Every day for Lynn feels like a struggle to get enough to eat. She’s also in a battle to stop putting on weight.
When Britain went into lockdown, market stalls closed and shoppers were told to limit outings for essentials at stretched supermarkets. Lynn, a 38-year-old mother of four who relies on state support, could no longer scour her neighborhood in east London for the best bargains on apples or milk. With her options limited, she’s put on almost 30 pounds (14 kilograms) since March.
“We’re having lots of beans on toast, something on toast—everything on toast,” Lynn said on a video call. She now weighs more than 200 pounds. “And that’s the problem I’m struggling with at the moment: Fruit is expensive.”
Lynn’s predicament cuts to the heart of a paradox as coronavirus widens health and financial inequalities and worsens food poverty: some people are eating more, but in many ways, it’s less. She is one of roughly 20 million adults who aren’t able to afford healthy foods in the U.K. alone, according to estimates from think tank Demos. If the global rise of unhealthy eating and obesity isn’t tackled, related health costs will exceed $1.3 trillion a year in the next decade, the United Nations warns.
It’s no secret that the cheapest food in the western world is often the stuff that’s worst for you: fast meals and ultra-processed food, usually loaded with salt, fat and sugar. For the poorest, it’s typically what they can afford, and that’s only grown more acute during the coronavirus pandemic.
Unhealthy diets are poised to worsen the obesity problem all over the world, contributing to a “global pandemic in its own right,” the UN’s Food & Agriculture Organization said in July. Healthy and nutritious food has already been out of reach for more than 3 billion people. With economies sinking and unemployment at historic highs, millions more will find themselves trying to balance their budgets with the need for vital portions of fresh fruit, vegetables and proteins.
The U.K. stands out because of a food culture that became less focused on healthy diets. Going all the way back to the Industrial Revolution, the nation’s citizens were cut off from traditional rural diets faster than the rest of Europe. Today, almost two-thirds of people in the country are overweight or obese, the highest rate in Europe after Malta. The British eat more sweet and savory snacks than anywhere in the European Union except for Ireland and have the greatest tendency to consume ultra-processed foods, all while eating less fruit.
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