From 2007 to 2012, household budgets were squeezed by falling wages, increasing unemployment and rising food prices, and led to lower spending on food for at-home consumption, down 8.5% in real terms across Britain compared to before the recession.
People have economised by buying less food, with households buying at least 15% fewer calories in 2009 than in 1980. Meanwhile, the number of people who are overweight and obese has increased since 1980, with nearly 70% of the population overweight and about a quarter obese. Average male adult weight has increased by 8.6 kg and the weight of an adult female by 7.9 kg, leaving researchers with a puzzle.
Unlike US research, which has suggested that weight gain there mainly has been driven by an increase in calorie consumption, IFS researchers suggest that weight gain in the UK has resulted from a faster decrease in activity levels than in calories consumed – although they stress that food is still an important part of the equation.
Melanie Lührmann, a research associate at the IFS and one of the report’s authors said: “We were surprised to find that there has been a substantial decline in total calories purchased at a time when obesity has increased.”
However, consumers spent more on high-calorie foods and less on fruits and vegetables, with the biggest switches in households with young children and single-parent households, researchers found.
The overall nutritional quality of foods declined from the 2005-07 period to 2010-12, but the nutritional quality of processed foods increased, with lower levels of saturated fat, for example.
“Purchases of snack foods, soft drinks and food out have increased, and now account for a greater share of calories for most households. However, calories purchased for consumption at home have declined strongly and account for the bulk of households’ food purchases. This does not mean that poor diet plays no part in rising obesity. But understanding the interaction between diet and physical activity is clearly crucial.”
The study looked at the spending habits of more than 15,000 households from data collected by Kantar Worldpanel.
The IFS reports are available online here.