Friday, August 05, 2005

Enjoying the fruits (and veg) of an affluent life

The UK government's annual survey of our eating and drinking habits has got alarm bells ringing. Apparently we're eating worse and boozing more. But another look at the statistics reveals many reasons to be cheerful.

Family Food in 2003-04 is the product of expenditure diaries kept for two weeks by nearly 17,000 people in 7,000 homes selected as a representative sample of British households. The diaries record what every person in each house over seven years of age spends on food and drink.

Coverage of the report has been less than positive. 'Fears over food and drink habits', reported BBC News, noting that sales of alcohol to be consumed in the home have risen nine per cent in a year, while sales of fruit and vegetables appear to have fallen slightly.

'People are choosing microwaveable and ready-meals because they want something easy', said Ursula Arens of the British Dietetic Association, warning that 'these do not have the nutritional content of fresh fruit and veg'. Professor Tim Lang, head of food policy at City University, told The Times (London): 'This is very depressing. The government wants to tackle obesity but at this rate of improvement, large numbers of the population are going to die prematurely.'

But just because the population has failed to meet government targets on what we should eat does not mean we are eating badly. For example, the report notes that the number of calories consumed in the home continues to fall. In 1974, average calorie intake was 2,534 per day. By 2003-04, it was 2,077. Even taking into account the increase in food eaten outside the home, the report suggests that average calorie consumption has fallen significantly. At the very least, the assumption that we are eating a lot more than we used to needs to be questioned.

Nor is it true that we are eating crap. The report provides a breakdown of the nutrients consumed. With the exception of a couple of minerals (magnesium and potassium), the average person is more than meeting his or her daily requirements for protein, carbohydrate, vitamins and minerals. This is true not only for the population as a whole but even for the poorest fifth of society.

The quantities of fruit and vegetables being bought have risen. The average weight of fruit and veg, excluding potatoes, per person per week has risen from 1,868 grams in 1974 to 2,269 grams in 2003-04. Moreover, the kinds of fruit and veg we consume have changed as the variety available has expanded, along with the periods of the year when they are available. In 1974, 'squash' would have been a diluted fruit drink, not a vegetable - and 'kiwis' were New Zealanders, not fruit.

The main victim of this increasing variety in our diets has been the humble and much-maligned potato. According to the report's figures, potato sales seem to have fallen by 38 per cent since 1974, although this has been matched by a rise in processed potato products.

As for the rise in alcohol consumption, it's worth noting that it is the wealthiest sections of society who are spending the most. Far from suggesting an unhealthy dependence on alcohol, this indicates that a more affluent society is enjoying more wine with their meals, or keeping a few cans of beer in the fridge. It's hardly Sodom and Gomorrah.

The government's attempts to get us to change our ways have been an abject failure. The 'Five-A-Day' campaign, even with the helpful support of food producers and retailers, has made little difference to our fruit and veg consumption - but it has convinced many healthy people that their otherwise satisfactory diets are killing them. The result has not been behaviour change but fatalism, a belief that eating and drinking what we like might cause us harm.

The irony is that the campaign is unnecessary. Quite apart from the fact that life expectancies continue to rise, it is clear from Family Food that we are eating and drinking better already - not because of the exhortations of ministers and health professionals, but because we have a bit more money in our pockets and a more interesting selection of things to spend it on.

First published on spiked.

See also Is three the magic number?

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