice the number of grocery stores as low-income ones, notes the National Housing Institute.”

In their place, local residents may do their grocery shopping in Dollar Stores and convenience marts. In many cases, this means limited access–or no access at all–to fresh produce. This can make it nearly impossible for residents in such communities to achieve a balanced and nutritious diet.

What Does This All Mean?

Clearly, this discussion raises a number of major systemic implications. Gaps in nutrition and health outcomes mirror the more general gap between rich and poor in America.

But there is an opportunity in this discussion. In the first section, we provide compelling evidence that a healthy employee is a good employee. Those who practice good nutritious habits are more likely to be productive, creative, energetic and all those other things that help make an organization better.

Such is to say that employers have a strong economic motivation to encourage healthy dietary habits among employees–even if that means allowing a full hour for lunch or improving snack offerings in the break room and vending machines.

It also means that employers are in a good position to improve their own organizational outcomes by investing in the health of their employees. Organizations who employ low-income individuals can improve their own bottom line by investing in initiatives that improve access to healthy foods, robust nutrition education, and fitness activities.

Naturally, such initiatives needn’t be limited to organizations with low-income employees. A focus on nutrition and fitness can have considerable benefits for employees and organizations of every shape and size. But particularly in those settings where employees may face greater barriers to a balanced diet, employers do have the opportunity to do something which is both positive and profitable.


It’s also positive for both your health and your earning power to enjoy the peace of mind that comes with long-term job security. To learn more, check out our list of 10 Recession Proof jobs.