Brits drink much less milk than they used to, but yoghurt consumption has quadrupled in the same timeframe. Beef consumption has halved since the Seventies, with chicken since becoming the most popular type of meat.
In short, what the UK eats has undergone a profound change in the last 45 years. The food we eat impacts our health, so the ramifications are huge. In the most recent Health Survey for England, 64% of adults were overweight or obese, up from 53% in 1993.
And it’s not just adults. In 1974, 12% of children aged 5-10 were overweight or obese. 30 years later, the figure was 29%. The most recent data from the National Child Measurement Programme shows that 34% of year 6 children are now overweight or obese.
So, what does the UK actually eat, and how has it changed over time? We’ve analysed 45 years of data from the UK’s Family Food Survey to find out. Year on year differences aren’t particularly insightful, but the trends over the decades show major changes.
In 1974, milk and milk products (excluding cheese) made up over a quarter of total food consumption. The overwhelming majority of this was whole, full-fat milk (90%). 45 years later, the proportion of total consumption made up of milk and milk products has dropped to 17%. Now skimmed and semi-skimmed milk dominate this category (83%).
Only 34g of yoghurt was consumed by the average Briton per week in 1974. This is around a quarter of the current recommended portion size (120g). By 2018, yoghurt consumption had increased by 440% to 194g, suggesting that the average person now eats around one and a half servings per week.
Beef and veal used to be the dominant type of meat in the UK, with 189 g consumed per person per week in 1974. Yet in the 45 years since, consumption has decreased by 48%. In the same timeframe, chicken consumption has increased by 52%; it’s now the major meat source.
Reported fat consumption has also halved since 1974. The large proportion of this comes from decreases in butter and margarine. But it’s interesting to note that the consumption of vegetable oils, such as olive oil, has more than doubled in 45 years. This suggests Britons may be buying into the reported health benefits of the Mediterranean diet.
A 2015 Cambridge University study found that the number of takeaway restaurants had risen by 45% over the previous 18 years. The amount of takeaway meals consumed, according to the survey, has risen even more.
Takeaway chicken is up 1,420% since 1978, while the amount of takeaway pizzas consumed has increased by 1,105%. To complete the holy takeaway trinity, kebabs are up a relatively modest 535%.
As a counterpart to this, ready meals have also undergone a huge increase in popularity. Originally promoted as a good way to save time at home, they now serve what people want to eat but may not have the skills to make. They also offer a cheaper alternative to eating out.
Our data analysis shows that consumption of meat-based ready meals has increased by 1,720%. That of vegetable-based ones has increased by 800%. This is despite a 2012 report in the British Medical Journal showing that, out of 100 UK supermarket ready meals, none met all WHO nutritional guidelines.
People are also becoming increasingly aware of the impact their diet has on the environment. In 2019, it’s estimated that there were 600,000 UK vegans. This has quadrupled from 2014.
We can also see this trend in the amount of “soya and other novel proteins” consumed, which has increased by 706% since 1978, the first year it was included. Since 2004, non-dairy milk alternatives have been included in the survey too. Their consumption has increased by 187% in the 15 years since.
Tea and coffee are our bread and butter, so to speak, so it would be remiss of us to ignore them. Tea has been a major feature of British life since the days of colonialism in India and China. Coffee has an even earlier history in the country. It arrived in the UK from the Middle East around 100 years before tea but has historically proved less popular.
In 1974, only 3 g of coffee beans were consumed per person per week, which is roughly equivalent to one coffee every other week. By contrast, the figure for tea was 68 g – corresponding to about 23 cups a week, or 3 cups a day!
In the 45 years to date, the roles are drastically reversing. Tea consumption has decreased by 70%, whereas the amount of coffee consumed has increased by 233%.
In summary, the UK’s diets have undergone a sea change in the 45 years since 1974. And as we head into a new year and a new decade, who knows how they’ll differ in the future. All we know is that they will change – that much is certain.
You can investigate the data for yourself with our 45 Years of UK Diets interactive. Let us know what you find!