Food consumption trends in the UK

21 Feb 2022
Nathalie Vauterin

Food consumption trends in the UK

Obesity is a global pandemic influenced by the food environment and individual choices. [1] Obesity prevalence in the UK is amongst the worst in Europe with more than 60% of adults living with overweight or obesity. [2] In England, 20 % of year 6 children were classified as living with obesity in 2020 with a prevalence twice as high in the most deprived areas than the least deprived area. [3] Trends in food consumption are worth looking at as some are important factors contributing to rising levels of obesity (e.g., increasing consumption of meals out home).



Although consumers are not meeting the dietary guidelines recommendations, there has been reduction in salt, sugar, and red meat consumption. However, consumption of fruits, vegetables and fibre has shown little or no change, and consumption of salt, sugar and red meat are still too high. [4]

The latest data on salt intake for adults shows that average salt intake in 2020 was still higher (8.4g) than the recommended intake of 6g per day. While salt intake has been decreasing slowly over time, this decrease has slowed since 2014. [5]

There has been a fall in red and processed meat consumption over the past decade (-17.4 per capita per day over the last decade), most likely for environmental and health reasons. Significantly, all adults now consume less red meat and processed meat but more white meat. The proportion of meat consumers has decreased over time, whereas the proportion of individuals identifying as vegetarian, and vegan has increased. [6]

The consumption of free sugars by mean average for the general population were significantly lower in 2016 to 2019 than in 2014 to 2016, but were still more than double the recommended maximum of no more than 5% of total energy. The fall in free sugars intake in children is at least partly attributable to a reduction in consumption of sugar-sweetened soft drinks in all age groups following the implementation of the sugar tax in 2018. However, further data shows that while consumption of sugary drinks has fallen, there has been no decline in sweet confectionery and chocolate consumption, with intake even going up in some groups.

Healthy diets typically include greater consumption of fruit, vegetables and whole grains, and reduced consumption of sugar, salt, processed foods, and red meat. [7] The UK population continues to consume too much saturated fat and not enough fruit, vegetables, and fibre.

Mean intakes of fibre were below recommendations in all age groups. In adults mean intakes were around 18g per day over age groups, below the recommendation of 30g. Only 4% of children aged 11-18 years are currently meeting fibre recommendations. Low fibre intake in the UK is thought to be the result of the low intake of fruits and vegetables, as well as a lack of knowledge about where to find fibre and how important it is for our health. In 2018, only 28% of adults were eating the recommended portion of fruits and vegetables and young people aged 16-24 years were less likely than other adults to get their five-a-day. [8]


Most notable changes in eating habits

Purchases of white bread have dropped 75% since 1974, according to the survey, while those of brown and wholemeal bread have risen by 85%.

Skimmed milk (referring both to skimmed and semi-skimmed) overtook whole-fat milk in the 1990s and British households now drink four times as much.

Italian-style cooking is widespread today. Pizza (frozen and not frozen) rose even more dramatically, with average purchase from 2g per week in 1975 to 53g in 2014. The number of takeaway pizzas bought per household shot up 1,000% over the same period.

Reported purchases in the category “chips (frozen and not frozen)” were three times higher in 2014 than in 1974. [9]


Cheaper food and rise of Ultra-Processed food

According to the data from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey, some 24% of a typical pay packet went on food in 1974 compared with 11% today. However, falling prices have sometimes meant a drop in quality of some products at the bottom end of the market too. More than half (57%) of all calories consumed on average across the UK population come from ultra-processed foods. As the ultra-processed food consumption increased, the dietary content of carbohydrates, free sugars, total fats, saturated fats, and sodium increased significantly while the content of protein, fibre, and potassium decreased. Decreasing the dietary share of ultra-processed foods may substantially improve the nutritional quality of diets and contribute to the prevention of diet related NCDs. [10]


How is it consumed?

Channels through which consumers are purchasing food are diversifying. Data from IGD research shows that online grocery market shopping will increase its market share from 18.6 to 23.4 % by 2024. However, large grocery stores will still account for half of the market (50.1%) in 2024. [11] Forms of home delivery other than supermarket delivery include HelloFresh, Amazon Fresh or vegetables.


