Is a healthy diet affordable?

Use of food banks is rising, but so are levels of obesity. Has it become impossible to eat cheaply but well? BBSRC Strategy and Policy Officer Valerie Nadeau tucks in.

Valerie Nadeau

Walking down the high street at lunchtime, the smell of baking pastry is enticing. It would be easy to nip into one of the ubiquitous fast food outlets, grab a sausage roll or a pasty for little more than a pound. If I persuade myself to keep walking and track down a salad, it might cost closer to a fiver.

Does this illustrate a more general problem? Is healthy, nutritious food unaffordable?

Well, not really. While it is certainly true that many processed, packaged foods are cheap, some of the healthiest foods – such as vegetables, pulses and grains – are also some of the least expensive. The issue is that, whereas unhealthy food tends to be readily available and ready to eat, sourcing fresh ingredients and preparing healthy food requires time, effort and knowledge of what to buy and how to turn it into a meal.

It’s so bad, but so goooood.

Compounding the problem is the fact we are constantly bombarded with adverts suggesting junk food will make us happy, while information on how to cook healthily on a budget, and the importance of doing so, is harder to come by.

The cost of calories

The recent dramatic increase in food bank use in the UK provides clear evidence that many people struggle to afford to eat. A study published in 2014 found that, per calorie, foods with high nutrient content were roughly three times more expensive than those containing less nutrients. This would appear to explain why those living on lower incomes eat more processed foods (PDF 75KB) and suffer higher levels of obesity.

Yet this makes little sense. Foods containing more nutrients, such as fruit and vegetables, tend to contain fewer calories, so it is not surprising that you would need to spend more on carrots than on doughnuts to achieve the same energy intake. Besides, people don’t think about calories when they are buying food; they think about what meals they can make, and the high levels of obesity in individuals from lower socioeconomic groups show that, in general, the problem is not a shortage of calories, but a shortage of calories with fibre and nutrients.

All too often, feeling full feels better than feeling healthy.

So what is driving people on lower incomes to consume unhealthy foods? One barrier to healthy eating is lack of access to nutritious fare. Shops in poorer areas are more likely to sell convenience foods than health foods, and low-income households are less likely to own a car or be able to afford bus fares to travel further afield (PDF 1.3MB) for their shopping. This, however, is only a small part of the problem.

A study in the US found that opening a grocery shop in one of the poorest neighbourhoods of the Bronx in New York had no effect on local residents’ diets – shelves filled with fresh produce sat untouched. Culture plays a big role in eating habits, and when budgets are stretched people tend to prioritise simply putting food on the table over nutrition.

Personal choice and food education

The cheapest way to eat is to buy raw ingredients and prepare meals from scratch, assuming you have access to cooking facilities and are able to pay the energy bills. Leftovers make an economical lunch and are less likely to contain fat and salt than pre-prepared sandwiches, and eating more vegetables and less meat is healthier and saves money.

But are these messages reaching those who need them?

Turn on your TV, computer or smartphone, or simply walk down a busy street, and you will be overwhelmed with offers of quick and easy foods filled with fat and sugar, and colourful images of the joyful life you could lead if you eat them. A recipe for a vegetable casserole might be out there, but you would have to hunt to find it.

It’s almost as if we’re encouraged to eat badly, as this advert from 1947 amply illustrates.

The biggest fast food brand spends nearly three times (PDF) as much on marketing as the Change 4 Life campaign. It seems to me that what we need is not cheaper food, but more education on how and why to cook and eat well.

Preparing fresh, healthy food takes time and effort, but it is important we understand what that time and effort is worth: poor nutrition is responsible for roughly a third of all deaths from heart disease in the UK and cancer in the US (PDF), while just moderate obesity reduces life expectancy in the UK by an average of three years.

So the question we should be asking ourselves is not “can I afford to eat a healthy diet?” but “can I afford not to?”

Add your comment.

About Valerie Nadeau

Valerie Nadeau is Policy & Strategy Officer for Case Studies & Evaluation at GFS partners BBSRC, where she produces evidence for the UK Government on the benefits of investing in bioscience research. Valerie previously worked as a postdoctoral researcher in medical physics and as a science teacher in a secondary school, and is passionate about making scientific ideas accessible to a wider audience.

4 thoughts on “Is a healthy diet affordable?

  1. A really interesting article. Being a student I mostly live a vegetarian diet to keep the bills down, but I have noticed food prices rising steadily over the past few years. I also think the availability of cheap meat is also having an impact, as I believe that higher quality, higher welfare meat is better for you, with fewer additives etc, and is not bulked out with additional fat and salts.

    I think that basic cookery lessons, almost in a ‘Ready Steady Cook’ style would improve people’s cooking skills, through learning a few staple bases for meals which they can amend and alter to suit tastes. The other issue with home cookery is often you need a reasonably well stocked larder of a variety of basics, but the initial cost of sourcing these items can be somewhat prohibitive or off-putting to many.

    I think I’m really fortunate in the fact that my parents always let me into the kitchen, as I learnt far more about cookery this way than I ever did at school, but the majority of my peers were not in this situation. Where are people going to learn these basic, essential skills?

  2. Thanks for the comments Elizabeth.

    I agree that learning cookery skills is vital. Like you, my experience has been that the best place to learn these skills is in the home at a young age, but I think you’re right, there needs to be a way for people to gain such skills who don’t pick them up at home.

    I also agree that cheap meat, like processed food, is leading people to make false economies in their food purchasing decisions and, at the same time, the demand for low-cost meat is driving lower welfare standards.

  3. I agree with you when you say that healthy food is available and cheap but it takes a whole lot of time and effort to create healthy dishes. I guess, people are so caught up with their everyday lives and it’s really difficult to make time and cook. People don’t have the luxury of time to do this. Great article!

  4. Thanks Ben for your comments. Glad you enjoyed the article.

    I agree with you, it’s difficult to find time to prepare food. I find it interesting, and disappointing, that all sorts of things in our current society are considered more worthy of our time than feeding ourselves well, which is a very basic need.

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