This article answers this question about our food choices by providing evidence from a wide range of sources.
- Statistics from the Health Survey for England 2021
- What are the causes of these unhealthy trends?
- Taste influences before and after birth
- Childhood eating behaviours
- Ultra-processed foods
- ‘Nutrition transition’
- Cost of living
- Why are people not motivated to eat more healthily?
- Dietary trends in the UK.
What the Health Survey for England tells us
From an evolutionary standpoint, we eat food to get energy, and we store this energy in the form of fat to survive when food is scarce. In the UK, we live in a part of the world that has both a surplus of food and high food consumption, but unfortunately our body’s ability to store fat hasn’t changed.
Although we need a certain amount of fat for healthy body functioning, current levels of food consumption are leading to an accumulation of excess fat stored in our bodies. This excess fat increases the risk of diseases such as obesity, hypertension, diabetes and cancer.
According to The Health Survey for England 2021 26% of adults in England are obese and a further 38% are overweight.
Unless we do something to prevent or slow down this increase in obesity and weight gain, current trends suggest that 60% of males and 50% of females will be obese by 2050.
What are the causes of these unhealthy trends
Taste influences before and after birth
Historically our sense of taste (sweet, salt, bitter, sour and umami/savoury) ensured that we consumed foods that were crucial for survival – for instance to provide energy, salt and protein – and that we avoided foods that were dangerous, for instance, rotten or poisonous. However, our food preferences are now a lot more complex and are also influenced by our environment, social context and our cultural and individual experiences.
Our dietary preferences develop early in life. They are believed to begin in the womb, and a baby’s exposure to certain foods while still in the womb has been linked to an increased dietary preference later in life. Exposure to certain flavours during prenatal and postnatal periods has also been linked to an infant’s increased enjoyment of these specific flavours during weaning.
In addition, studies have found that breastfed infants have a more diverse food preference compared with infants who were formula-fed.
Childhood eating behaviours
It is important to mention that exposure to certain foods alone is not the only factor contributing to food preferences; over time, the mother’s diet and the parent’s feeding habits also play a significant role in a child’s dietary preferences, for example, when children model themselves on their parents’ eating habits, lifestyle, eating-related attitudes, and satisfaction or dissatisfaction with their body image.
The increased prevalence of being overweight or obese seems to be associated with a ‘nutrition transition’, where people are moving away from traditional diets that were nutrient dense and rich in fibre to highly refined, low-fibre diets (ie, processed foods that are rich in sugar, fat and salt). For example, a US study published in 2018 concluded that a higher consumption of ultra-processed food (UPFs)
is associated with excess weight, and that this association is more pronounced among women.
Examples of ultra-processed foods include so-called ‘junk foods’, such as soft drinks with a high sugar content, potato chips with a high salt content, and confectionery with high sugar and high-fat content, as well as industrially manufactured baked goods such as pies and sausage rolls.
Diets that include a high level of UPFs, coupled with changes in occupational habits and lower physical activity, have resulted in an alarmingly high prevalence of lifestyle-related diseases such as cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease (conditions that affect the blood supply to the heart and to the brain).
Several products that are often marketed and perceived as healthy – for example, granola bars, low-fat flavoured yogurt, low-energy frozen dinners, most industrially produced breads and canned soups – are also ultra-processed.
Nutrition transition is the combination of powerful changes in the way food is produced and consumed together with changes in lifestyles and working environments (including more sedentary occupations). However, the move towards less healthy diets such as UPFs is not inevitable if there is a political and societal commitment to adopt policies that improve dietary choices and social norms.
Cost of living
One further, and more recent, factor has been the current cost-of-living crisis. This crisis has encouraged the consumption of fast foods (ie, UPFs) as they are often more affordable.
In a 2023 poll in Britain, more than half of the people polled believed that increased costs have made it harder to make healthy food choices.
31% of British adults prioritise the cost of food over how healthy it is.
Independent, 16 April 2023
Why are people not motivated to eat more healthily?
There are four main reasons why many people are not more motivated to eat healthier foods:
- Convenience and time constraints
- Taste (palatability)
- Diet trends
- Psychologically affected eating
1. Convenience and time constraints
Supermarkets have a wide range of ready-prepared meals that are available at relatively affordable costs. However, although ready-prepared meals are convenient, they tend be high in calories, fat, sodium and preservatives, while being low in fibre, vitamins and minerals.
The illustration shows the main result of a large cross-European study published in 2017 which found three reasons that were most consistently associated with today’s higher consumption of fast foods.
’Time-scarcity/constraint’ has been identified as one of the main factors that affect food choices in developed countries. Individuals who see themselves as being short of time try to limit household tasks like cooking in order to save time, and they choose convenience options instead of traditional home-cooked meals, which might take more time to prepare.
As early as 2002, a UK survey identified 16% of respondents as ‘kitchen evaders’ and 33% as ‘convenience-seeking grazers’ These proportions are likely to have grown since the original survey.
2. Taste (palatability)
Foods rich in fat and sugar are referred to as palatable foods. They have been found to increase feelings of hunger while also reducing the response to satiety signals (feeling full). So, the more refined foods we consume the more we will desire these foods. This increased appetite then results in overeating.
A 2022 YouGov Food Study found that half of people surveyed (51%) said that taste was the most important factor when it came to choosing food –twice as many as the 24% who said the most relevant factor was how healthy the food was.
3. Diet fads and trends
A fad diet is a diet plan that promotes results such as fast weight loss without robust scientific evidence to support its claims.
The Association of UK Dieticians, 2021
With the increase in obesity rates, there has also been a surge in the number of fad diets and weight loss programmes that have gained popularity.