Is austerity making us eat less? Calorie intake falls three percent in a year

By Chaminda Jayanetti

Today’s official data on unpaid household labour included a section on the value of “nutrition” – in other words, how much it would cost households to feed themselves if they ate out instead of preparing their own food.

And the findings are striking:

  • the “value” of the food production by households fell seven percent between 2013 and 2014
  • annual calorie intake per person fell by almost three percent between 2013 and 2014 – that means each person ate fewer calories per year than before

In fact, not only did the calorie intake of each person fall in 2014 – it’s actually fallen for five years running. The total amount of calories consumed by the public has remained roughly stable ever since 2005, but as the population has risen, the intake per person has shrunk.

This is the chart produced by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showing the trend. The blue bars are annual national calorie consumption; the yellow line is annual calorie consumption per person. The former is stable; the latter declines:

ONS nutrition chart

Why is this? The ONS itself does not say, but there has been no change to the ONS methodology that can explain the fall. NHS data has shown a rise in the number of patients admitted to hospital showing symptoms of malnutrition – we know it’s on the rise. There is plenty of evidence that children are increasingly turning up to school underfed – although mothers are generally hit by malnutrition well before their children are. The rise in use of food banks is well known.

The picture from hospitals and schools is linked to squeezed household budgets amid austerity – but what isn’t certain is whether the ONS data has the same diagnosis.

The ONS dataset goes back as far as 2005. Calorie intake per person fell in 2006, 2007 and 2008 – the first two being years of economic growth – before actually rising in 2009, the first year after the crisis hit, albeit before austerity took hold. It has subsequently fallen every year since.

But the most recent decline has been the sharpest – individual calorie intake has fell by almost three percent between 2013 and 2014. This could be because people were eating more healthily, and consuming less calorific food – this might explain the falls from 2006-08 amid growing concerns over obesity. But does it explain the 6.7 percent combined fall since 2009?

We don’t know for sure -the ONS doesn’t say, and probably couldn’t if it wanted to, at least not on the basis of this data alone. But what we do know is that there is other evidence of falling food consumption, at least among people who are short of money – today’s ONS data might add ballast to that argument.

How is it calculated?

The ONS uses data from the Family Food Survey, published by the government. This counts the calories consumed at home as a way of measuring the amount of food prepared – it takes no account of food that is wasted, or the type of food consumed beyond the calorie intake. Alcohol is excluded.

The Family Food Survey also lets ONS work out the consumption and cost of calories “eaten out” – restaurants, cafes, pubs and the such like.

The ONS then estimates the output of household nutrition by multiplying the total number of calories consumed in the home, by the cost per calorie eaten out. The ONS then subtracts the estimated cost of producing the food – for example, the cost of kitchen utensils – to give the final “value” of household nutrition “labour”.

This, in other words, is what it would cost for Britain to eat out all the time instead of making food at home.

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