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In the News

The Cost of Living Crisis and Malnutrition

Liz Blamire

22nd February 2023

A group of GPs in Scotland are concerned about an increase in malnutrition amongst their patients, which they have directly linked to patients choosing cheaper, processed foods. You can read the BBC report here: Cost of living: GP concerns over rise in signs of malnutrition.

What are 'processed foods'?

Simply put, a processed food is any food that has been altered in some way during preparation. So this can range from being cooked or frozen, to having preservatives added. This means that most of the food we buy from the supermarket is processed. For example, slices of ham are processed, cooked chicken breast are processed but so are chicken nuggets, sausages, squirty cream in a can and chocolate biscuits. This of course, means that not all processed foods are unhealthy. However, foods that are intended to have a long shelf life, or to be irresistible to our taste buds, often have additional salt, fat and sugar added to them.

Are processed foods cheaper than fresh fruit, vegetables and meat?

In the current cost of living crisis, the short answer is yes! In a report from Reuters in October of last year, it was shown that:

"Prices for fresh vegetables rose about 14% in September versus the same month last year for example, while fresh beef also jumped 14%, fish 15%, poultry 17%, eggs 22% and low-fat milk 42%. Meanwhile, salted or smoked meat such as bacon and crisps went up a slower pace of about 12% each, packaged pizzas rose nearly 10%, sugary snacks like gummies increased by 6% and chocolate increased by just over 3%."

This means that relative to fresh fruit, vegetables and meat, heavily processed foods are cheaper.

You might have also noticed shortages of some fresh fruit and vegetables in our supermarkets currently - this has been caused by poor weather in Spain and Morocco where many of these products are grown for the UK market: UK supermarkets face tomato shortages

What is malnutrition?

Malnutrition means bad nutrition and can occur whether or not an individual eats the recommended amount of calories for their height, weight and biological sex. Malnutrition occurs when a person's diet does not provide them with the right balance of macronutrients - fat, protein and carbohydrate - and micronutrients - vitamins and minerals - required for the healthy functioning of their body and mind. Malnutrition can cause symptoms such as fatigue, poor concentration, brittle nails, dry hair and skin and can lead to issues such as iron deficiency anaemia.

What is a healthy diet?

The Chief Medical Officer and the UK government recommend that everyone follows the Eatwell Guide. This shows us the proportions of the main food groups that form a healthy, balanced diet:

  • eat at least 5 portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables every day
  • base meals on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta and other starchy carbohydrates, choosing wholegrain versions where possible
  • have some dairy or dairy alternatives (such as soy drinks); choosing lower fat and lower sugar options
  • eat some beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins (including 2 portions of fish every week, 1 of which should be oily)
  • choose unsaturated oils and spreads and eat in small amounts
  • drink 6 to 8 cups/glasses of fluid a day
  • if consuming foods and drinks high in fat, salt or sugar have these less often and in small amounts - these are the heavily processed foods we are concerned about, such as crisps, fizzy drinks, chocolate bars, cakes, donuts and sugary frappes and shakes from fast food and coffee chains.

Liz Blamire

Liz is the current tutor2u subject lead for Health and Social Care. She is a former NHS midwife, who has worked in community, birth centre and acute hospital settings. Liz is an SSAT Accredited Lead Practitioner, who has taught Health and Social Care in FE and secondary schools, where she was a successful HOD. Liz is an experienced senior examiner and author.

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