A leading nutrition researcher has warned of the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on the obesity epidemic, in a new paper published in the journal Obesity.

Professor Alexandra Johnstone, from the Rowett Institute at the University of Aberdeen, provides evidence that rising food insecurity is fuelling the consumption of highly processed foods, high in energy density, fat, sugar, and salt.

In the paper co-authored with Early Career Researcher Marta Lonnie, also from the Rowett Institute, she calls for improved policy, behavioural interventions, retail strategies and the need for actionable evidence to address dietary inequalities in people living with obesity and food insecurity.

Professor Johnstone explains: “Increasing obesity levels as a result of food insecurity - defined as the lack of secure access to sufficient amounts of safe and nutritious food for normal growth and development and an active and healthy life – may seem paradoxical.

“But in the UK, healthier foods are three times more expensive per calorie than unhealthy foods and it has been shown that food sources of protein, fibre, vitamins, and minerals cost more.

“As a result, the dietary choices of those on the lowest incomes are often limited to a low-price, high-energy combination, which, in the long term, can promote weight gain, especially when combined with a sedentary lifestyle.”

Professor Johnstone says the current cost of living crisis is accelerating this trend as in September 2022, 40% of British consumers reported that they were worried about being able to afford to purchase food in the next month.

“The scale of the problem is becoming clear, with a sharp increase in food insecurity since the COVID-19 pandemic,” she adds.

“In September 2022, 25% of households with children were reported as being food insecure. This is a staggering 2.5-fold increase in the number of households experiencing food insecurity since January 2021.

“For families on low income, the poorest fifth of the UK population need to spend 47% of their disposable income to consume a healthy diet according to the Eatwell Guide, in contrast to 11% needed by the richest fifth in the UK.”

With an estimated two-thirds of UK adults already overweight or obese, Professor Johnstone argues that it is time to recognise the true cost of this.

“Poor diet is the primary risk factor for cardiovascular diseases and type 2 diabetes,” she adds.

“The current status quo is a ticking time bomb that needs to be urgently addressed but the intersection between low income and obesity is more complex than simply the ‘energy in–energy out’ concept.

“If the UK government's Obesity Strategy is not maintained then it will likely widen the existing health inequality gap even further, with the potential to worsen the health of the public and increase the prevalence of obesity in both adults and children.

“Urgent action is needed to find evidence-based solutions to deliver safe, healthy, affordable food, regardless of where people live or how much they earn.”

The research was supported by an award from the Transforming UK Food Systems for Healthy People and a Healthy Environment Programme, one of UKRI’s Strategic Priority Funds, as part of the project FIO Food: Food Insecurity in people living with Obesity - improving sustainable and healthier food choices in the retail FOOD environment.

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