UK Eating Habits
A Nutritional Overview
Many of these dietary changes reflect current nutritional advice. Since the 60s we’ve been consuming fewer calories from household food (this doesn’t include eating out). However, there are an increasing number of people who are overweight or obese. The reasons for this are not clear. But there are a few possible explanations, such as:
- We are now much less active than we used to be so we need less energy from our food.
- We’re preparing less food at home, so as well as the food we buy for eating at home, we’re also eating takeaways and eating out.
- We may be eating more snacks and sweets than we are admitting to in surveys Most of our energy comes from carbohydrates (starchy foods and sugary foods) as it did in the 1950s.
The proportion of energy in our diets coming from fat is about the same as in the 1950s. In the 1960s and 1970s the energy from fat in our diets increased but since the late 1980s we have been consuming less total fat and we’ve also cut down on saturated fat, which takes us nearer the target levels (35% food energy from total fat, 11% food energy from saturated fat).
This may be due to the general switch from whole milk, butter, margarine and lard to semi-skimmed and skimmed milk, vegetable oils and low/ reduced-fat spreads.
There have been considerable changes in the types of foods we’re eating. This means that the main sources of nutrients in our diets has been changing.
For example, in the 1950s, most of our vitamin C came from potatoes, which were plentiful during the war when fruit wasn’t, whereas today we get the majority of our vitamin C from fruit and fruit juice.
In 1950, tea was the most common drink for children – today it’s soft drinks. In fact, children aged 4 to 18 drink two-thirds more fizzy drinks than milk (National Diet and Nutrition Survey).
Many children today are getting a high proportion of their energy from sugar, and some of this is down to soft drinks. But, of course, tea was often sweetened with sugar and too much tea can reduce absorption of iron, which is needed for healthy blood.
Rationing ended in 1954. After years of compulsory restriction, we were free again to indulge our tastes for meat, butter, sugar, eggs and white bread.
The wartime diet was not popular. However, rationing in the 1950s was able to provide a generally healthy diet. This is despite the fact that its energy content was comparatively high and the fat was almost entirely saturated. It was also higher in salt, but it didn’t contain the innumerable convenience foods we have today, and women were expected to prepare most foods in their own home. It was also low in fruit, especially in the winter.
Generally it was thought of as monotonous and dull – and it would be difficult to convince people today to eat in the same way.
- Consumption of semi-skimmed milk overtook whole milk in 1993.
- Bananas overtook apples as the fresh fruit market leader in 1996.
- Over the past ten years we’ve started buying more non-traditional types of bread, such as French, naan and pitta bread, ciabatta and bagels.
- We’re drinking 12 times as much bottled mineral water at home compared to the mid-1980s.
- In the 1980s we made our move from butter to soft margarines and today, reduced-fat spreads are the preferred option.
- We’ve also switched from harder cooking fats to vegetable oils such as olive oil, which, believe it or not, 25 years ago was only available in chemists.
Newly available vegetables, such as mushrooms and exotic salad leaves (such as rocket, radicchio, chicory and baby spinach) have grown in popularity compared with traditional veg like swedes, parsnips and Brussels sprouts.
(Source: National Food Survey, 2000)
Following significant changes over the past few years, the British diet is probably as healthy as it’s ever been. As a nation, our intake of saturated fat is decreasing in line with Government targets. But we are not there yet. We still need to reduce our consumption of fat, sugar and salt, and eat more fruit and vegetables.
There is still more work to do to build on this progress (and that includes being more physically active) if we are to see a reduction in conditions such as heart disease, stroke, some cancers and obesity.