It’s partly because people gravitate toward cheap, energy-dense foods in times of crisis that we see this effect, Nettle says. This is different from a famine situation (where people have so little access to food that it is wasted), but it remains a very problematic and potentially deadly situation.
But it’s not just that people eat excessive amounts of calories when they can to store fat and survive periods of hunger, known as the insurance hypothesis. They also appear to change their behavior and physiological processes to reduce the number of calories they burn, Nettle says. This usually happens on an unconscious level, he adds: “It slows everything down. You become less physically active. “
In other words, people are forced into a situation where it is both easy to gain weight and especially difficult to lose it again.
Unfortunately, the cost of living crisis will not end soon, predicts Tim Lloyd, a professor of economics at the University of Bournemouth in the United Kingdom. A “confluence of factors,” he says, is exacerbating the situation. Covid-19 disruption of supply chains, a series of bad harvests and the war in Ukraine are all to blame. In addition, some countries are imposing export bans on various food products in an effort to protect their own supplies, which could further increase world prices. “Things are pretty serious and I think they’ll get worse before they get better,” Lloyd says.
Some researchers argue that many of our current problems were predictable, given the shape and structure of the global food system. Among them is Timothy Lang, Professor Emeritus of Food Policy at the Center for Food Policy at City University London. Cheaper meals are almost always processed foods made by factories, he notes. Rising inequality is driving more and more people to choose over homemade alternatives, which are usually healthier.
Consumers are already changing what they buy in supermarkets, according to data collected by marketing company Savvy. Executive director Catherine Shuttleworth says the company’s recurring survey of 1,000 UK buyers suggests people are now eliminating high-value protein items such as meat and fish. They are also buying less branded products and discarding some extras like sweets.
To avoid slipping into processed foods and an unbalanced diet, Shuttleworth says retailers could promote healthy eating ideas in stores while lowering fruit and vegetable prices. “I think you’ll see a lot more of a battlefield around fresh food than in the past,” he says.
A useful step could have been the UK government’s ban on “buy a free” junk food offerings in supermarkets. But due to the crisis in the cost of living, he says, he was reluctant to push for this policy, as well as his proposal to ban the advertising of junk food before 9 p.m., decisions that some health experts have questioned. However, Tesco and Sainsbury’s, the two largest supermarket chains in the UK, plan to continue with the ban anyway.
But controlling advertising or junk food offerings is unlikely to make a big difference on its own, Nettle says, “People are pretty smart,” he explains. “If they know they have a pound to spend tomorrow, they’ll ask, ‘What do I need to get more calories?’