Vanessa and Betty have noticed the variety in their fridge change
According to their report, the average British adult should be consuming no more than 400 calories at breakfast, 600 for lunch and 600 for dinner.
“Too many children and most adults are overweight or obese,” say PHE, “suffering consequences from bullying and low self-esteem in childhood, to Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some cancers as adults”.
PHE’s report coincided with a study by the Government’s chief adviser on obesity along with experts from Cambridge University that found larger portion sizes and calorific content are actually encouraging us to overeat, with some items such as scotch eggs, crumpets and hot cross buns growing by as much as 40 per cent in the past few decades.
But while it may be tempting to think of us as a nation of ready-meal guzzling fast-food addicts, things may not be as bleak as they seem.
“Comparing diets of 50 years ago and today presents something of a paradox,” says clinical nutritionist Suzie Sawyer, of nutrition lifestyle. co.uk.
“In some ways we’re healthier now – our fridges contain a lot more fruit and veg, which gives us that essential colour and variety to our diets.
But on the other hand many foods we eat now that seem ‘healthier’ have been altered from their natural state. Products that claim to be ‘reduced fat’ might have artificial sweeteners added .”
Suzie also points out that the National Diet and Nutrition Survey that highlights obesity rates today doesn’t have comparable statistics for 1968 and says that our diets may actually only be part of the problem. “I think our sedentary lifestyles are probably as important a factor in rising obesity as what we’re eating,” she says.
Superdrug nutritionist Charlotte Stirling-Reed adds: “Food and nutrition really isn’t black and white. We have more scope now to eat a really healthy diet, with such a wide variety of food available but also have more access to foods high in fat, sugar and salt which are also often cheap.
We graze on extra foods such as biscuits, crisps and cakes that previously might have been eaten on more rare occasions.”
We asked Betty Smith, 77, to reveal the food she used to keep in her refrigerator 50 years ago compared with the foods her daughter Vanessa, 49, stores in her fridge today.
The results make for a more nuanced picture of modern diet than PHE’s headlines might have you believe…
Nowadays we nibble on unhealthy foods like crisps and cakes because they’re readily available
THE 1968 FRIDGE
Betty was 27 in 1968, and lived near Hythe in Kent with husband John and son Royston, one, as well as being pregnant with Vanessa.
She remembers her small under-the-counter fridge as lacking any of the more exotic foodstuffs we take for granted today.
“It just contained the staples,” she says. “Bacon, lard, butter, cheese, milk and maybe some sweet yogurt like Ski, which I think was brand new back then. My husband had a meat wholesaling business so there was always quite a lot of meat in our fridge. But you didn’t put your vegetables in there like you do nowadays or your bottles of sauces .”
She also concedes that while portion sizes have grown since she was a young mum, the sheer variety of different food available today means that the opportunities to eat healthier are actually greater now than a generation ago.
The fridges in 1968 were much smaller than todays and most could fit under a counter
“There’s 10 times as many things in fridges today in terms of amount and variety,” she says.
“Things like peppers, celery, all those salad items… a wider range of cheese than we ever had. It was just edam or cheddar back then. We didn’t have olives, stuffed peppers or anything like that available .”
Nonetheless she believes people in general were fitter in 1968, not necessarily because of their diet but because of their lifestyles.
She says: “There were no supermarkets and most people didn’t have cars. It was just accepted that you’d walk everywhere. I’d walk a couple of miles into Hythe with the pram once a week to do the big shop.
“When the children were babies, I never bought processed baby food in jars, to wean them I’d have a ‘mouli’ which was like a handheld grater for making purees. I used to cook our meal, say liver with carrots and potatoes, then I’d put the leftovers in the mouli and mince it all up – that was the baby’s food.”
THE 2018 FRIDGE
Betty’s daughter Vanessa Holborn lives in Twyford, near Reading with husband Simon, 49 and daughters Cassie, 12 and Tula, nine.
Both she and Cassie are vegetarian and as a result the contents of her fridge are carefully thought through.
“With two vegetarians in the house I always have a lot of yogurts and cheeses in the fridge,” she says. “So there’s plain yogurts as well as flavoured kinds for the kids. Then we’ve got a whole load of different cheeses .”
Another big difference between Vanessa’s 2018 fridge and her mum’s is the amount of fruit and vegetables she keeps in it.
Today’s fridges are much bigger, holding a lot more food
“Mum never put veg in the fridge. I always remember her having a massive sack of potatoes in the pantry whereas I have a shelf’s worth of tomatoes, corn, broccoli, celery and so on.”
It’s not entirely virtuous however. Once a week the family will have pizza and Vanessa confesses her “fridge shame” is the amount of half- finished jars inside: “There’s a lot of hideous sugar sauces, things like barbecue, ketchup and chilli sauce.”
Vanessa’s shopping is altogether more sedentary than her mum’s. “I never go to greengrocers now,” she says.
“I’m so used to ordering online from a supermarket. I do a big online shop probably once a fortnight and I live close to a Waitrose so I’ll pop in there and get bits and bobs.”
She also admits that while she and Simon have “bigger portions than my mum would serve me at home”, the faster-paced lifestyle her family leads means they rarely all eat together during the week and her daughters tend to snack more than she ever did.
“They do a lot of after school activities so I’ll eat early with them but for example after they’ve been swimming I know they’ll be hungry again.
But rather than give them sweets I’ll try to make flapjacks that taste nice but also are quite good for you.”
Ultimately Vanessa believes that, far from today’s families being in the grip of a dietary crisis, the sheer range and availability of nutritional food year-round means that the opportunities to eat healthily have never been so great.
Different kinds of fruit and vegetables are available all year round
“The girls can have raspberries and blueberries in their packed lunches even out of season, which I never could as a child.
“Also, when I was young there was no question of my mum pandering to my fussy eating. We’d have what was in front of us and that was that. Whereas now I’m much more, ‘OK, here’s a selection of things, what would you prefer?’
“The priority is to make sure everyone eats something healthy rather than send anyone to bed hungry.”