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The UK diet – then and now

Last week’s papers were full of details about how the UK diet has changed over the years. The BBC covered the changes in much detail here. The period in focus was 1974-2000 and the stories appeared because the data has just been released in a more open format.

The reality is that the data has always been there – I examined the data from the exact same period (1974-2000) in my 2010 book The Obesity Epidemic: What caused it? How can we stop it? Why was this period of interest? Because it largely covered the period during which obesity increased from 2.7% in UK men and women (1972) to 22.6% in men and 25.8% in women (1999) (Ref 1).

A comprehensive survey detailing what UK people eat has been available since 1940. It was called the National Food Survey from 1940 until 2000 and has been called the Family Food Survey since 2002.

In this hopefully handy summary note, I’ll first share the major differences between what we ate back in 1974 and what we ate at the turn of the new millennium. Then, I’ll share the precise breakdown of what we are eating now – or at least in 2014 – as close to now as we have the data for…

1) Major differences in UK diet 1974-2000

The table below is from p146 of my obesity book. It simply shows what went down in consumption and what went up in consumption and by how much. For example, bread went down, but most of the other foods that we consume far less of are real (nutritious) foods. We eat half the number of eggs that we used to and one fifth of the butter and whole milk.

Sugar is deceptive – on the survey line for sugar alone, we have reduced our consumption significantly (to about one fifth of what it was). However, World Health Organisation statistics show that we consume approximately 1.6 pounds of sugar per person per week in the UK and we know from the National Food Survey that buying bags of sugar for the household has declined. What has happened, therefore, is that sugar is now hidden in almost every processed food we can buy – from the obvious ones like biscuits, cakes and sweets to less obvious products like tins of vegetables, soups, packaged hams and virtually every manufactured food.

The foods that increased in consumption are largely processed foods. Fresh potatoes down; processed potatoes (think oven chips) up. Fresh veg down; processed veg (think sugared tins/breaded things) up. Fresh (carcase) meat down; processed meat (think burgers/sausages) up. Whole milk down; low-fat milk up. Confectionery up, cereals up, other cereal products (think cereal/snack bars) up, ice cream up.

Most interestingly of all, this period alone can disprove the calorie theory. The National Food Survey also documents calorie intake. It tells us that we were eating 2,290 calories per person per day in 1975 and, by 1999, this had fallen to 1,690 calories per person per day. If we apply the 3,500 calorie formula, to the change in annual average calorie intake, all other things being equal, we should have lost an average of 62.6 pounds per person during this period. Instead obesity rose nearly tenfold during this time.

If ever there was evidence that it is what we eat that drives obesity and not how much we eat, this period from the UK archives provides it.


Difference (1974 to 2000)





Fat – all


Fat – butter


Fresh potatoes


Meat – all carcase meat


Milk – whole






Vegetables – all


Vegetables – Fresh green


Alcoholic drinks (Data from 1992 only)



+ 5%

Confectionery (Data from 1992 only)




Fruit – fresh


Fruit – other and fruit products


Ice cream and ice cream products


Meat – other meat products


Milk – other milk and cream


Other cereals and cereal products


Processed potatoes


Soft drinks


Vegetables – other fresh


Vegetables – processed


2) The UK diet in 2014

The most recent Family Food Survey was published in December 2015 for 2014 data. It can be seen here. Table 3.4 is the main summary table for intakes by food category. The breakdown by energy intake is as follows:

All Food (average per person per day)


As % of diet

1 Milk & Cream



2 Cheese



3 Carcase Meat



4 Non carcase Meat & Meat Products



5 Fish



6 Eggs



7 Fats & oils



8 Sugar and preserves



9 Fresh potatoes



10 Fresh green vegetables



11 Other fresh vegetables



12 Processed vegetables



13 Fresh fruit



14 Processed fruit



15 Bread



16 Flour



17 Cakes, buns & pastries



18 Biscuits



19 Other cereal products



20 Beverages



21 Other foods (Ref 2)



22 Soft drinks



23 Confectionery



24 Alcoholic drinks





100% (rounding errors)

Some observations

*     Real food can be found in rows 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 9, 10, 11 and 13. This amounts to 379 calories – 20% of the total. 80% of what the UK eats is fake food. (Natural fats like butter and lard should be separated from highly processed vegetable oils to be able to allocate real fats to the real food category and vegetable oils to the fake food category.)

*     Red meat is invariably lumped in with processed meat in studies that try to demonise all meat intake together (such as this one). The average UK person consumes four times as much processed meat and meat products (that will include pies/pasties/sausage rolls and other carb enclosed stuff) as carcase meat. We record these intakes separately and academic studies are able to analyse them separately. They rarely do so.

*     The Soft Drinks Association is fond of telling us that soft drinks account for just 2% of calorie intake. This is true but a) it’s a totally empty calorie intake and b) it’s about the same as our daily calories from fresh fruit and twice our calories from fresh vegetables. The soft drinks calorie intake also exceeds that of fish and is two and a half times our calorie intake for eggs.

*     One of the reasons I don’t attack soft drinks alone is this 2% figure. The main dietary culprit is sugar – nutritionally void and omnipresent. Sugar is in every fake food above with the exception of fats and oils. Sugar is thus in rows totalling 1,373 calories – just over 70% of UK calorie intake. Without sugar (and/or artificial sweeteners) there would be no: confectionery; soft drinks; cakes; buns; pastries; biscuits; processed fruit; sugar and preserves. Without sugar the following rows would also be decimated: cereal; bread; meat products (pies etc) and other food products (Ref 2) in the UK diet.

If we could cut sugar alone from the human diet, it is difficult to see how obesity could prevail – or much of the chronic illness now suffered by so many people: diabetes; cancer; cardiovascular disease and so on.

*     Page 9 of the most recent Family Food Survey tells us that butter consumption amounts to 40 grams per person per week; that’s fewer than 6 grams a day. And public health advisors think that butter makes us fat. Ha ha! Contrast this with the 800 calories per day of the starchy foods that the government tells us to eat (rows 9, 12, 15, 16, 17, 18 and 19) – 42% of our food intake.

*     The Chief Medical Officer recently lamented that “obesity has become the norm“. Look no further than what we’re eating and what you’re telling us to eat.

Ref 1: Wadsworth M, Kuh D, Richards M, Hardy R, The 1946 National birth cohort (MRC national Survey of Health and development).

Ref 2: Other food products includes: mineral or spring waters, baby foods, soups, other takeaway food brought home, meals on wheels, salad dressings and other spreads & dressings, pickles, sauces, takeaway sauces and mayonnaise, stock cubes and meat & yeast extracts, jelly squares or crystals, ice cream (all types), salt, artificial sweeteners, vinegar, spices and dried herbs, bisto, gravy granules, stuffing mix, baking powder, yeast, fruit, herbal and instant teas, and soya and novel protein foods.

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