Middle age man buying food in grocery store, wearing medical mask, photo by annanahabed/Adobe Stock

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(The RAND Blog)

We Are What We Eat: Understanding Food Consumption for Healthier and More Sustainable Diets

Photo by annanahabed/Adobe Stock

by Camilla d'Angelo

August 12, 2020

UK food consumption is changing. In recent years, there has been an increase in ethical and sustainable eating, and movements like Veganuary and Meat Free Monday, which encourage people to embrace plant-based diets, are growing in popularity. The growth of digital technology is changing the food landscape too. From digital apps and online platforms like Deliveroo and Uber Eats to online supermarket delivery, it is now easier and more convenient than ever for people to access and consume food.

However, despite some of these trends, most people are still not eating a healthy diet, and people's choice of food often does not match their values and beliefs. When faced with a choice, people still mostly make food decisions based on price, convenience and taste. Therefore, understanding the way people eat, why they choose the foods that they do, and how people can be supported in this process is important for policymakers.

Understanding Food Consumption Matters

What people eat can have implications for health, society and the environment. Obesity is already a concern, with 29 per cent of UK adults identified as obese. Being obese or overweight puts people at risk of ill health and, in the UK, is responsible for more than 30,000 deaths per year owing to conditions such as diabetes or heart disease.

Consumer behaviours will have been affected by COVID-19, but prior to the pandemic, evidence showed a rise in people eating out and eating food from outside of the home, like takeaways. This compounds the obesity problem as these foods tend to be higher in calories than food prepared in the home. This out-of-home sector is also fragmented compared with the traditional food retail market and does not have the same requirements around mandatory nutrition labelling.

Ethics and Sustainability, but Not at the Expense of Price or Convenience

A new RAND Europe study for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs examined the trends and reasons behind how people consume food in the UK. The study found that people in the UK are generally struggling to meet their “five-a-day” fruit and vegetable consumption goal. Although people are eating less salt, sugar and red and processed meat, they are still eating too much meat overall and not enough fruit, vegetables and fibre.

Similarly, although some people are increasingly health conscious, ethical and more sustainable in their food choices, this is often only if the options are affordable, readily available and perceived to be of good quality.

The marketing, advertising, placement and availability of (unhealthy) food all act to influence consumer choices.

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While many people are aware that eating a healthy diet and being physically active are important, they are often constrained by their food environment, whether that be the availability of foods at home or school or the wider availability of healthy foods at outlets near where they live.

The marketing, advertising, placement and availability of (unhealthy) food all act to influence consumer choices. Thus, multiple actors in the food system, including retailers and manufacturers, powerfully shape our food environment, for good or bad.

Policymakers can help to support healthy diets—from providing information, to shaping the food environment and changing the cost and content of food. Therefore, it is important to know what policy options exist to influence food consumption, and whether they are effective or not. It is also important to identify where more research is needed.

A 'Whole Systems' Approach Is Needed

The evidence in the RAND Europe study suggests that a “whole systems” approach—combining different policy options—is likely to be most effective at changing behaviours.

Information is important to raise awareness about specific issues, but alone it is unlikely to substantially change diets. This is because the UK population is not homogeneous, and people have widely different experiences, beliefs and attitudes. In particular, people don't always have the power to change behaviours as a result of their education or income.

A balance is needed between soft measures, like awareness campaigns that promote individual-level change, and stronger measures, like changes to the cost and content of food, that encourage collective change. For example, to help combat the obesity crisis, the UK government launched the “Sugar Tax” in 2018 to reduce the sugar content in soft drinks. Early evidence indicates that the tax has helped to reduce the consumption of sugar from drinks subject to the tax.

Many evaluations of the effectiveness of policy options are limited to short-term or intermediate outcomes, which limit their usefulness. To understand what works best, more long-term evaluations of different policy options, supported by good quality data obtained in “real world” settings, may be needed. These should target the food environment and the effectiveness of prices, subsidies and changing the ingredients in foods.

Investing in a broader spectrum of policy options supported by good “real world” evidence is likely to be key in helping people to make healthier, ethical and sustainable choices.


Camilla d'Angelo is an analyst at RAND Europe working on innovation, health and science policy.

Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.