Poor people know what a healthy diet looks like—they just can’t afford it

An apple a day keeps the doctor away
An apple a day keeps the doctor away
Image: REUTERS/Neil Hall
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According to the British government’s official guidelines for a healthy diet, proper nutrition means getting five servings of fruit and vegetables a day and two portions of sustainably-sourced fish each week, among other things. But as a new report highlights, 3.7 million children in the UK live in households that simply can’t afford to eat that way.

The report from the Food Foundation, a think tank based in the UK, reveals that the bottom 20% of UK families–those earning less than £15,860 a year–would have to spend 42% of their income after housing on food in order to meet the requirements of the government’s recommended food guidelines, the “Eatwell Guide” (pdf). The cost of following the diet guidance for a family of two adults and two children, aged four and eight, is an estimated £112.04 per week.

The Food Foundation estimates that half of all households in the UK–14 million–can’t afford to follow the nutrition guidelines. The issue is particularly difficult for single-parent households, of which only 40.4% spend enough to afford the Eatwell guidelines.

The study’s authors argue that it’s not lack of information or interest that prevents poor families from leading a healthier lifestyle–it’s that a balanced diet is unaffordable for many. And the issue of food insecurity has a real impact on many families’ health and wellness. As Patrick Butler writes in The Guardian, food poverty in the UK condemns “the least well-off to a greater risk of diet related illness, such as obesity and diabetes, as well as widening health inequalities across society.”

That’s a serious issue in the UK, where health-care costs are on the rise. Health issues stemming from obesity alone cost the National Health Service (NHS) in England an estimated £6 billion per year, and childhood obesity rates are rising: 20% of children between the ages of 10-11 are obese, and an additional 14% are overweight. Health problems related to diabetes add on an estimated £10 billion per year to the NHS (pdf).

The problem may only get worse going forward. The Food Foundation estimates that rising food prices, fluctuations in the value of the pound, and labor market changes triggered by Brexit could make a family of four have to pay an additional £158 per year to meet the Eatwell Guide’s recommendations. The solution, according to the report’s authors, lies with government policy—both in terms of working to raise incomes for poor families, and in ensuring that lower-income households have access to health food through free school meals and voucher programs.

“It cannot be right that 50% of households in the UK currently have insufficient food budgets to meet the Government’s recommended Eatwell Guide,” MP Sharon Hodgson, a member of the British Labour Party, said in a statement. “A healthy diet, which we know is important for our health and development, should not be unaffordable to so many people.”