Have UK diets got better or worse in the past 40 years?

A couple in the kitchen in the 1980s

From instant mash to flexitarians, food has changed massively since the 1980s. But we’re not always eating more healthily, which is where our evidence on diet and cancer can make a difference.

Snacking, smart phones and school dinners have all had a big impact on the nation’s eating habits sice the 1980s. We chatted to Dr Kate Allen, our Executive Director of Science and Public Affairs, about what has changed since World Cancer Research Fund was founded in 1982.

4 decades of diet changes

TV dinner
Unfortunately, overall UK diets have probably got worse over the last 40 years, however it’s probably fair to say they are better in some ways and worse in others. People in the UK are eating far more ultra-processed food (UPF) than they did 40 years ago, and we’re aware that UPF is linked to negative health outcomes, including cancer.

Fast food started to have a presence in the UK 40 years ago, beginning with McDonalds, which hasn’t helped matters. Portion sizes have also got much larger since the 1980s, so people tend to eat more, leading to weight gain and obesity.

Snacking is something that has become more common in the last 40 years – and this is made easier for people because there are far more convenience foods readily available, which are high in fat, sugar and salt, and are also ultra-processed.

In short, there has been a massive increase in obesity over the past 40 years and it’s set to overtake smoking as the number 1 risk factor for cancer unless trends are reversed.

What do we know about diet and cancer that we didn’t know 40 years ago?

We have a greater understanding of the links between nutrition and cancer, including the underlying biology happening at a cellular level.

There are now more than 80 independent studies in different populations across the world showing that following a dietary pattern that closely matches our Cancer Prevention Recommendations reduces the risk not just of cancer, but also other health problems such as heart disease and diabetes, because they share common risk factors.

We’ve seen more recently the impact of genetic influences, eg Lynch syndrome and the risk of colorectal cancer, and have a greater understanding of how nutrition influences the gut microbiome and how this affects health.

It’s also encouraging that we now have a greater understanding of how diet, weight and physical activity “interlock” – ie how the combination of all 3 is important in increasing or decreasing cancer risk.

Snapshot over the decades


Increasing numbers of women in the workplace mean a rise in food that is quick and easy to prepare, including microwave meals and pasta-based dishes. Takeaway hamburgers become popular and fast food becomes more prevalent thanks to the rise in single person households. For the first time, milk is available to buy in cardboard or plastic cartons rather than glass bottles.


The big supermarkets begin their dominance of the food industry, expanding the range of products available – such as exotic fruit. Average meal preparation time drops from an hour to 20 minutes, and breakfast becomes a less common feature of people’s routines. Cereal bars arrive – many contain a high level of sugar.


The noughties kick off in fine style with chicken tikka masala declared Britain’s national restaurant dish in 2001. Other cuisines, such as Thai, become popular too.

Obesity rates and unhealthy lifestyles enter the national consciousness with documentaries such as Jamie’s School Dinners (2005) and Super Size Me (2004). Super Size Me looks at the impact of living on McDonald’s for a month, while Jamie Oliver takes on the lack of nutritious food in school canteens across Britain, highlighting canteen options such as Turkey Twizzlers, which are banned from school canteens in 2005 (they’re back now).


Smartphones give us a new range of fast food options quite literally at our fingertips. Deliveroo becomes established in the UK (2013), followed by Uber Eats the following year.

Concerns about climate change and sustainability make plant-based diets popular, while “clean eating” movements take root among health-conscious communities of influencers; sales of protein powders, weight loss tea and juice cleanses soar. So-called superfoods, such as avocadoes, become more common in shopping baskets.

On the rise:

  • Ready meal purchases double (since 1992)
  • Sales of frozen pizza rise by 143% in 2010–19
  • Overweight and obesity rates in England rise from 53% of adults (1993) to 63% (2018)
  • Alcohol purchasing up by 38% in 2010–19

Food diets today

The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting lockdown means that cooking elaborate meals at home becomes more popular. The closure of gyms and the rise of working from home means that more of the population are more sedentary than ever before. On average, people gain over half a stone during the pandemic.

The Food Foundation has presented some sobering facts about the state of the nation’s health:

  • On current trends more than 80% of children born in 2022 who survive to the age of 65 will be overweight or obese. At least 1 in 20 of them will already have died.
  • 1 in 5 households would have to spend almost half their disposable income on food to achieve the government-recommended healthy diet.

> Read more on food and the cost of living crisis

Is our work more or less important than 40 years ago?

Our work is more important than ever – it has contributed to a much greater understanding of nutrition and cancer, and led to developing our Recommendations. We know from adherence studies that the Recommendations work in real-life settings.

However, we can’t just tell people what to do or what the healthy option is – we need to create enabling environments that make it easier for people to make healthier choices. That’s where our policy work comes in.

From a policy perspective we advocate for creating environments to help people make healthy choices and follow our Recommendations. We know from the adherence studies that this would reduce overall cancer and the risk of other non-communicable diseases, and it would help to address the obesity epidemic.

Our work is also especially important within the context of an ageing population, increasing numbers of cancer survivors and addressing social inequalities across the UK.