Out of home environment on the rise

Overall, the consumption of food and beverages from outside the home have considerably increased during the last decades. [12] More than a quarter of adults and one fifth of children eat food from outlets such as cafes, takeaways, or restaurants at least once a week. These meals can be high in calories, fat, sugar, and salt. Eating out of home in places like restaurants’ take-away and fast food is increasingly growing in younger adults’ and adolescents’ diet compared to older adults who prefer to eat at home. Takeaway and fast food environments are a significant contributor to this age-group’s diet. [13] Some evidence shows that children from lower income households are more likely to eat takeaway meals at home or purchase food from outside schools. [14] This emphasises the importance of creating healthy food environment around schools.


The widening of inequalities and increase in levels of food poverty

Poor diet puts people at risk for poor health. There are socio-demographic differences in the consumption of a healthy diet as costs shape what people can afford to eat. Low-income groups consume less healthy food and less fruits and vegetables. Low socio-economic status (in terms of education level, work status and income) is the single most consistent risk factor for an unhealthy diet.[3] Lower incomes, economic deprivation and lower levels of education are associated with a poorer diet and living with overweight/obesity. [15] The local environment has also a huge impact as our behaviours influence our food choices. Figures from Public Health England (PHE) reveal England’s poorest areas are fast food hotspots, with 5 times more outlets found in these communities than in the most affluent. Children in deprived areas are the most exposed to those outlets and on their way back to school may find it difficult to find healthier options. [16]



C3 is currently working with seven communities in the North of France and the South of England via an EU-funded project ASPIRE (Adding to Social capital and individual Potential In disadvantaged Regions). The four French sites are in “Les Hauts de France”, the region with the highest obesity rate in France. This multi-partner project is aiming to provide people living with obesity/overweight and/or unemployed the tools they need to make healthier lifestyle choices and improve their employability. Through multi-sector collaboration, C3 works with communities to make it easier for everyone to make healthier choices, which we know is especially difficult for those living in disadvantaged communities. [17]

Read more about C3’s ASPIRE projects: 




[1]The state of food security and nutrition in the world (2018). Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)

[2] Cancer research UK. Overweight and obesity statistics (2019) As of 10 January 2022

[3] Digital NHS UK. Statistics on obesity, physical activity, and diet, England. (2020).

[4] D’Angello, C., Gloison, E.R., Draper, A., Guthrie, S., (2020). Food consumption in the UK: Trends, attitudes and drivers. RAND Europe.

[5] UK Health Security Agency blog: new data reveals how your diet are changing overtime. Retrieved from internet 20/01/2022

[6] Steward,S., Piernas,C.,Cook,B.,Jebb,S.A., (2021). Trends in the UK meat consumption: analysis data from year 1-11(2008-2009 2018-2019) of National Diet and Nutrition Survey rolling program. Lancet Planet Health.

[7] Public Health England. 2018. The Eatwell Guide.

[8] NHS digital: Fruits and vegetables. 2018. As of 10 January 2022,

[9]  10 ways the UK eating habits have changed. (2016) 10 ways the UK eating habits have changed. BBC news magazine.

[10] Rauber et al., 2018.Ultra-processed food consumption and chronic non-communicable diseases related dietary nutrient profile in the UK (2008-2014). Nutrients.10.587.

[11] IGD.2019.UK food sale to grow by £24bn by 2024 as of 19 January 2022

[12] FSA. 2019.The food and you survey-wave five. As of 15 January 2022

[13] Tyrrell, R.L et al., (2017). Food environments of young people: linking individual behaviour to environmental context. Journal of Public Health. Vol. 39, No. 1, pp. 95–104. doi:10.1093/pubmed/fdw019

[14] Wills, W., Danesi, G., Kapetanaki, A.B., Hamilton,L., (2019). Socio-Economic Factors, the Food Environment and Lunchtime Food Purchasing by Young People at Secondary School Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2019, 16, 1605; doi:10.3390/ijerph16091605

[15] Penne, T., Goedeme, T., (2021). Can low-income households afford a healthy diet? Insufficient income as a driver of food insecurity in Europe. Food Policy. vol 99,101978.

[16] England’s poorest areas are fast food outlets in Englands most deprived communities. 2018. Public Health England

[17] C3 Collaborating for Health website