Why do Britons struggle to eat healthily?


Despite rising awareness of the importance of a balanced diet, many Britons are finding it hard to manage their weight. As a result, the government and public health campaigners have challenged food and drink brands to enable healthier choices, but is this enough to stem an obesity crisis?


Though Britons may make promises to eat healthier and get in shape – in 2017, 48% made a New Year’s resolution to lose weight – many struggle to clean up their diets, with 45% of adults nationwide saying they feel ‘too heavy’. [1][2] And in spite of their reputation for jumping on to fad diets, Gen Yers are set to be the fattest generation yet, with over 70% on track to be overweight by the time they reach middle age. [3]

To an extent, this looming crisis is due to the accessibility of different foods and nutritional education. Access is partly down to economic factors, as food makes up the highest proportion of expenditure for low-income households, making multi-buy deals an essential for families that are ‘just about managing’. [4] For instance, when celebrity chef Jamie Oliver campaigned to ban unhealthy two-for-one pizza deals in Scotland, it was criticised as ‘class snobbery’. [5]

Shoppers are also confused by conflicting information about food and health in the media. According to nutritional therapist Nancy Towers, “the media is guilty of sending many mixed messages to the public. I spend quite a lot of time with many of my clients simply myth-busting and emphasising that a balanced diet, using real ingredients, is key. Of course, there are some ‘super-foods’ like broccoli and most vegetables, raw cacao, curcumin and fermented foods, but there is no cure-all.” [6] In the face of misinformation and barriers to access, how can brands help people improve their diets?

Sugar sanctions
In an effort to halve childhood obesity by 2030, the Department of Health and Social Care announced in June 2018 that it would look at a proposed junk food watershed, which stops TV ads for fatty and sugary food and drink (HFSS) before 9pm. Though the idea has long been supported by campaigners, the ban has been called a ‘blunt instrument’ by the ad industry, as many brands are still unable to reach younger demographics through less regulated social channels. As Stephen Woodford, chief executive of the Advertising Association, stated: “International experience and independent research has shown advertising bans have little impact on the wider societal issues that drive obesity, which is caused by the interaction of many complex factors and requires a multi-faceted solution.” [7]

Short-term solutions to such long-term health problems are not necessarily sustainable. While the government has successfully launched the Soft Drinks Industry Levy – or ‘sugar tax’ – many brands have simply turned to other sweeteners. After the Soil Association gained commitments from fast food restaurants Pizza Hut and TGI Fridays to discontinue refillable sugary drinks at their restaurants, the original beverages were replaced with artificially sweetened versions. Consequently, the organisation has backed an extension of the tax, arguing that “we are born with a sweet tooth and we learn to enjoy more bitter flavours, such as those found in many vegetables, as we grow up and begin to eat a more diverse diet. The excessive consumption of artificially sweetened foods and drinks in childhood... can inhibit this learning, meaning we fail to develop a taste for those bitter but nutritionally-important leafy greens.” [8]

“[Artificial sweeteners] can make the sugar craving worse, as your body eats something sweet and is expecting the glucose hit, but when this does not come you tend to crave more sweet food later. For example, you might drink a diet coke then crave a doughnut later,” says Tower. She recommends that manufacturers try to wean people off of their sweetness dependency rather than merely swapping for unhealthy alternatives. [6]

Meat-free movements
A survey carried out in 2017 found that 49% of Britons who are interested in or who are already reducing their meat consumption agree that eating too much of the stuff is bad for their health.[9] Some brands are successfully responding to this surge in ‘flexitarianism’ and veganism. For example, the plant-based Moving Mountains B12 burger is touted as ‘barely distinguishable’ from real beef and is aimed at those who want to cut back. Quorn, meanwhile, has experienced an upturn in sales amid both health and environmental concerns.

Even brands that aren’t vegan-centric are cashing in on the desire for meat-free options. Bakery chain Greggs has seen increased profits partly as a result of offering healthier foods including vegan wraps and sandwiches. Nestlé has launched a range called Garden Gourmet to the UK market that includes meat-free burgers, beetroot falafel, quinoa, and broccoli bakes “for food lovers wanting to cut down on meat but not wanting to compromise on taste.” [10] McDonald's has also received positive reviews for its McVegan burger in Scandinavia, and KFC is planning to offer meat-free chicken as part of a broader drive to reduce the fat content of its menus by a fifth by 2025.

