Our food and our health

How is our health influenced by the food we eat?

19 December 2017

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When we think about the food we eat, we have to acknowledge some challenging paradoxes. Food is vital for health and wellbeing, but the quality of our diets has deteriorated. We have an epidemic of obesity, while many people experience hunger. And food has never been more widely available, yet many people struggle to access the good food they need for a healthy diet.

To understand what lies behind these paradoxes we need to think about how our food is produced, marketed and sold. We also need to consider the economic and social factors that determine whether we can afford enough good food to live a healthy life. This month’s infographic and accompanying blogs explore these issues and the actions people are taking to address them.

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A fall in the quality of our food

As well as eating to live, we eat for pleasure and for comfort, and we eat together to socialise and celebrate important occasions. Our preferences and tastes can reflect cultural and religious identities. Yet despite the values we attach to our food, the nutritional quality of the food we eat in the UK has fallen in recent decades.

Poor diet is now the biggest risk factor for preventable ill health in England, narrowly ahead of smoking. Obesity rates continue to rise: more than a quarter of people in the UK are obese and a third of 11-year-olds leave primary school overweight or obese. Hunger, and the anxiety and stress this brings, is also affecting many people in the UK. In a recent study from the Food Standards Agency, a third of young people said they often or sometimes worried that household food would run out before there was money to buy more.

Our food environment

To address these worrying trends, we need to acknowledge that our food environment shapes what we eat, and we need to understand how this drives health inequalities between people living in advantaged and disadvantaged circumstances. We are surrounded by food: an additional 4,000 fast food outlets arrived on our streets between 2014 and 2017 and there is a growing trend in ‘non-food’ shops tempting us with things to eat. Petrol stations, book shops and chemists offer snacks and drinks, and even hairdressers now advertise coffee and wine with a cut and blow dry. Yet many people still lack access to healthy food.

How can everyone access enough good food for a healthy life?

We have three related blogs that build on the themes illustrated in our infographic to give a more detailed picture of the issues:

  • Kathleen Kerridge, freelance writer and author, will give a personal reflection on the challenges involved in eating healthily on a low budget and how we can help lift the barriers that prevent people from accessing healthy food.
     
  • Simon Shaw, Programme Coordinator at Sustain, will explain how his organisation is supporting local action to look beyond food banks and address food poverty in London.
     
  • Anna Taylor, Executive Director at the Food Foundation, will look at the variety of issues in our current food system, including how to increase vegetable consumption, following the Food Foundation’s Vegetable Summit earlier this year.

Our increasingly unfair and unhealthy food system has far-reaching consequences for our physical and mental wellbeing and health. While the issues involved may be varied and complex, these blogs will demonstrate that with the right understanding and through working with individuals and organisations across sectors, it is possible to take action so that everyone has enough good food for a healthy life.

References

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Healthy food needs to be affordable for everyone

We need to lift the barriers preventing people from eating the best food they can: the food we all deserve.

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Tackling food environments is key to helping us eat well

What the UK would look like if we were all eating more veg?

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Tackling food poverty

In the face of financial pressures, what actions can be taken to reduce food poverty in local areas?

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