ACSPRI Conferences, RC33 Eighth International Conference on Social Science Methodology

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UK longitudinal data on food choices: examining the impact of life events

Sally McManus, Julia Hall, Jo d'Ardenne, Caireen Roberts, Matt Barnes

Building: Law Building
Room: Breakout 8 - Law Building, Room 100
Date: 2012-07-10 03:30 PM – 05:00 PM
Last modified: 2012-06-12


NatCen was commissioned by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) to review and analyse food-related data available from UK longitudinal survey sources (project oversight moved to the Department of Health due to changes in departmental responsibilities). Three reports will soon be published:
1. Longitudinal data on food-related issues: A scoping review.
2. Food choices and behaviours: trends and the impact of life events.
3. Designing survey questions on food-related issues.

A survey search strategy was developed to identify relevant surveys (six screened in). Trend and multivariate regression analyses were undertaken. Socio-demographic and health variables were tested and controlled for. The impact of life events was considered.

For some types of behaviour – e.g. children sharing an evening meal with their parents – there has been no overall change in rate over the period reviewed. However, for other types of behaviour there was evidence of change over time. For example, the proportion of families with children who experienced poor choice and access to food declined.

Many patterns of food-related behaviour are very stable within the individual. The strongest predictor of whether a behaviour occurred at the last survey wave, was always whether or not it had occurred at the first wave (ORs 5-10). Across survey waves the same socio-demographic factors played key roles in predicting which groups experienced the worst food choices and behaviours. However, the direction of association varied with type of behaviour. Across a number of surveys men were found to be less likely than women to eat their five items of fresh fruit a day. This pattern might be changing: the sex difference was not always evident among younger generations.

We focused specifically on the impact that life events might have on food-related behaviours and choices. One key life event that had a negative impact was the loss of a spouse, either through divorce, separation or bereavement. This highlights the importance of support such as that in Meals on Wheels type-programmes for older people who transition from being with a partner to living alone.

Becoming a lone parent impacted negatively on children’s food behaviours. Parent-child ratios were a factor, plus the birth of a new child triggered a decline in food hygiene practices for the existing children in the household.

One negative life event – job loss – was found to have a positive impact on one aspect of food behaviour. Families that experienced a reduction in their work intensity ratio became more likely to eat together as a family. A positive life event that was associated with positive changes in food choices and behaviours was quitting smoking.