Place a Westerner - let's be more specific and say an American - in an environment where the number of fast food joints is severely decreased. Are they more likely or less likely to eat healthier? Or will they still choose dining establishments identified by "the clown", "the colonel", or "the king," as Anthony Bourdain described some in a recent episode of his Travel Channel series, 'No Reservations?'
I guess it depends. What drives you, a sense of familiarity or a sense of adventure? Who makes the final decision: your wallet, your stomach, or your mind?
I've always harbored the opinion it's more expensive to eat healthy than to eat "junk food." Go into any health food store or walk through the organic produce section of any supermarket and look at the foodstuffs. Then look at the menu board at the drive through of the burger barn a little farther down the street. It has always seemed to me that where fast food lacks in nutrition it makes up for in price. And vice versa.
Back in 2007 or so, researchers at the University of Washington looked at the price relationship (dollars and calories) for nutrient-dense ("healthy") and calorie-dense ("junk") foods. They found the amount of nutrient-dense foods which would make up 2000 calories (the baseline average adult diet) cost approximately ten times as much as that of calorie-dense foods making up the same baseline. Add to that the volatility of price for healthy foods - during the two years studied by U of W researchers, a 19-percent increase, compared to a near-two percent decrease for "junk" foods - and it's simple to see why many persons, especially those with fixed or lower incomes, would more likely turn to foods which are less healthy. It's more simple to know how much of one's income is going to go towards meal times.
The "eat good versus eat cheap" paradox during travel came to a head during our Singapore holiday. We stayed in the Chinatown district, about a mile from the central business district and the major shopping and entertainment areas. Our first meal was in a little "dining house" across the street from our hotel. Four dollars got Suzanne and myself each a serving of two organic vegetarian items with steamed rice. While I'm not a fan of vegetarian food, especially meat substitutes, I have to admit that when they are done well it's almost impossible to tell the difference from "real" meat. Add to that another five dollars for a 633-milliliter (21.4 ounce) bottle of Singapore-brewed beer, split between the two of us, and still the meal was fairly inexpensive.
As long as you keep in touch with your inner Andrew Zimmern ("if it looks good, eat it") and eat in locally-owned and locally-operated dining houses you can eat not only healthy but save a few bucks for souvenirs. Or tailored clothes.
Food courts at the malls and tourist destinations carry more familiar items and names, but at a price. A value meal at the McDonald's up the block from our hotel was six bucks...which we did once; we were jonesing for french fries. Otherwise we steered a wide path away from anything corporate.
And we really didn't worry about quality or cleanliness. Singapore, especially Singapore, is one of the most organized and controlled societies we've encountered in our travels. Everything is inspected and observed there. And I do mean everything. Probably one of the best, and most memorable, meals we had was on the last day of our trip, at the fruit market in Tanjong Pagar neighborhood, just off of Chinatown. Suzanne and I both had a bowl of (seriously house-rocking) noodle soup with (chili!) meatballs and fresh vegetables of all sorts...once again, about four or five dollars (not counting the beer!) filled us both to the gills.
Our greatest challenge during the week was finding coffee or beer at reasonable prices. No problems getting tea, though. I always was the loser when it came to ordering coffees: I'd want a regular coffee and have to settle for a "flat white;" Suzanne would order an "Americano." Hers was ALWAYS better. The least expensive beer, Tiger, is very good, and can be found for five to six dollars for a two-serving bottle, as long as you don't go into the touristy bars.
Oh, and for those who've heard the phrase "a pint's a pound the world around..." Starbucks was still four bucks.
Some things will always remain the same.