However, Towers is wary about the veganism trend as she feels it demonstrates how “many younger people have no desire to spend time cooking or don’t know how to cook from scratch. They tend to rely on vegan ready-meals which are highly processed, expensive and deficient in nutrients. As their diet is nutrient-deficient, unhealthy vegans tend to crave sugar as they are not nourished or satisfied. I feel there needs to be more education and encouragement for people to learn how to cook from scratch using ingredients like vegan protein such as chickpeas, lentils, beans, nuts and plenty of vegetables and fruit.” [6]

Cultural influences
Towers believes that nutritional advocates can be hugely influential on people’s choices. “Jamie Oliver is a star and has tried his best to encourage healthy eating, even if he does attract criticism,” she says. “There needs to be more voices like his from the nutritional world speaking out in the media to encourage healthier lifestyles. Dale Pinnock is a renowned chef and qualified nutritionist who has written some brilliant recipe books with simple, delicious dishes.” But such messages don’t solely have to come from the celebrity circuit or social media feeds. She points out that Waitrosehas nutritionists advising healthy options and “could expand its current initiative where they have a prominent display of simple ingredients along with a recipe card using ingredients like lentils, chickpeas, beans, tofu and lots of veg to encourage us all to eat a more plant-based diet. Everyone needs more inspiration on how to cook more healthily.” [6]

Some of the issues with healthy lifestyles are cultural, not just nutritional. For instance, the life expectancy of Japanese citizens is the highest in the world, attributed to a distinctive diet of fish, soybeans and low fat alongside improved socioeconomic status and overall lifestyle. Cultural attitudes to nutrition can provide a discernible template to confused Britons, contributing to ‘Japanese-inspired’ fad diets, much like the 2018 iteration of the Mediterranean diet popularised in the 1950s for much the same reasons.

Sara, a 52-year-old from Oxfordshire, is trying to lose a few pounds and be healthier. To do so, she’s following the Japanese diet by cutting out dairy and processed food while minimising meat and reducing portion sizes. She was influenced to try it by her sister, alongside an article she’d read in a Sunday newspaper. “I have taken up drinking matcha tea which is extremely high in antioxidants. Also, I’m not having any snacks between meals. I check labels to see if the product is organic, and also salt and sugar content.” Sara says she already feels fitter and healthier, but the financial burden of this lifestyle is difficult as “organic produce is more expensive and I have to do more food preparation, so everything takes more time. Otherwise, I think in the end the costs are the same – ready meals can work out more expensive in the long-run.” [11]

Insights and opportunities
Encouraging people to eat less meat is essential for both health and environmental factors, but doing so can be tricky. In a survey carried out in 2017, when meat-eaters were asked the reason they’d chosen not to go vegetarian or vegan, 26% replied that they were put off by the attitudes of some vegans, and 37% said they found vegan positions too aggressive. [12] A separate studyfrom the London School of Economics discovered that separating vegetarian from meat options on menus reduces the chances of customers ordering them, partly because flexitarians often want to reward themselves by eating meat in restaurants. The study concluded that it would be beneficial to include one or two targeted products, or even encourage part-time participation with promotional meat-free days or Veganuary. [13]

In spite of the much publicised five-a-day campaign, only 26% of British adults and 16% of kids eat five or more fruit or vegetables a day, and half of children eat fewer than three portions. [2]In Wales, a programme aimed at young children uses behavioural tactics to encourage them to eat fruit. By placing chopped fruit in bite-sized pieces – which require less effort to eat – in front of less healthy dessert options, it increases the likelihood of picking the fruit. [13] Towers approves of this initiative, saying: “It does make it more appealing to children as they then do not feel ‘overfaced’ if told to eat a whole piece of fruit. Primary schools should introduce free fruit and raw veg to children. They did it with milk, so fruit should be no more difficult but would have more benefits.” What’s more, it taps into the need to educate taste buds from a young age. [6]

Public Health England notes that brands should reduce the sugar content to re-educate people’s taste buds, reflecting the reduction of salt in our food products (down 15% in the last 10 years). According to the Soil Association, “soft drinks manufacturers have conceded that consumers do not seem to detect reductions of around 4% in the sugar content of drinks, where these have not been replaced with sweeteners.” [8] Towers suggests that brands should take advantage of the opportunity, commenting “there is a market for these less sweet tastes – we need to encourage producers who take the initiative.” [6]

1. 'New Year resolutions: How to make 2018 the year you achieve your goals', Sky News (January 2018)
2. 'Statistics on obesity, physical activity and diet', NHS (April 2018)
3. 'Millennials top obesity chart before reaching middle age', Cancer Research UK (February 2018)
4. 'Family Food 2016/17: Expenditure', Gov.uk (April 2018)
5. 'The internet reacts to Jamie Oliver's 2-4-1 pizza ban', The National (May 2018)
6. Interview with Nancy Towers conducted by author
7. 'Ad industry faces fight to prevent 'blunt' 9pm junk food watershed', Campaign (June 2018)
8. 'The ‘sugar tax’ should be extended to artificial sweeteners', Soil Association (May 2018)
9. 'Brits carve their meat intake: 28% of Brits have cut back their meat consumption over the last six months', Mintel (August 2017)
10. 'Nestlé's meat-free Garden Gourmet brand set for UK launch', The Grocer (May 2018)
11. Interview with Sara conducted by author
12. 'Aggressive vegans put people off veganism', Canvas8 (August 2017)
13. 'Applying behaviour change science to improve the health of everyone in Wales', Prudent Healthcare


This article was first published by our research partner, Canvas8

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