Recession health Q&A

Behind the Headlines

Thursday March 12 2009

Everyone should aim to eat at least five portions of fruit and veg each day

“The recession is bad for your health,” The Daily Telegraph has warned, reporting on a review of the health effects of unemployment. This newspaper also covers a report from the Which? consumer watchdog, which says that although four-fifths of people want to eat healthily, the economic climate is preventing them.

The report by the non-profit Which? consumer group reviews the progress towards its 12 ‘demands’ to encourage healthier food choices, made in a 2004. The report examines the efforts to tackle diet-related health issues by a number of organisations, including supermarkets, food companies and the government. The report also reveals that one in four are making healthy eating a low priority in the wake of the financial crisis.

The second report, an editorial in the British Medical Journal, focuses on unemployment and its effect on health. It reviews past studies conducted in previous times of high unemployment, reporting mortality rates and other detrimental effects, and concludes that recessions are bad for health.

What did the Which? report say?

In 2004, the Which? consumer group made a number of proposals to combat obesity and diet-related illness. This new report looks at where the issue now stands five years on, specifically focusing on the actions by a number of organisations, including the food industry, advertisers and the government. The new report also features a survey of 2,102 adults who were asked their opinions on a range of issues around healthy eating.

The report concludes that “although four out of five people want to follow a healthy diet, the current economic climate is yet another barrier to good intentions”.  The consumer group says that 27.7 million adults in the UK believe that price has become more important than health when choosing foods in the financial downturn. This figure was estimated by applying the findings of the survey to the UK population as a whole.

The report also concludes that nearly three in five (57%) of the sample agreed that they would buy more fruit and vegetables if they were cheaper. Almost a quarter (24%) said that the economic crisis had made healthier eating less of a priority.

What health problems can a poor diet cause?

Eating unhealthily can contribute to several serious health problems, including obesity, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, heart attacks and strokes. A poor diet can also increase the risk of several types of cancer.

How many deaths could be avoided through changes in diet?

The Which? report also quotes from a Cabinet Office report, which estimates food-related ill health cost the NHS £6 billion each year (9% of its budget). It says that:

  • 42,000 premature deaths could be avoided by an increase in fruit and vegetable intake of 136g per day.
  • 20,000 premature deaths could be avoided by a reduction in daily salt intake from an average of 9g to 6g.
  • 3,500 premature deaths could be avoided by a cut in saturated fat intake by 2.5% of energy.
  • 3,500 premature deaths could be avoided by a cut in added sugar intake by 1.75% of energy.

How can I eat well on a budget? 

A healthy diet does not need to be expensive, and can even save you money.

  • Cooking meals from scratch can be cheaper and healthier than eating processed food or ready meals, which often contain high amounts of fat, salt and sugar.
  • To save time, home-made meals can be prepared in large batches and frozen. These can simply be reheated for a cheaper, healthier option that is just as convenient as a ready meal.
  • If fresh produce is too expensive, you can still get your 5-a-day through eating tinned or frozen fruit and vegetables.
  • Not adding salt to food is good for the heart, and will not cost a penny.
  • Snacks, such as crisps and chocolate, can be replaced with healthier alternatives, such as bananas or apples.
  • Brown and wholemeal bread are healthier options than white bread, and very good sources of fibre. Buying wholemeal or brown bread does not cost any more money than buying white bread.
  • Read labels and check for levels of salt, sugar, fat and saturated fat in foods. You can also switch to reduced fat and reduced salt versions of the food you regularly buy.

How does unemployment affect health? 

The Daily Telegraph also refers to an article outlining the health consequences of being out of work. This editorial in the British Medical Journal, was written by Danny Dorling, a professor of human geography at Sheffield University. He reviewed the recessions in the 1980s and 1990s, and showed that people in work recover from illness faster, and that deaths are doubled in men who have been made redundant compared to those in work. It also comments on the changes in the number of 18 to 19-year-olds accepted for UK universities between 1995 and 2005.

The author concludes that recessions are bad for health because of increased unemployment, and that young people “would be better off in college than on the dole.” He says that this information is particularly important as unemployment exceeds two million in the UK, and is expected to grow.

My work/financial situation is making me stressed. What can I do?

Financial difficulties, being unemployed or the prospect of joblessness can all cause stress. While a little stress is normal, acute or chronic stress can be unhealthy and could develop into a mental health problem, such as depression.

If stress becomes a problem, speak to your GP, who may be able to help by explaining stress management techniques, prescribing medication or arranging counselling and talking therapies.

Analysis by Bazian

Edited by NHS Choices

Links to the headlines

The recession is bad for your health, experts warn. The Daily Telegraph, March 10 2009

Recession thwarts healthy efforts. BBC online, March 10 2009

Links to the science

Which: healthy eating for all campaign

Dorling D. Unemployment and health. BMJ 2009; 338:b829

Food: an analysis of the issues, Cabinet Office, The Strategy Unit, January 2008.

The burden of food related ill health in the UK’, Rayner M and Scarborough P, Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 2005, 59, 1054-7.


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