The UK’s poorest households struggle to afford to meet the government’s recommended guidelines on a healthy diet, leaving them more at risk of obesity and heart disease.
With healthy foods three times as expensive as less healthy ones, the 20% least well-off families must spend 40p of every pound of their income in order to achieve an officially nutritious diet, according to the Broken Plate audit, compared with just 8p in the pound for families in the wealthiest 20%.
The Food Foundation thinktank estimates that if the diets of the least well-off do not improve, more than half of the children born in the UK this year will experience obesity as a result of poor diet by the time they are 65.
Existing inequalities in the ability of families to buy sufficient healthy food had been highlighted during the coronavirus pandemic, which had demonstrated a “failing system where the poorest simply cannot afford to feed their families”, the foundation said.
Foundation director Anna Taylor said: “Covid has exposed the devastating consequences of diet-related disease, showing that efforts to shift our food system in favour of healthy eating have been too little, too late. Leaving citizens to swim against the tide of a system which favours unhealthy eating is no longer an option.”
The government recommends people eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, two portions of fish a week, while limiting consumption of meat and processed food high in sugar and salt.
The foundation said, however, that the mean price of fruit and vegetables continues to soar – it cost £9.39 per 1,000 calories in 2019, having risen every year since 2016 – while the price of food and drinks that are high in sugar, salt and/or fat has remained stable at £3.54 per 1,000 calories.
“We need to ensure that people aren’t incentivised to buy less healthy food because it is more affordable,” the report said.
The Broken Plate report comes amid increasing concern over a growing crisis of food poverty and unhealthy eating, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, in which the poorest households struggle to eat regularly and healthily, and reliance on charity food parcels is growing. The Food Standards Agency reported in August that the pandemic had had a catastrophic effect on the nutritional health of the poorest families, with as many as one in 10 forced to use food banks, and millions skipping meals or going hungry.