How Does the Cost of Food Affect Diet?
If we reflect back to Covid times, we note it brought an overwhelming number of global changes, with one of the perhaps overlooked fallouts being food cost and subsequently, how the cost of food affects diet.
During that time, the Consumer Price Index (CPI) increased by 7% year-on-year from March 2021 to March 2022; the highest rise in 30 years. This includes a rise of 5.9% overall for food and drink, specifically, for the same period.
It has continued on a similar basis in recent times, as it rose by 6.7% in the 12 months to September 2023.
For some, food costs increasing is a minor inconvenience, if noticeable at all. For many, it can be a huge strain on their finances, and alter their entire monthly budget.
Not only can it cause financial difficulty, but food cost increases have also been shown to negatively impact malnutrition status in general populations, especially in children. Not only does this affect physical development, but it can also impact a child’s cognitive and social development as well (Meerman and Aphane, 2021).
As food cost increases, the purchasing power of those in lower-income households decreases. This then has a knock-on effect on that household’s diet quality, energy consumption and food security.
Food insecurity is a huge issue in the UK, with almost a fifth of the population experiencing it to some degree (mild, moderate or severe).
Food insecurity is measured with the following:
In the past month/six months, did you/anyone in your household:
- Have smaller meals than usual or skip meals because you couldn’t afford to get access to food?
- Ever been hungry but not eaten because you couldn’t afford to get access to food?
- Not eaten for a whole day because you couldn’t afford or get access to food?
These are questions used by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food Security Survey model. This is a validated survey tool used by many high-income countries – including the UK – to measure and monitor household food insecurity. A ‘yes’ to any one of these questions classifies the individual as food insecure.
A YouGov survey discovered that 4.7 million adults in the UK (9% of households) have experienced food insecurity from August 2020 to January 2021. This was a 1.4% increase (equivalent to over 700’000 people) compared to before Covid.
The most commonly reported form of food insecurity was having smaller meals and/or skipping meals.
A report by The Food Foundation found that economic hardship was the largest driver of food insecurity. They reported an estimated 2.5 million adults experiencing food insecurity as they did not have enough money for food from August 2020 to January 2021 (The Food Foundation, 2021).
- Households with medically vulnerable adults have a higher likelihood of being food insecure. Adults considered to have many health problems or disabilities have food insecurity levels five times greater than those without any disabilities or health problems.
- 20% of BAME households experienced food insecurity in the specified six-month period. This figure was less than half of that for White British households, at 9% in this period.
- Households with food sector workers have higher rates of food insecurity than non-food sector workers.
But how does the cost of food affect diet?
Let’s take a look at the Energy-Density Energy-Cost Relationship.
The Energy-Density Energy-Cost Relationship
The Energy-Density Energy-Cost Relationship (Drewnowski, 2004), pictured below, describes, as implied by its name, the relationship between the cost of food and the energy (i.e. calories) the food provides.
As evident in the diagram, foods typically considered to be “healthy”, such as fish, fresh vegetables, strawberries and lettuce, show to have minimal energy density (i.e. are lower in calories) and have a higher associated cost.
This is juxtaposed with foods like butter, sugar and cookies, which would be considered foods to consume more in moderation. These foods have a lower energy cost and a higher energy density, meaning that you would consume more calories for a lower price.
Essentially, “healthier” foods are less calorific and more costly.
In lower-income families, the cost of food is something that is typically well-budgeted, to ensure that no one goes hungry, where possible. Because of this, foods that have a lower energy cost and higher energy density, such as pizza or chips, tend to be bought more frequently than those with a higher energy cost and lower energy density.
This can be particularly prevalent over school holidays, when children do not receive school meals, with reports of parents going hungry and/or just eating cereal to ensure their children are well-fed (Mirror, 2019).
If you need some tips on how to eat healthy food every day, check out our blog post on the topic here!
McDonald’s versus Strawberries
In practice; a McDonald’s Happy Meal costs £2.79 (McDonald’s, 2021) and can be eaten instantly. This provides a full meal for a child, without the need to shop, cook, or wash up, or pay for the means of these things (e.g. the cost of petrol or a bus fare to get to the supermarket, the gas or electricity required to cook the food, or water to do the washing up).
The caloric value of a Happy Meal can range from 194 kcal to 663 kcal, depending on the options chosen. As mentioned, the cost of a Happy Meal (in London) is £2.79. For comparison, 100g of strawberries contains ~33 calories, and costs ~44p per 100g.
To meet the same calorie amount from strawberries, an individual would have to consume between 587-2000g strawberries, which would cost between £2.59-£8.80, would not provide the same composition of protein, fats and carbs, and furthermore, and would not be considered a complete meal, especially to a child.
Health in the Community
At FFF, one of our core beliefs is maintaining healthy bodies and healthy communities. While we obviously achieve the first part with our bespoke plans and Frozen Range, something that may go unnoticed is our dedication to building healthy communities, too. We partner with many great charities, but most noticeably in this instance, The Soup Kitchen. It’s one which is close to our hearts and our team often get involved where we can.
The Soup Kitchen is an incredible charity that helps provide ‘nutritious meals, clothing, toiletries and a sense of belonging to those that need it most throughout London. We’ve been partnered with them for over two years now, sending any food “waste” from our kitchens (i.e. ingredients cooked food that would otherwise be thrown away) to them each week.
Fresh Fitness Food provides personalised meal plans delivered straight to your door, ensuring not only that you have the nutrients you need to manage your stress levels, but also that you have the time usually spent shopping, cooking and washing up, to engage in your favourite stress-reducing activity. To discuss which nutrition plan is right for you, book a call with our in-house nutrition team here.
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Drewnowski, A., 2004. Obesity and the food environment. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 27(3), pp.154-162.
McDonald’s, 2021. Reduced Menu. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.mcdonalds.com/gb/en-gb/menu.html [Accessed 20 May 2021]
Meerman, J., Aphane, J., 2012. IMPACT OF HIGH FOOD PRICES ON NUTRITION. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/user_upload/agn/pdf/Meerman_Aphane_ICN2_FINAL.pdf [Accessed 20 May 2021]
Mirror, 2021. Cash-strapped parents go starving so kids can eat during summer holidays [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/politics/cash-strapped-parents-go-starving-18801929 [Accessed 20 May 2021]
The Food Foundation, 2021. Food Prices Tracking: April Update.Available at: https://foodfoundation.org.uk/news/food-prices-tracking-april-update#:~:text=Prices%20are%20rising%20much%20faster,December%202021%20to%20February%202022 [Accessed 26 May 2022]
The Food Foundation, 2021. The Impact of Covid-19 on Household Food Security. Available at: https://foodfoundation.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/FF_Impact-of-Covid_FINAL.pdf [Accessed 20 May 2021]
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