Poor Diet Linked to Cost of Living Crisis is a Health Ticking Time Bomb

Research by Professor Alexandra Johnstone, from the Rowett Institute at the University of Aberdeen, has studied the effect of rising food insecurity which is forcing people to rely more and more on highly processed foods, high in energy density, fat, sugar, and salt.

We’ve all seen our food prices rise – on the most basic of items. The freshness of products imported from EU countries has declined due to the long waits now, because of Brexit, at points of entry into the UK.

Take a look at what is in the local collection points for Foodbanks. By necessity they have to be food products that can be stored, without the need for refrigeration, and which require little cooking. Both those – having a fridge and cooking cost money. Foodbanks are also having to give out vouchers to help people with electricity payments.

The largest upward contributions to the annual CPIH inflation rate in March 2023 came from housing and household services (principally from electricity, gas and other fuels), and food and non-alcoholic beverages.

ONS Consumer Price Inflation

Professor Johnstone says the current cost of living crisis is accelerating this trend in the reliance on highly processed food. In September 2022, 40% of British consumers reported that they were worried about being able to afford to purchase food in the next month.

Profile picture head and shoulders of Alex Johnstone

Professor Johnstone explained:

“Increasing obesity levels as a result of food insecurity – defined as the lack of secure access to sufficient amounts of safe and nutritious food for normal growth and development and an active and healthy life – may seem paradoxical.

“But in the UK, healthier foods are three times more expensive per calorie than unhealthy foods and it has been shown that food sources of protein, fibre, vitamins, and minerals cost more.

“As a result, the dietary choices of those on the lowest incomes are often limited to a low-price, high-energy combination, which, in the long term, can promote weight gain, especially when combined with a sedentary lifestyle.

“The scale of the problem is becoming clear, with a sharp increase in food insecurity since the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In September 2022, 25% of households with children were reported as being food insecure. This is a staggering 2.5-fold increase in the number of households experiencing food insecurity since January 2021.

“For families on low income, the poorest fifth of the UK population need to spend 47% of their disposable income to consume a healthy diet according to the Eatwell Guide, in contrast to 11% needed by the richest fifth in the UK.

“Poor diet is the primary risk factor for cardiovascular diseases and type 2 diabetes.

“The current status quo is a ticking time bomb that needs to be urgently addressed but the intersection between low income and obesity is more complex than simply the ‘energy in–energy out’ concept.

“If the UK government’s Obesity Strategy is not maintained then it will likely widen the existing health inequality gap even further, with the potential to worsen the health of the public and increase the prevalence of obesity in both adults and children.

“Urgent action is needed to find evidence-based solutions to deliver safe, healthy, affordable food, regardless of where people live or how much they earn.”

The paper co-authored with Early Career Researcher Marta Lonnie, also from the Rowett Institute.

The cost-of-living crisis is feeding the paradox of obesity and food insecurities in the UK was published in the journal, Obesity.

The research was supported by an award from the Transforming UK Food Systems for Healthy People and a Healthy Environment Programme, one of UKRI’s Strategic Priority Funds, as part of the project FIO Food: Food Insecurity in people living with Obesity – improving sustainable and healthier food choices in the retail FOOD environment.

Fiona Grahame

2 replies »

  1. … and the unhealthy stuff additionally comes in plastic packaging which is associated with further health risks (

    It might be worth considering to return to ration books and a predominantly unprocessed food supply, I would argue. It would be a fair way to distribute the right food in the right amount to where it is needed. And depending on income it could be subsidised through the state for the ones who are struggling.
    Perhaps, even if the state were to consider subsidising basic and healthy nutritional needs for all citizens (irrespectively of income), they would still save money in terms of an overall healthier society with less need for treatment of non-communicable diseases?
    Who knows what other challenges might lie ahead… in theory it could be anything from large scale harvest losses and failure (currently feared in Europe due to dry conditions and water shortages), crop pests, lack of workers, crisis escalation, trade conflicts, another pandemic…

    How could a feasible concept of a modern rationing system look like?

    • You are living in fantasy land. On the one hand half the population have no interest in cooking (it distracts them from looking at their phone) and, more importantly, take away are a lot easier.

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