The gap in quality between the diets of people on low incomes in the UK and the rest of the population is not as wide as had been thought, according to research published by the Food Standards Agency (FSA).

The report suggests that the dietary patterns of people on low incomes are similar to those of the general population, though in some respects they are “slightly less healthy”.

The generally-accepted view has been that the diets of lower-income groups were extremely poor and that factors such as restricted access to choice and a lack of confidence in cooking skills prevented people from eating healthily.

However, the FSA study – published yesterday (15 July) and which surveyed more than 3,500 people over 15 months – did not identify any direct link between dietary patterns and income, food access or cooking skills.

According to the FSA, diet-related problems found to affect people on low incomes are in general much the same as those facing the population as a whole, including not eating enough fruit and vegetables, not eating enough oily fish, and consuming too much saturated fat and sugar.

Levels of obesity were also found to be very high – 62% of men, 63% of women, 35% of boys and 34% of girls were overweight or obese – but the FSA said this mirrors the high levels within the general UK population.

“The encouraging news from this research is that the gap between the diets of people on low incomes and those of the rest of the population is not as big as some feared,” said the FSA’s head of nutrition Rosemary Hignett. “It is also positive that most people in this group are confident about their cooking skills, have reasonable kitchen facilities and access to large supermarkets.

“However, the bad news is that this group – like the general population – are not eating as healthily as they could be. Poor diets can lead to chronic disease, such as heart disease and cancer, and contribute to obesity, which is on the rise. Small changes to diet can make a big difference to health so we urge everyone to think about the food that they and their family are eating.”

Nevertheless, the research did reveal some worrying dietary patterns among lower-income groups. The survey indicated that people on lower incomes were less likely to eat wholemeal bread, drank more sugary drinks and consumed more table sugar.

Less than 10% of those surveyed ate the recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables per day and less than a quarter of people ate oily fish during the survey period. Adults are getting 13.4% of their energy from saturated fat, which exceeds the ‘no more than 11%’ recommendation, while 51% of men and 69% of women fell short of the minimum recommended intake of dietary fibre (12g).

In addition, 65% of children covered in the survey had consumed a non-diet fizzy drink during the four-day survey period, while about two thirds of men and women had cholesterol levels at levels associated with higher risks of cardiovascular disease.